‘The most beautiful thing’: Japan Inc wants more dads on childcare leave

The idea of paternity leave has, until recently, been anathema in patriarchal Japan, where gender roles are traditionally hardwired.

Walter Sim

Walter Sim

The Straits Times


December 26, 2023

TOKYO – Like many young fathers in Japan, Mr Kazuki Matsuyama was hesitant to take childcare leave, fearful of the impact on his reputation, finances and career advancement.

But the father of two boys, aged three and one, told The Straits Times: “As my wife’s sleep and mental health suffered, I, too, was affected as I was caught between work and family. It seemed like my family could fall apart.”

The 39-year-old, who works in digital media at Kyoto-based electronics giant Omron, did not take childcare leave when his first child was born. But witnessing his wife’s struggles led him to take a five-month sabbatical when his second son was born, helping out with chores and caring for his elder son.

He does not regret it, saying: “The experience and precious memories will last a lifetime.”

The idea of paternity leave has, until recently, been anathema in patriarchal Japan, where gender roles are traditionally hardwired. A decade-old government campaign to promote ikumen – a coined word that puns on ikemen (good-looking man) and refers to men engaged in childcare – fell flat.

But Japan Inc has been supporting young parents to take childcare leave – even before a legal change from April mandating companies with more than 1,000 employees to disclose their take-up rates for paternity leave.

But any success by Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s government in reversing the falling fertility rate will hugely depend on whether labour-intensive blue-collar industries like manufacturing and construction, as well as small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) with a lean workforce but comprising 99 per cent of the nation’s workers, are able to follow suit.

A 2022 survey by the Japan Chamber of Commerce and Industry showed that 52.4 per cent of SMEs do not have the manpower to replace people on childcare leave.

Japan’s woes come despite having prescribed generous childcare measures. By law, fathers can take up to four weeks of paternity leave, within eight weeks of their child’s birth, and childcare leave until a child turns one at reduced but tax-exempt wages. Companies must also grant employees with children aged under three the right to work shorter hours.

While the take-up rate for maternity leave was 80.2 per cent in 2022, the figure for paternity leave stood at 17.1 per cent. Mr Kishida wants to raise the latter rate to 50 per cent by 2025, and to 85 per cent by 2030.
Doing more for the family

Japan’s notoriety when it comes to excessive overwork belies the initiatives taken by some firms to support employee welfare, including in childcare, by going above and beyond government policy.

Beverage giant Suntory and IT services provider Fujitsu are among those offering babysitter subsidies and extended paternity or childcare leave.

Omron made waves in 2005 when it began a fertility treatment programme for affected women, granting them subsidies and up to a full year off work. New parents are also allowed childcare leave until their child turns two, and shorter hours until their children graduate from primary school, typically at 12 years old.

Panasonic is among those that have embraced full remote work for staff because of reasons like child-rearing, or if the employee’s partner were to be assigned elsewhere for work.

It had a 64.8 per cent childcare leave take-up rate among men for the year ending March 2023, but human resources team manager Hideki Sugiyama hopes to set an example by taking 200 days of childcare leave.

“I thought I was doing a lot for my family before, but I realise I wasn’t doing enough,” he said. “There is also a limit to what I can learn and experience, if I took only one or two months of childcare leave.”

Others offer in-house payments. IT giant NEC offers annual support payments of 100,000 yen (S$930) to employees with children in pre-school and 50,000 yen to those with primary school kids, on top of a one-off 550,000 yen sum for those with newborns.

Japan’s largest home builder Daiwa House began giving staff monetary support as early as in 2005, with a million yen offered per newborn. The number of babies born exceeded 10,000 in May 2020, with 10 billion yen disbursed.

The company hopes to cement change in the building industry, with construction workers eligible for flexible hours from 2023. In 2022, 62.2 per cent of male employees took childcare leave, with the company targeting 80 per cent by 2026.

Mr Shohei Ikeda, 33, a section chief with two children aged three and one, told ST he was jittery over the idea of taking a month off when his first child was born.

“I was wondering if everyone would hate me,” he said. “But if not for the company’s support, my wife would have been solely responsible for childcare and housework, and her well-being would have deteriorated significantly.”

He added: “Children are also sensitive to their parents’ fatigue, and it is painful to think of having your child worry. I don’t think I can perform at my 100 per cent best if I feel a sense of guilt to my family.”
Employee reassurances

The total fertility rate at general trading company Itochu has soared from 0.6 in 2012 to 1.97 in 2022, thanks to an in-principle ban on work after 8pm from 2013, barring unavoidable cases such as an overseas business call.

“If work remains, it should be done the next morning,” said HR general manager Toshiyuki Kakimi, adding that overtime work is still remunerated.

Itochu entices workers to clock in by 8am – and hence leave earlier – with free breakfasts. It also has an in-house childcare facility, I-Kids.

Employee Kentaro Yellin, 33, told ST after dropping off his one-year-old boy Shion: “These measures have made it easier for dual-income families to raise a child.”

Mr Kakimi said Itochu’s paternity leave usage is 52 per cent, with new fathers taking an average 36 days of leave.

The company is striving to hit 100 per cent by March 2025.

Mr Kakimi said: “We want to cultivate an atmosphere where employees feel comfortable taking at least two weeks off, rather than just one or two days to make up numbers.”

Human resources consultancy Pasona Group, which is based in Tokyo and Awaji island off Kobe, runs in-house daycare facilities for children up to six years old at both sites.

Mr Tomokazu Okada, 41, of corporate planning, said: “If not for the support system, I would not have wanted a second child as it would have been quite difficult. But being there for the family also made me feel fortunate, like we were one united entity.”

Mental care for mothers returning to work is also paramount. Pasona Group, which offers round-the-clock consultation with doctors, has seen zero attrition among mothers after childbirth.

Over at Fujitsu, Ms Saera Ikeshita, 33, said it gave her peace of mind. The employee of 12 years has three children – aged eight, four and two – and spent a cumulative 4½ years away from work, the longest being a three-year stretch.

“I’m able to have three children because I feel secure that my career prospects will not be sacrificed,” she said.

Imaging and electronics firm Ricoh has achieved the rare feat of a 100 per cent take-up rate for paternity leave since 2016. That year, it enacted an HR policy to follow up with employees who did not apply for childcare leave.

Marketing communications manager James Loginov, 39, joined Ricoh in May and has taken a month of childcare leave for his third child, who was born in November.

The Brit said this was the first time he had taken childcare leave after a decade in Japan, having worked for marketing agencies and a traditional family-run manufacturer.

But unlike before, when his Japanese teacher wife told him never to ask for paternity leave as it would jeopardise his career, he had no qualms doing so at Ricoh.

“This is the first time I’m sharing the burden, because in the past I’ve always had to go to work and my wife did everything,” he said.

“The most beautiful thing is being able to take my kids to school every morning. They grow up so fast; it’s great to have that time with them, to be involved.”

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