In late 2019, Shinjiro Koizumi, the Japanese government’s environmental minister, announced he would be taking some of his parental leave to care for his newborn son. He was met with considerable backlash from some of the public, while others praised him and hoped that this would turn the tides. Figures from 2018 showed that just 6.16% of working fathers took parental leave, compared to 82.2% of new mothers.
Japan’s paternity leave is generous compared to other countries, even offering more time to father than those in Scandinavian countries. It offers a year, fully paid, to new fathers. However, it is extremely rare for men to take anything more than two weeks. While the law is in place, it is societal and work pressure to forego enjoying the benefit. As such, it feels as though the year of paternity leave that is supposedly offered feels more symbolic and a way to check boxes rather than providing any concrete support to new families. Last year, two cases were brought to light as two men from different companies took their employers to court. They spoke of ill treatment and demotions at work – an unspoken punishment for daring to take paternity leave.
However, it’s easy to point fingers over Japan being a rigid culture that systematically views women as primary caregivers. Yet to date, fathers in the UK only get two weeks – more or less the same amount men take in Japan. Actual paid leave for fathers was introduced fully into the UK in 2003. Before that, paternity leave was completely unpaid and rarely taken. Some companies offered two weeks or less that would be financially covered as a perk, but those companies were far and few between. The introduction of paid paternity leave was welcome – but there is now a growing demand for more, as society begins moves away from the bread-winning, patriarchal stereotypes of family. The tides are turning, albeit very slowly.
The USA offers twelve weeks, unpaid, to both the mother and the father. You read that right – twelve weeks each. Unpaid. Many new parents simply cannot afford to take the time off, so most men work while their partner recuperates before she’s ready to head back to work earlier also. With the ever increasing expenses of childcare, it puts untold financial strain on families when they should be enjoying this big step in their lives.
A GLOBAL PROBLEM
Scandinavia is known for having some of the most generous paternity leave in the world (40 to 69 weeks, depending on the country), yet not even our Scandi fathers are taking the full amount, just like Japanese dads. A report found that in Iceland and Sweden, fathers only take a third of available leave, Norwegian dads take about 20%, and that Danish and Finnish dads took the least amount of leave at 11%.
Some western countries may be too quick to denounce and judge Japan for their approaches to parental leave, though fail to notice the strong similarities in attitude and practicalities. There are of course countries that are helping to turn the tide, if anyone was looking for countries they can set up shop in to start having children. Finland is now looking at ways to increase the length of time fathers take, as well as increasing the amount of shared time parents can take, in order to “promote wellbeing and gender equality”.
Having a long, paid paternity leave on the table has numerous benefits. First and foremost, it allows the father to bond and spend time with his new child. For the child, having both parents heavily present in their lives as they take their first steps (figuratively and literally) has a profound impact on them and helps them to develop. But it’s not just dads benefitting from paternal leave. With both parents splitting the childcare between them, we begin to move away with the idea that women are the primary caregivers (something that results in women struggling with work and promotions).
It feels as though that one of the greatest barriers to men taking time off, wherever they are, is more down to societal pressure than anything else. Once we put traditional gender roles aside we can truly move forward.
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