Japan’s environment minister has announced that he will take paternity leave when his first child is born this month, the first time a cabinet minister in the country has publicly committed to such a move.
Shinjirō Koizumi, a media-savvy 38-year-old, married to a former television anchorwoman, told a ministry meeting it had been a difficult decision to balance his duties as minister and his desire to be with his newborn.
“I want to take a total of two weeks off flexibly, making exceptions for important public duties,” he said, adding that he hoped his decision would help to change perceptions and encourage other fathers to follow suit.
He said he would not take the weeks off consecutively and expected to work remotely or have shortened days during the leave period, which would be spread over three months from his child’s birth.
The government’s top spokesman backed the move, saying it was “important to create a conducive workplace atmosphere and social acceptance and support for men to ask for and take parental leave”.
The chief cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga, told reporters that he hoped Koizumi’s decision would have a positive impact on attitudes towards male parenting.
With Japan facing an ageing population and a dwindling birthrate, the government recently began promoting paternity leave. In December it adopted a policy allowing public servants to take more than a month of paternity leave.
The son of a former prime minister, Koizumi was named environment minister in a cabinet reshuffle in September, becoming the third youngest Japanese minister since the end of the second world war.
He has been closely scrutinised as a potential rising star in the government, his comments and behaviour subjected to intense media dissection.
By law Japan offers comparatively generous parental leave to employed workers. Both parents can take up to a year off, with additional renewable six-month periods if a nursery place is unavailable.
But only 6% of fathers take parental leave, compared with more than 80% of mothers who use their allowance beyond the mandatory eight weeks after birth. And of those men who take any leave, more than 70% are away for less than a fortnight.
Activists say that is the result of pressure from employers and a society that prizes long working hours.
A handful of men have sued their employers alleging they were subject to what is known in Japan as “pata-hara”, short for paternity harassment, after taking parental leave.
Koizumi said he hoped to inspire further debate over how to balance work and family duties, including care of children and elderly relatives, in a sustainable way. “I hope there will be a day when lawmakers’ paternity leave is no longer news,” he said.