Shinjirō Koizumi, Japan’s environment minister, is taking two weeks’ paternity leave following the birth of his son on 17 January 2020. It is the first time a Japanese cabinet minister has taken paternity leave, or at least publically announced an intention to do so.

The two weeks leave will be taken over a period of three months on the condition that it will not affect his parliamentary and cabinet duties. Koizumi is also expected to work remotely and have shortened days over the leave period.

A top spokesman from the Japanese government has given his support to Koizumi, saying it is “important to create a conducive workplace atmosphere and social acceptance and support for men to ask for and take parental leave”.

The Japanese government is concerned about the country’s aging population and falling birthrate and is trying to encourage more fathers to take paternity leave, with the idea that if fathers are more involved in parenting, families might choose to have more children.

Compared to most other countries, including the UK, new fathers in Japan enjoy generous paternity leave by law. Both parents can take up to a year off on partial pay. This is automatically extended until the child is one and a half years old if the parents are unable to secure a nursery place, and then for a further six months on request if the child is still unable to attend nursery. In the UK, fathers qualify for two weeks’ paid paternity leave. In addition, since 2014 the UK has had a system of shared parental leave. Shared parental leave depends upon the mother “giving up” some maternity leave so that the untaken leave can be designated as “shared parental leave”. The parents can share up to 50 weeks of leave, and 37 weeks of statutory pay between them.

However, in both Japan and the UK the uptake of paternity leave is low. Just six per cent of fathers take parental leave in Japan, compared with the eighty per cent of mothers who use more than the mandatory first eight weeks of their allowance. Of those men who do take any parental leave; over seventy per cent take less than two weeks. In the UK, approximately a third of fathers use their ordinary paternity leave, however uptake of the shared parental leave scheme stands as low as one per cent.

In the UK, financial reasons might lie behind the low uptake of shared parental leave, as the statutory rate of pay is low and employers are less likely to enhance pay for shared parental leave than they are for maternity leave. Social and cultural expectations might also play a part, as in Japan where there is a culture of long working hours and traditional gender roles.

Koizumi has acknowledged that taking paternity leave is an unusual, and controversial, step, stating: “this is the first time for a minister to take paternity leave, and whenever you do something unprecedented, criticism is always inherent.” Clearly aiming to lead by example, he added “unless we change the atmosphere, government employees presumably won’t start taking paternity leave. I hope there will be a day when lawmakers’ paternity leave is no longer news.”

Some men in Japan have sued their employers, alleging they have suffered what is known as “pata-hara”, short for paternity harassment, after taking parental leave. If more Japanese employees do follow Koizumi’s example and request paternity leave, their requests should be met with kindness and understanding by employers. This is important to avoid “pata-hara” claims. But perhaps more significantly, encouraging fathers to share in the burdens of parenting might play a small part in improving the declining birthrate in Japan and tackling the problem of an ageing population.

For more information, please contact Yoko Nakada on yoko.nakada@lewissilkin.com
For further information, please contact Koichiro Nakada – Head of Japan Business Group (koichiro.nakada@lewissilkin.com) and Yoko Nakada - Senior Associate, Deputy Head of Japan Business Group (yoko.nakada@lewissilkin.com).
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