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Japan's parental leave policy: has it affected gender ideology and child care norms in Japan? Japanese caregivers and parents believe that current policies and ongoing workplace realities do nothing to alleviate the pressures parents, especially fathers, feel, both in themselves and from society.

Despite the opportunities for Japanese women and men to gain equal access to education and careers and the increasingly positive image of the house-helpful father, contemporary Japanese fathers do not, by any measure, contribute to child care and family life to the degree that mothers do. While this may be attributable in some degree to lingering traditional notions surrounding role segregation in Japanese culture, especially in regard to child rearing (Nishioka-Rice, 2001; White, 1987), the current economic difficulties and inadequate government and corporate support may play an even larger part. The Japanese caregivers and parents we interviewed believe that current government policies and ongoing workplace realities do nothing to alleviate the pressures that parents, especially fathers, feel, both in themselves and from society, to adhere to what, on the surface, appears to be more traditional gender-defined roles. This article addresses the pressures that keep fathers from taking on more child care responsibilities in spite of societal changes that show increasing acceptance of an expanded paternal role. In order to better describe the present situation that young couples face in Japan regarding parental leave, we have integrated existing studies with our own study that interviewed 30 newly married couples regarding: 1) How they envisioned the role of contemporary mothers and fathers; 2) How companies supported dual parent paid leaves, and whether either had taken advantage of parental-leave policies; and 3) The actual situation of fathers taking on more child care and home-care roles.

Paternity Leave Policy

The 1990s Japanese economic downturn pushed more women into the workplace and is commonly believed to have contributed to Japan's declining birthrate. In response, the Japanese government sent parents a seemingly conflicting message: "For the economic health of the country, work hard ... and have a lot of children while you're at it!" Such policies as the "Angel Plan" were created to offer subsidies to parents who have more than one child, and parental leave options for both women and men were developed to motivate young workers to remain in the workforce.

Since 1992, Japanese residents have been entitled to take advantage of laws that provide for maternal and paternal leave at up to 60% of full salary. The legislation was inspired by Scandinavian models that had successfully addressed demographic imbalances in those countries by encouraging young women to have children and yet stay in the workforce (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development [OECD], 2006). The Japanese government created a new policy termed "Kodomo to Kazoku wo Ouen-suru Nippon" [A Child- and Family-Supportive Japan] (Naikakufu, 2007), and related government pamphlets often included an image of a father pushing a stroller or holding a baby.

By law, both genders are equally entitled to take as much as one year off from work with job guarantees, and up to three years off if they work in the government sector. The salary during this time is full pay for the first two months, decreasing to 60% over time, depending on the type of job.

Lesson From Other Societies Considered

Studies in other societies indicate the degree to which culture affects the implementation of family-oriented legislation. It has been suggested, for example, that an unequal distribution of parental leave can be attributed to such things as the economic disparity between parents and a particular society's expectations about the person considered most suitable to raise the child (Boyer & Renouard, 2003). For Swedish parents, the use of leave is greatly influenced by both parental incomes, but particularly by the father's income (Sundstrom & Duvander, 2001). Regarding non-economic factors, Almqvist, in her comparison of Swedish and French fathers, found that French fathers are more likely to think in accordance with traditional notions of masculinity, whereas Swedish fathers have created for themselves a child-oriented masculinity (Almqvist, 2008). Since 2001, Korean fathers have had legislated parental leave, but strong Korean gender identifications, coupled with the leave being unpaid, mean that the fathers rarely take advantage of the leave (OECD, p. 371).

Pressures to Paternal Leave Policy in Japan: The Realities of Nuclear Family Life

How, then, does Japan compare to these cases? Less than 0.5% of Japanese fathers take off any time at all after the birth of a baby. About 67% of women who worked before taking parental leave remain officially unemployed six months after childbirth (Naikakufu, 2007). The chart on page 372 illustrates differences in family life in Japan and Sweden, where a similar leave policy exists.

Japanese mothers in our sample said that they found it difficult to return from maternal leave to full-time positions, often stating that they "cannot put in the hours necessary." The small percentage of parents using child care services for children under age 2 further reflects the tendency for women, once they have passed beyond the two-month paid maternal leave, to opt out of work completely because of fears that returning to work would be "problematic."

It should be noted that the majority of working fathers in Japan do not make it home by 7 p.m., the traditional dinner time in Japan, thus revealing the high priority placed on loyalty to the workplace. Wives, in general, tend to understand this phenomenon and say it is "not their [husband's] fault," implying that it is understandable that work obligations take precedence; in fact, wives usually feel it is desirable for their husbands to stay late at work, since this shows that the husbands are doing their jobs properly and are likely to advance in their careers as a result. Because personal identity is strongly associated with loyalty to a group, especially at work (Lebra, 1992; Nakane, 1970), government policy cannot be effective unless it can help forge a new company psyche that permits everyone to leave early.

Other Pressures: Desiring Change in the Stereotypes

In one study, Tendo (2005) found that Japanese men do not suffer from a fear that child care is associated with emasculation. Gender-segregated marital roles, although diminished, still appear to dominate in society, although our interviews found that the character of that role has changed. Japanese fathers indicated that they enjoy taking care of children almost to the same degree as their wives; Tendo also found that they are more likely than mothers to claim that raising children has given them a "renewed excitement about life and a reason for living" (Tendo, 2005). If these statements from the younger cohort of parents are really true, then why don't they take parental leave when it is offered?

Fathers and mothers explained that they felt strongly that the old-fashioned stereotypes were obsolete and that it is right to have equality in the marriage, home, and child rearing. Beginning in elementary school, Japanese boys and girls are taught equally, each learning the rudiments of basic cooking, sewing, and other life skills. Japanese fathers often say that they enjoy cooking. A cartoon called "Cooking Papa," popular when members of the current generation were children, depicted a father, very muscular and masculine, who was also an excellent cook. Such role models have continued in popular culture today. Still, our interviewees said, regretfully, that these images are idealized ones and do not represent what is truly expected from any individual in the current work culture.

Fathers who were interviewed worked for large, and thus prestigious, corporations with clearly stated policies for paternal leave. They often remarked that taking leave for a long period of time threatened to put them "out of touch" with developments at work. They might run the risk of being considered irresponsible or incompetent, or just plain selfish. For fathers in smaller companies (where the majority of Japanese people work), this same fear also was compounded by the psychological pressure of knowing that taking time off would put an extra burden on their co-workers. In Japan, where a company cannot legally fire an employee, perceptions of incompetence, irresponsibility, or any array of behaviors deemed "selfish" can be used to "convince" the employee to volunteer his/her resignation. So, in this era of lingering economic decline, caution is the policy at any level of employment. One interviewee father debated whether to take a leave because his wife's salary and position were better than his own. He finally did not out of a fear, albeit vague, that it was "not the right thing to do."

For the mothers, fears of falling behind or out of touch at work are often further combined with their sense of obligation to the grandparents, particularly the husband's parents, to assume the role of a visible and responsible entity of the new household. It should be noted that one reason some mothers feel a responsibility to the husband's parents is because grandparents contribute financially to the young family, often paying for basic necessities, like clothes for the children, and even for school tuition and home loans.

Additional Pressures: The Myth of the Japanese Workaholic

Fathers feel conflicted about the child care/work issue; they want to contribute, but feel strongly that they are expected to make a show of devotion to work, especially if they are considered the full-time "breadwinner." Data indicate that although Japanese couples believe the ideal time allotted for parenting duties should be 60% for women and 40% for men, the actual allocation is 80% and 20%, respectively (Naikakufu, 2007).

Fathers we interviewed say the contradiction comes not so much from a true desire to be at work but rather from the pressure to be a "Japanese workaholic." Although work may be important and satisfying, many fathers denied that it is where one's true ikigai, or reason for living, is found. On this point, they found their opinion much at odds with those of their own fathers, who "were happy to spend long hours at the company, either working or, more likely, socializing." In addition, most contemporary fathers expressed great enjoyment being in the physical presence of their children and family. One father summed it up succinctly: "We are not like our fathers--I never saw my father in the house. We WANT to be involved, but our work situations make it difficult. We can't just leave when we want to and expect everyone to understand."

Fathers expressed anxiety that their individual desires are not legitimate, especially in the current economic downturn, when everyone has to make a show of working hard (Yamato, 2008). Despite not living their ideal lives, they nevertheless sacrifice their personal feelings to larger obligations.

The Pressure of Selfless Commitment and Role Identity

So why not "buck the system"? Fathers explained that being with their families shows them to be fulfilling a role as a good citizen who can support a family with a good job. In this sense, their fatherly role is directly related to their role as a worker. Azuma's (2001) discussion of Japanese decision-making is relevant here: the expectation of selfless commitment can be considered a psycho-social residue of a feudal system that emphasized specific, set roles a person is supposed to assume. Whether they are conscious of it or not, young parents vying to secure their positions in society are drawn toward choices that seemingly ensure success for the family, even if the cost involves eventual submission to the traditional roles of their own parents (Meguro, 2000).

Broad-based role expectations, more than specific gender-related caretaking roles, create a unique pressure in Japan. The couples we interviewed consciously made decisions in line with social mores regarding their yakuwari, or role: one couple told us how they must invite the boss to the wedding, another father worried that others would judge it improper to switch traditional roles with his wife and take care of the children, and one woman explained the inextricable obligations to her husband's parents.

Further supporting this notion of socially appropriate role expectations, we found that the women interviewed were less willing to let go of the mother's role completely and allow the husband to take a long leave because they identified strongly with the work responsibility associated with being a mother. One woman even said: "Men can play, but they certainly are not exactly right for raising a child if they have to go off to work, too." The childlike joy expressed by a father is "fun," but it is just a brief, entertaining diversion from the real work of child rearing. If, however, "play-dad" becomes too much of a constant in the child's life, the child could come to rely on him and venture too far into a "wrong," "halfway raised" direction, possibly diminishing the mother's power and threatening the crucial mother/child amae, or "interdependent love bond," as described by Doi (1975). It is not uncommon to witness a Japanese mother chiding her husband for clumsiness or mistaken judgments regarding child rearing. This goes for other "part-time" child-rearers, too, regardless of gender. Grandparents and babysitters are not considered adequate substitutes for full-time maternal care. Furthermore, many Japanese women are reluctant to ask non-related individuals to baby-sit, as is commonly done in other countries (Nishioka Rice, 2001).

Pressure To Be the Ideal Worker: Giving Your All

Underlying both the father's decision to stay at work and the mother's decision to oversee the house and children is the strong cultural notion that one should be devoted to only one thing at a time, and that this devotion must be 100%. Initiation and process are more important than some overriding principle or ideal of oneself (Rohlen, 1974). One's place and yakuwari (role)--in a job, at school, or at home--are part and parcel of the whole system. The concept of "Don't put all your eggs in one basket" is not a preferred axiom in Japan. So if a child fails at school or a husband cannot do his job adequately at work, the housewife is commonly blamed for allowing the lines of responsibility to blur. Full-time work is all-consuming for men or women, and the expectation is that there is no time limit for returning home, even if one has to take care of small children.

Directions for the Future

In order for Japanese parental leave policy to effectively break down the cultural notions of role and identity that impede genuine gender equality, the following areas must be addressed:

* As the ultimate role model for workplace policies, the government, followed by large companies, should require workers to take paternal leave and maternal leave. Keeping the choice at the individual level ensures that no one will risk taking advantage of the policy.

* Workplaces should not only offer flextime schedules to full-time fathers, but also assist fathers by providing onsite child care facilities. * School life should be structured with the expectation that both the mother and father will participate equally in school matters.

* Schools/preschools should take an active part in disseminating information regarding the parental leave policies available to families. They may organize parent information sessions to discuss the benefits of the government policies and parents' legal rights to use them.

* Schools/preschools need to offer parent education programs that highlight the need for father/male involvement, showing the positive impact of fathers' involvement on their children's social emotional, and academic development.

* Workers who want to spend time with their families, as well as with other outside interests that define them as contributing members of a community, should be considered and portrayed as role models, not as a threat to workplace solidarity.

* Schools, with the support of the Ministry of Education, should ensure gender-neutral curricula, encouraging both girls and boys to imagine a full range of future opportunities for themselves. In addition, teacher training should include pedagogies that encourage the re-imaging of the father's role in child rearing, education, and society as a positive, supportive one. Regarding this issue, teachers should be made aware of strategies to build children's cognitive, emotional, and psychological development.

* Schools and companies should have women workers in percentages that better reflect the proportion of women receiving higher education (over 50%) and hire and attempt to retain a higher percentage of female workers at all levels of business, education, and government.

* The company system should be restructured in order to promote better gender equality and even out responsibilities that currently prevent men from leaving positions for child care purposes.


Japanese gender and parental roles are in a state of flux. A balance is needed between the still-prevailing notion of selfless commitment to one's workplace and the reality of the working-couple family model that is starting to emerge. As long as the Japanese work commitment takes priority over all other activities and relationships, even familial ones, and marriage is regarded within the labor system primarily as the means by which male employees can be "freed up" for their all-important role as workers, it will be difficult for a social system to emerge that permits a division of child care responsibilities that transcends traditional gender roles. It is up to workers to assert their right to go home to their families, and it is up to companies to give their blessing as they do so.

With more fathers taking on responsibilities in schools, the nature of school will change as well. And, as fathers become more visible, one can expect the disappearance of the titles for parent gatherings that currently exist in groups, such as the PTA executive branch, "hahadai" (mother-chair meetings). A new era will have arrived.


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Boyer, D., & Renouard, S. (2003). Les peres beneficiaries del'APE [The fathers who benefit from paid parental leave]. L'e-ssentiel, CNAF, 17.

Doi, T. (1975). The anatomy of dependence. Tokyo: Kodansha. Lebra, T. (1992). Self in Japanese culture. In N. Rosenberg (Ed.), Japanese sense of self (pp. 105-119). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

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Naikakufu. (2006 and 2007). Shoushika Hakusho. [Annual report on the low birthrate society]. Tokyo: Author.

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Rohlen, T. (1974). For harmony and strength. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Sundstrom, M., & Duvander, A.Z. (2001). Family division of child care and the sharing of parental leave among new parents in Sweden. In A. Z. Duvander (Ed.), Couples in Sweden: Studies on family and work (pp. 1-28). Dissertation Series 46. Stockholm: Swedish Institutes for Social Research.

Tendo, M. (2005, December). Wakai oya no shitsuke to kosodate ishiki ni kansuru chosa kenkyuu: Tokyo/Aichi no hataraku chichihahaoya no ishiki chosa kara [A study of the attitudes of young working parents' childrearing attitudes in Tokyo and Aichi.] Paper presented at Meijo University.

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Michelle Henault Morrone is Professor, Comparative Education, Nagoya University of Arts and Sciences, Nisshin, Aichi, Japan. Yumi Matsuyama is Instructor, Nagoya University of Arts and Sciences and Aichi University of Education, Kariya, Aichi, Japan.
Table 1
Family Life

 Japan Sweden

Women in their 30s in 61.6% 84.5%

Work hours per week 43.1 37.5

Working population who 28.1% 1.9%
work over 50 hours per

Time when husbands get 22.6% of working Average time to get
home husbands get home home around 5:00
 BEFORE 7:00 p.m. p.m.
 (in Tokyo)

Time for domestic work 48 minutes (25 3 hours 21 minutes
per day by fathers with minutes) (1 hour 7 minutes)
child under 6 years old
(time for child care)

Parental leave 72.3% of women in 97%
(full-day) the labor force take
 the parental leave

Women in labor force 35% 75%
take the parental
leave over one year

Working style after Part-time 18.2% Full-time 38%
coming back from the Part-time 62%
parental leave

Usage of child care Child care center Child care center,
services (HOIKUJO) nannies
 infants 7% infants 0.03%
 1- 2-year-olds 24% 1-year-olds 45%
 2-year-olds 87%

Source: Naikakufu Cabinet office of government of Japan 2007,
Shoushika Hakusho
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Author:Morrone, Michelle Henault; Matsuyama, Yumi
Publication:Childhood Education
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:9JAPA
Date:Aug 15, 2010
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