Why you should care
Because gender equality isn’t just about policies but also culture.
You may have heard, especially if you received a phone call from the Hillary campaign before Election Day, that the United States shares an illustrious title with Papua New Guinea. We’re not talking about mutated fruit flies or a malnutrition trend. Rather, these are the only two countries in the world that do not mandate paid parental leave for new mothers.
In fact, mandated parental leave is so 20th century for most countries. The world outside those two laggards has mostly moved on to the next level of progressive family policy: ensuring that new dads get in on the fun of mustard-yellow infant poop. But in one country, despite the best efforts of the government, dads are choosing desks over diapers.
Only 2 percent of new Japanese fathers took any paternity leave in 2015.
Japan has one of the most generous leave policies for fathers in the world, allowing dads to take up to 52 weeks off work to help raise their newborns while keeping an average of nearly 60 percent of their pay, according to OECD data. If both parents share the parental leave, they are entitled to a bonus of two extra months of nursery rhymes, colic and spit-up-covered shoulders. Around 90 percent of working mothers in Japan take parental leave (in addition to even higher takeup of the 14 weeks of mother-specific leave immediately before and after childbirth), but the same is true for only 1 in 50 fathers. Oh, and a third of those dads who did take time off returned to work again within five days. Meanwhile, in other countries, including Iceland, Sweden and Portugal, guys take almost as great a share of parental leave as their female partners.
According to a 2014 report The New Dad: Take Your Leave, “more intense engagement in parenting for men has positive long-term effects for both father and child.” For Brad Harrington, executive director of the Boston College Center for Work & Family, the report’s publisher, it’s also about promoting gender equality: “Having more gender-neutral policies for caregiving will increase the likelihood that women won’t be pigeonholed in the role of caregivers and men won’t be pigeonholed in the role of breadwinners,” he says. However, in Japan, where traditional family values still prevail, it seems moms and dads are reluctant to emerge from those pigeonholes. According to the International Social Survey Programme, 76 percent of Japanese adults believe that when two full-time parents have a child, time off work should be taken entirely or predominantly by the mother (compared with 54 percent in the U.S.). These patriarchal family values combine with a culture of long work hours, whereby managers often pressure employees to stay late and not take their allotted vacation. According to Shintaro Asai, an account manager at Booking.com, the Japan-based Dutch employer has to fight against cultural norms to encourage its workers to prioritize work-life balance.
Japan is not usually ahead of the curve when it comes to social and family policies, which makes it all the more surprising that the government is pushing paternity leave so strongly. And it’s following through on a target to increase paternal takeup of leave to 13 percent by 2020: Public-sector employees are strongly encouraged to take leave, and are leading the way over their private-sector peers. Steven Vogel, of UC Berkeley’s Center for Japanese Studies, explains that these policies are a means to an end: Family-friendly labor market reforms are a major part of “womenomics,” a program pioneered by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to make it easier for women to juggle work and family, in a desperate attempt to increase the birthrate in this rapidly aging country with a falling population. Womenomics also includes policies such as publicly funded child care, but this too has struggled when it comes to implementation. “On paper, the policies look pretty good, but society doesn’t change that quickly,” Vogel says. (The Japanese government did not reply to request for comment.)
In January, Kensuke Miyazaki became the first member of Parliament to take paternity leave, in order to raise awareness and encourage more men to take time off. His move prompted criticism from other politicians, and Miyazaki was later forced to resign after it was revealed that he had had an affair with a swimsuit model while his wife was pregnant. (At a press conference, Miyazaki apologized, saying, “I did something very cruel to my wife; I will spend the rest of my life making it up to her.”) That politician’s work may not have achieved the type of visibility the government was going for, but Japan still has three years to hit its 2020 goal.