Closing The Gap

This Japanese politician's 2 weeks of paternity leave is dividing the public

Japan's newly appointed Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi speaks during a press conference at the prime minister's official residence on September 11, 2019 in Tokyo, Japan.
Tomohiro Ohsumi

The decision by a Japanese politician to take paternity leave has been heralded as a major milestone for a culture stymied by deep-seated gender imbalance and extreme working hours.

Japan's environment minister Shinjiro Koizumi announced Wednesday that he will be taking two weeks leave, spread over three months, following the birth of his first child later this month.

The 38-year-old, who has been touted as a possible future prime minister, said he hoped the move would encourage other fathers to feel comfortable taking time off to care for their new families.

"I hope my taking paternity leave will lead the way of working styles to one where everyone can easily take child-care leave without hesitation in the environment ministry," Koizumi said in a meeting with his staff on Wednesday.

Many commentators quickly took to social media to hail the move, while others claimed it does not go far enough.

Japan has some of the most generous paternal leave policies in the world. Both men and women are entitled to take up to one year's partially paid leave — or longer if there is no public child care locally available.

Yet uptake among men is incredibly low. According to government statistics, just over 6% of eligible men working in the private sector took paternity leave in 2018, versus 82% percent of women.

That level is slightly higher among new fathers working in the public sector at 21%, but still well below other major economies like the U.K. and Brazil.

Taiyou Nomachi

Deep-seated cultural norms are thought to play a major role in that mismatch. Japan has some of the world's longest working hours, a phenomenon that is thought to especially impact men, who make up a disproportionate part of the workforce. Meanwhile, traditional gender roles mean that women continue carry the majority of the responsibility for childcare.

That's something Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been trying to tackle with his "Womenomics" program — an agenda aimed at bolstering women's employment.

The Japanese government did not immediately respond to CNBC Make It's request for comment.

However, Yumiko Murakami, head of the Tokyo Centre of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, told the New York Times the move could help drive a rebalance, while also helping to boost the country's shrinking population. Last year, Japan saw its birth rate fall to the lowest level since the 19th century.

"If fathers take leave and help their wives with babies, maybe wives will have more support at home and they might decide to go for number two or number three," Murakami told the Times. "Let's hope this is a good sign that things are starting to change in Japan, slowly but surely."

Public opinion toward fatherhood has been turning in Japan, with young, modern dads, dubbed "ikumen" — a play on the words for childcare and hunk — opting to take an increasing role in childrearing.

But skeptics have argued that it will take more than Koizumi's move to push the needle. The politician, son of former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, faced major pushback from the highest levels of government when he announced last year his intentions to support his TV presenter wife after the birth of their new child.

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