Kimie Iwata in a piece that I edited recently:
Speaking before Japan’s business leaders last April, Abe called on corporations to voluntarily extend child-care leave to three years from the 12 months (although 18 months is the maximum) mandated by law. Certainly we should welcome any change that would expand women’s options for timing their return to work, particularly given the current shortage of day-care services; three-year-olds are typically easier to place, whether at day-care centers, which have more openings for older children, or at nursery schools. Having the option to extend one’s child-care leave to three years would doubtless contribute to a woman’s peace of mind. But promoting three-year leave as the norm could be counterproductive from the standpoint of fuller participation in the workforce.
One issue is the impact on women’s careers. The question is not simply whether a woman can return to the workplace after taking time off. It is whether she can return to pursue a career with opportunities for advancement. In the business world, a multiyear leave of absence is generally assumed to have a negative impact on an employee’s prospects. Retraining programs for returning employees—assuming companies are willing to provide them—can only go so far in bringing them back up to speed and making up for lost momentum. Even at companies that currently offer up to three years of child-care leave, very few women take that amount of time off; most return to work within a year or so out of justifiable concerns for their future.
Another issue is the role of the father. The majority of young Japanese fathers today say they would like to be more involved in childrearing, but very few feel at liberty to take the child-care leave to which they are entitled by law. Instead of encouraging men to take advantage of this provision, Abe’s plan seems to promote a backward-looking vision in which the woman stays home and dedicates herself to childrearing full-time. Certainly this is the image evoked by Abe’s catch-phrase sannenkan dakko-shihōdai, or “three years of unlimited hugging.”
Iwata touches on the role of the father in the final paragraph, but doesn’t go far enough. To my mind, putting rules in place that equalize the roles of the parents should be a key part of the solution. Instead of lengthening child-care leave to three years, I suggest that once the mother has completed the first year, it should be the father that takes leave for the second. If both parents take the current maximum amount of child-care leave (18 months), this gives the desired maximum period of three years. As Iwata mentions, by this time it should be much easier to find day-care.
Although there will still be stark differences between working parents and the childless, an arrangement where both parents share child-care responsibilities will do a lot to promote greater gender equality in the workplace. If fathers are compelled to take roughly the same amount of time off as mothers, career implications should be about the same.
Measures would have to be put in place to compensate for the current male-female income disparity. On average, a year of lost income from the father will be harder to replace than the equivalent from the mother. But I don’t see why this should be insurmountable if companies and the government provide appropriate support.
This is not to mention the potential beneficial effects of children spending more time with their fathers. Most of the Japanese fathers I’ve worked with over the years see their kids hardly at all on weekdays, since they usually get home after they’ve fallen asleep. As Iwata says, many fathers would like to be more involved with their kids but few feel at liberty to take the leave that they are entitled to by law. Putting rules in place that force the issue and take the choice away could be a good thing.