Initial reactions (cont.)

In 1992, in what was widely publicized as the first incident of a man taking child care leave from a private company in Japan, Mutsumi Ota took 3 months off from his job and wrote about his experiences for Japan Quarterly, a defunct publication of the liberal newspaper Asahi Shimbun. He wrote that colleagues laughed at him, saying he would have a three-month “vacation,” but instead, he found himself isolated at home, stared at in public, and shunned by women pushing baby carriages in local parks. On the positive side, he also wrote about his increased interest in local community activities, and his role in maintaining a web page for a group devoted to gender rights and child-raising issues (Ikujiren).

Ota reported (in 1996) that a miniscule 0.16% of men took child leave in Japan. Yet almost 15 years later, only 2% of eligible fathers in Japan have taken child care leave. So why haven’t more men in Japan taken advantage of the law to help raise their children?

My nationally-funded institutional system allows both parents to take child care leave until the child is 3 years old…and the father and mother can even take leave at the same time. Of course, you get no salary whatsoever during that time. The “kumiai” (the closest translation is “labor union,” although public teachers in Japan are usually forbidden from forming actual labor unions) will pay about 20% of the regular monthly salary. But that lasts only until the child is one year old. Still, unpaid leave is better than no leave.

Or is it? No doubt many men are worried about loss of salary. In today’s deflationary, yen-strong climate, losing a job would obviously be cause for concern. But, if the company is forbidden from firing male workers thanks to the national laws regarding child care, why do men still resist taking leave?

The situation is not all that different from that in the U. K. and the U.S. For example, in the U.K. (The Guardian, October 20, 2009) 54% of men with infants felt they were not spending enough time with their kids, but 45% of child-care eligible men didn’t take a paid leave…despite the fact that the leave was only two weeks long.

Two weeks!

According to the report, the “modern working father” is “miserable about the proportion of time he is able to devote to his children, but…is too nervous to demand flexible working from his employers.”

And the U.S.? According to one poll, 63% of American men feel that they should take advantage of the Family and Medical Leave Act, which requires companies employing 50 or more workers to give men up to 12 weeks unpaid leave. And yet few do, due to “corporate culture,” fear of the “Daddy track,” and “workplace hostility.”

As for myself, so far I haven’t experienced “hostility,” per se. Not without some trepidation, I had to reluctantly decline two part-time classes next year at a university, where I have taught for five years now. Fortunately, a colleague who helped me get the part-time classes this year was very understanding. He told me (via email) that when he and his wife had their children two decades ago, they had no choice but to leave their babies at day care. He felt that I should definitely take the leave if given the option.

However, when another English department colleague at the technical school told me that (as did Professor K as well as my uni colleague), he and his wife left their children at the day care center when they were 6 months old, he begged me not to take leave…but didn’t give an explicit reason. This, despite the fact that, compared to over twenty years ago when my colleagues had their children, Japan is currently experiencing the worst birth rate vs “greying” rate of any industrialized nation. Moreover, despite evidence that active fathers led to nothing but positive outcomes for both children and the family as a whole, only Korean fathers spend less time than Japanese fathers with their children. In fact, the Japanese father seems to totally ignore his family in favor of work.

Fortunately, I am not a Japanese man. Unfortunately, over 95% of my colleagues (at a technical school) are Japanese men.

There is a key word that I will no doubt be expected to say, in an apologetic tone, at an upcoming faculty meeting: “meiwaku” (trouble). I will be causing “trouble” to my colleagues, who will have to find other ways of handling the classes I normally teach. This sense of “we must avoid meiwaku” drives Japanese office politics, and by declaring my intention to take paternity leave, I have crossed an unspoken line.

About MThomas

Long ago, I gave up my high school dreams of becoming the next Carl Sagan and instead wound up working (in order) at McDonald's, a '60s-themed restaurant, a video rental store, a used bookstore, a computer seller, Kinko's, a Jewish newspaper company, and an HR firm. I eventually became a teacher of intercultural communication in Kyoto, where I vainly attempt to apply quantum mechanics to language teaching, practice martial arts and Zen Buddhism, and always keep one eye on the sky. And yes, I know my profile photo's backward. I just think it looks better this way.
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