Never mind politics and sex. There are two words that are infinitely more taboo when spoken in the confines of a Japanese office: “paternity” and “leave”.
Japan, birthplace of the workaholic salaryman, has long held the dubious distinction of being one of the most overworked nations in the developed world. And nowhere is this better reflected than in the context of Japanese fathers. Fewer than 1 per cent of new dads take the full leave to which they are legally entitled – often because it is professionally frowned upon, adds pressure on their colleagues and lowers chances of promotion.
So it should come as little surprise that further studies show Japanese fathers spend the least time on childcare and housework compared with their counterparts in other industrialised nations.
Now, the Japanese government is taking steps to remove the stigma of spending time with the family. This week, the Law for Child Care & Family Care Leave was revised to extend the amount of time off to which new fathers are entitled.
Unpaid leave will be increased from the current 12 to 14 months if both parents share it – although men currently take days rather than months of leave, if any at all. Following initial paternity leave, husbands will also be able to take additional child care leave regardless of whether their wives have a job (previously only the partners of working mothers were entitled to such breaks).
Meanwhile, companies will be legally required to permit workers with children under the age of three to cut working hours to as little as six a day.
Masayuki Yamaguchi, a spokesman at the Ministry of Health, Labour & Welfare, which is also launching a website tackling the issue, says, “The most frequent reason fathers don’t take the leave is because it causes problems in the workplace. But we aim to increase the rate of men who take childcare leave to 10 per cent by 2017. This revision will make it easier for fathers to take childcare leave.”
Perhaps more effective for the future of the Japanese family is the emergence of a growing number of high profile-men who are publicly putting their children before work.
Dubbed the “iku-men” – from the word “iku-ji” for child-rearing – these include Hironobu Narisawa, mayor of the central Bunkyo ward in Tokyo, for whom the issue has been pushed to the top of his political agenda. He hit the headlines earlier this year because he was the first local government leader in Japan to ever take paternity leave. Although he opted for only a modest two week break following the birth of his son in February, it was a significant step towards shifting office attitudes towards parenting and helping improve the skewed work-family balance so prevalent in Japanese society.
Fellow “iku-man” Takeshi Tsuruno, a TV celebrity, also grabbed the attention of the nation when he opted for two months paternity leave following the birth of his third daughter.
Whether more Japanese fathers are brave enough to follow in the footsteps of the nation’s family-loving “iku-men” pin ups, however, remains to be seen.