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Paternity leave in Japan

By Ichiro Suzuki

Writing laws is an easy part. The real game is making the sprit of the law stand. That’s a lot tougher part since it takes cultural change and lasting efforts. This is almost everything that Japan has been fighting for since the 1980s to bring the country into the 21st century. Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi is now taking two-week paternity leave, having become a new father a few weeks ago. His move was widely hailed, at least on the surface, though some still raised their eyebrows predictably, especially among old guards who said that he would still have to get his job done. By a recently-made law, new Japanese fathers are entitled to a paternity leave up to 12 months, but only 6% of eligible fathers have taken a leave. The 94% who chose not to take a leave did so because he was worried about the treatment he might receive upon returning to work from the leave. Or he might have too much concern about short-term troubles his absence might cause, though a mother’s absence usually cause some, though manageable, troubles to her colleagues, too. The problem could be finances due to persisting gender pay gaps. A father’s leave would made a greater dent on household finances, since 40% of income would be still lost on leave. Mothers are paid lower than fathers in general, regrettably. Koizumi doesn’t have to care about what makes an average new Japanese father worry. He is a popular young politician, a son of a wildly popular prime minister in the first decade of this century. He is married to a celebrity media personality who is paid a great deal better than he is. Unfortunately, Koizumi is unlikely to move future Japanese fathers, since they remain ground to an old culture that persists in Japanese offices for decades. Since the 1980s, a series of laws and regulations have been created in order to restructure the economy. The goals were to make the Japanese economy becomes less dependent on exports, to promote domestic demand (consumption), to reduce long work hours, to promote equal rights on women on employment, to make the financial markets more open, transparent and efficient. However, results of such efforts were mixed at best. Every effort to change the country has been met with resistance from old guards who have a strong interest in preserving the way it has been. A law may be passed, but it still remains half-hearted, diluted by A strong push-back from vested interests.  Changes tend to be incremental and slow, while the rest of the world may be moving faster than Japan. A law is made, and then lawmakers say to whoever is concerned “I’ve done my job. It’s up to you from this point. I wish you luck.” Few cares about how to put the law into practice, and no one is responsible for its implementation. This is exactly what had happened on paternity leave. More men will take a leave if the top management of the company is fully aware of what it means and commit themselves to have it implemented. Without wholehearted efforts to observe the law’s spirit, the law is a mere slogan. In recent years, Corporate Japan found it fashionable to talk about shareholders’ rights, In part listening to the regulatory authority, the Financial Services Agency. They don’t walk the talk, however. So they talk about having outside directors on the board, and getting their ROE up to 10%, etc. As a result, many leading companies have a few outsiders on the board, true to their words. Nonetheless, the rest of the board, that is a large majority, still consists of the company’s executives who came up through the ladder, and are essentially ‘Yes men’ to the top management. Thus, the CEO who gets what he (not she) wants. Double digit ROEs are easier said than done. It would take great deal more efforts to get there than a few outside board members, and hence it remains a slogan. This is true of most of the corporate world in Japan. They don’t make serious attempts until they are forced to. It is often too late when they move being forced to do so. As for paternity leaves, some fathers reportedly take months off and do little to take care of his baby, leaving everything to his wife and the baby’s mother. He is simply taking a long vacation, totally disregarding the spirit of the law. Ichiro Suzuki is a retired senior investment banker and sits on several university boards.

For more info on this topic, visit: Japan’s paternity leave is generous, but few dads are taking it


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