Dad Takes Child-care Leave
                  By Ota Mutsumi
                  translated by Michael Hoffman

Seven years ago, in February 1992, I became one of the first men in Japan to take paternity leave. That was two months before the national law on child-care leave policy took effect, establishing the right to time off following the birth of a child for all employees, male or female. I was, as the media somewhat breathlessly pointed out, a pioneer of sorts. For three months I put my research job on hold while I took on duties for which nothing in my past training experience had prepared me. For nearly three months, I was a housebound house-husband and full-time baby sitter to Yumi, my newborn daughter.

"Ota-san --I hear you're taking maternity leave," one of my younger colleagues said with a grin. "What'll you do with such a long vacation?"
Very funny. First of all, the difference between maternity leave and child-care leave should be self-evident. Secondly, as anyone knows who has been through it, it is no vacation. Child-care leave is not --believe me-- a synonym for rest and recreation. This is something many young men in Japan fail to understand, no doubt because they have never thought of early child-rearing as a man's responsibility. "Child care? How can a man take care of an infant?"
My co-workers were not the only ones who wondered about that. The media were even more curious. Newspaper reporters, magazine reporters and TV crews came in a steady procession to cover a father who had arranged with his employer for child-care leave two months before its legal sanction. I was a rarity, an oddity. You'd think I was a panda or something.
And yet, when I made the decision to take paternity leave, it never occurred to me that I was doing anything extraordinary. On the contrary, what could be more ordinary than doing housework and taking care of one's own child? Why send TV crews to record someone changing his baby's diapers?
Nor was there anything unusual in my motivation. First of all, my wife and I, who were then both assistant managers at our company's research laboratories, had been unable to find a day-care center in our neighborhood that we thought would take proper care of an infant under six months old. We visited many centers, including some that impressed us, but they had a minimum age requirement. We have neither parents nor other relatives living close by. In short, one of us --either my wife or I-- had to take a leave of absence. We had agreed before we got married that each would respect the other's career. That my wife would permanently quit her job on becoming a mother was out of the question. The fact is, my wife had not been eager to have a child, fearing precisely that conflict, and I had assured her over and over again, "Don't worry --we'll raise the child together." After that, I could hardly justify dumping all the burdens of child care on her shoulders while I went blithely on with my career.
And so it was that I persuaded my employer to grant me paternity leave two months before the Child-care Leave Law went into effect. It was only later that I heard, from the journalists covering me, that I was the first man in Japan ever to take paternity leave from a private company. I still don't know if that's true or not. In any case, no earlier examples have ever been found. Apparently a man taking time off from work to look after his child is cause for astonishment in Japan. I had no idea --until I myself became the object of that astonishment.

Walk in the Park Is No Walk in the Park

Weekdays in the park remain as the most vivid memories of my paternity leave. Imagine baby carriages lined up like cars in a parking lot. And young mothers, throngs of them --some dandling infants on their knees, others holding the hands of babies taking their first tottering steps, others still, their 2- and 3-year-olds playing independently of direct maternal supervision, talking among themselves. At the park I went to there would be three distinct groups of mothers: one by the swings, another by the slide, the third by the sandbox. Where would I fit in? Nowhere. I sat on a bench, apart, alone, wracking my brains to come up with some way of starting a conversation with someone. In vain. I dare say the mothers were as discomfited by me as I was by them. What were they to make of this lone father in the park among them during the daytime? I was a phenomenon altogether beyond the range of their imaginations.
It was winter. The weather was rarely suitable for a walk, and even when it was, there were all those journalists to deal with. Perhaps I would have made friends at the park if I had gone more often, but as it was, before I had a chance to become a familiar face among the host of mothers, my leave was up. To this day, every time I think of that park I feel lonely.
My house-husband adventures were already behind me when I first encountered, in a child-care magazine, the expression "park debut." For city mothers raising small children, it's a major stumbling block. A young woman marries and moves into a new neighborhood. She knows no one; no one knows her. At first this is scarcely a problem. She is working, and seeing the same friends as she saw when she Was single. But after she gives birth, her free time is intermittent at best. Confined to the house and its immediate environs, she begins to feel the need for neighborly companionship. Accordingly she bundles up her small child and seeks out a likely park. She finds there young mothers like herself --but they are all clustered in groups. How to penetrate one of these groups?
Stories about mothers trying their luck at park after park, only to be welcomed nowhere and thrown back entirely on their own lonely resources, have become a staple of Japanese child-care publications. So have stories about quarrels among park mothers. The case histories are accompanied by tips on how to avoid those pitfalls --the right clothes to wear, the right topics of conversation and so on. My own "park debut" I suppose I can write off as a total failure.
Something else I remember clearly about those child-care days: my daughter and me, all alone in the house, she sleeping, me sitting in the sunlit room, idly listening to her soft breathing and the distant sundry noises from a carpenter's shop some distance away. It was a residential area. Most of my neighbors were elderly. How quiet it was! How monotonous, day after day! Of course I had known it would be like this, and the baby was adorable, and it was senseless to complain because there was no help for it. Still, how I longed for some distraction! To spend the better part of every day all alone with an infant who has not a single word at her command, with all my attention focused on fulfilling whatever need my daughter might present --one after another-- for hours on end, is a strain of an intensity that ultimately becomes almost cruel.
Still, I am glad I did it. The experience did me good. My housekeeping and child-rearing skills have improved considerably. Without that paternity leave, I would never have gained the confidence I feel with respect to raising my daughter, now 7, and son Akira, 4. Moreover, it made me aware of how poor the urban environment is for child-rearing. There are so few opportunities for neighborhood parents to get to know one another, to exchange information on such matters as the reputations of local pediatricians, or simply to chat casually about the problems and joys of parenthood. For my part, I had been so wrapped up in my work, so submerged in my "company society," that I hadn't spared a thought for "the other society," the one unfolding in my own home and community. My paternity leave taught me some things about that "other society."
My leave ended, and I went back to work. Life was more hectic than ever, for we had to scramble, my wife and I, to take Yumi to the day-care center in the morning, and pick her up in the evening. I felt as if I were juggling two jobs: one at the office, the other at home. Still, things were going very well. I was promoted to a managerial position. Our daughter was growing strong and healthy. What more was there to ask for?
But my approach to work had changcd. First of all, I gave up all unnecessary overtime. In the old days I had often been at my desk until far into the night. No longer. Other considerations aside, it had become physically impossible.
Second, since I had discovered life beyond my office walls, I grew increasingly involved in it. I was active in the day-care center's parents' association. I helped plan summer festivals, mochi-making parties and so on. In our neighborhood there was no clubhouse where elementary school students whose parents both worked could play after school. Seeing the need for one, I approached other parents, and eventually a citizens' movement took shape, with me serving as its general secretary for liaison and coordination work. We met with city council members, negotiated with municipal officials, and three years later we had our clubhouse. I also became active in a group called lkujiren (Network Promoting Child-care Hours for Men and Women), which encourages child-rearing by both parents and pushes for flexible working hours that take employees' parental responsibilities into account. I help produce lkujiren's Internet home page ( and compile a mailing list for people interested in these issues. At this fall's national Men's Lib movement meeting in Tokyo, I and some other lkujiren fathers ran a "fathers' day-care center," which, besides providing a useful service, challenged the stereotype image of child care as women's work.

Discovering 'Another Society'

Why have I cut down my professional workload to take on these responsibilities? Because once I realized that there was "another society" out there beyond corporate society, I felt I owed it to myself to be part of it. Ask most men why they work so hard, and they'll tell you they do it for their families. Well, there should be more to working for the sake of your family than mere bread-winning. There is housework to do, there are children to be raised --and not only that; there is also a neighborhood that needs the participation of its members if it is to be a community. I thought of these things for the first time during my paternity leave. Since then my circle of acquaintances on the other side of my working life has grown steadily, and become increasingly important to me.
A Ministry of Labor survey showed that a mere 0.02 percent of young fathers took time off work to help raise their children in 1992, the year I took my paternity leave. By mid-1996 that percentage had risen to 0.16. This is still not a very impressive number, but it does at least suggest that the idea is taking hold: A man who helps raise his child is no longer the anomaly he once was. To put it another way: He is no longer quite so rare a beast as a panda, as I had felt myself to be, but, let's say, a hippopotamus, of which there is one at just about every zoo. Fathers who have taken paternity leave have had many different things to say about the experience, but one observation that strikes a chord in me is, "I realized that I'd have absolutely no idea what went on at home while my wife was alone with the child." One brief stint as a house-husband, and suddenly your whole perspective on housework and child-rearing changes.
Men who have taken paternity leave fall into two broad, admittedly somewhat arbitrary, categories. One is of men who stress the joy of the experience, who delight in the discovery that fathers too have a role to play in raising their chirdren. We'll call them the optimists.
The other category is made up, not neccssarily of pessimists, but at any rate of men who stress the difficulties involved and point to the needs for improvement from a man's point of view. Which group is right? Both, I think. Yes, raising a child is a joy --but the difficulties are myriad. A good father should be aware of both sides of the coin.
Over the past few years Japanese men --men in general, not only those who take paternity leave-- have gone through a sharp awakening as to the nature of fatherhood. The proof can be seen in the proliferation of publications on the subject of what it means to be a father. Until very recently, children were considered as more or less exclusively their mothers' responsibility. No longcr. "Fathers! Get back home to serve as fathers!" is the message of Fusei no Fukken (The Reinstatement of Fatherhood), a 1996 bestseller by the psychologist Hayashi Michiyoshi, although I do not agree with much of what he says about the roles of men and women.

Fathers More in Evidence

More fathers nowadays turn up at elementary school, nurseIry school and on day-care center activity days. (True, many of them seem to come primarily to hold the video camera.) At my son's day-care center too, the parents who come to drop off or pick up their children are often fathers. (Neither my wife nor I took child-care leave when our second child was born, because a new day-care center  had opened nearby.) One of the center's veteran teachers told me that until about 10 years ago she almost never saw a father on the premises. Things have definitely changed. It is not that fathers are suddenly all on fire to assume a responsibility they once spurned. But, on fire or not, they are no longer spurning it. They accept that the chore has to be done, and no longer consider it beneath them. The parents' association too, once almost exclusively a gathering of mothers, has been benefiting lately from the participation of fathers. The conventional Japanese wisdom about child-rearing being woman's work is, slowly but surely, breaking down.
Male inroads into the world of child care and day care have their analogy in the increasing male presence in the delivery room, at the very dawn of parenthood. Not long ago this venue was off limits to men, and more or less taboo.Even today, it's hardly the norm for Japanese fathers to witness the birth of their children, but it is happening more and more. For one of my colleagues, it was a trauma he would just as soon not talk about --he was there not because he wanted to be, but because his wife had insisted. Others, though, brim with enthusiasm. "You absolutely must be there!" a friend told me. I took his advice, and now I say the same to younger men in my circle: "By all means, be there!" There is no better initiation into fatherhood.
Paternity is seeping into government thinking as well. The only way to turn Japan's declining birth rate around is to get fathers involved in child-rearing --a perception renected in a white paper published in 1998 by the Ministry of Health and Welfare. Its analysis attributes young women's reluctance to have children to their unwillingness, in an environment increasingly characterized by urban lifestyles and the nuclear family, to bear sole responsibility for child-raising. That won't change unless men start getting involved. Among the participants at the prime minister's advisory panel meetings on the declining birth rate were several child-rearing fathers, invited to share their experiences and offer suggestions.

Concept Slow to Catch On

As encouraging as these signs are, the fact remains that mothers are by far the majority of parents who take child-care leave from their jobs. Just only 0.16 percent of male employees whose wives have just given birth take child-care leave, compared to 44.5 percent of eligible female employees who do.
Why should that be?
There are four main reasons. First of all, the notion of child-rearing as a mother's responsibility still holds firm in Japan. Even women who are not full-time housewives from early on in marriage customarily quit their jobs before their first child is born. That encourages men to regard child-earing as essentially their wives' concern.
Second, in families where the husband and wife both work, there is usually an income gap in the husband's favor. Even women working full time earn, on average, about 60 percent of what their husbands make. Gender-based salaries are prohibited by law, but even so, the occupations women generally enter --or are forced into-- pay less than male-dominated occupations. When one spouse is earning conspicuously less than another, which one is the more likely to take child-care leave? An employee on child-care leave receives 25 percent of his or her salary as unemployment compensation insurance. Generally speaking, under current arrangements, it is considerably more economical for the wife to take time off. Among the men I know who have taken child-care leave, most are married to women earning as much or nearly as much as they are. That was my situation, too.
The third reason concerns Japanese hiring practices. In Japan, though job security is not nearly as assured as it once was, company loyalty --working until retirement for the company that hired you after graduation-- still stands as an admired tradition. Many of the comments and questions I heard from the male journalists covering my paternity leave suggest this. "You're very brave," they said, or, "I suppose you've given up on being promoted, haven't you?" or, "What did your boss say when you applied for child-care leave?" Looking back, I realized that those questions reflected the reporters' own insecurity. "I could never have done it myself," they seemed to be saying. To them, it was tantamount to a total sacrifice of professional life.
If Japanese were free to choose their elnployers with reference to their own career goals and their own convenience, such concern about staying in the good graces of one's employer would not be necessary.
 Finally, few Japanese men know even the most basic fundamentals of ordinary housekeeping, let alone of looking after an infant. Even if more fathers did take patemity leave, most of them would probably be helplessly incompetent. The comments of the young colleague I introduced at the beginning of this story suggest that plainly enough. I myself, though a pretty fair cook, knew absolutely nothing about cleaning and laundry and the like. My wife had tried to teach me but I didn't improve much --until I became a house-husband with full responsibility for running the house. Before, working under my Wife's direction, I was "helping," not "doing." It was not until every corner of every closet fell under my jurisdiction that I felt that I was the boss. I learned because the boss has to.

Better Incentives Are Needed

Some members of lkujiren, the child-care network I am involved in, believe the government should adopt an affirmative action program toward paternity leave and house-husbandry. A possible prototype is Nolway's "papa quota" program, which promotes extended child-care leave for parents --fathers as Well as mothers-- by imposing a minimum duration on their paid time off from work. Short vacations, in other words, are unpaid.
One way or another, those lkujiren members maintain, Japanese men must be given the opportunity --by force if necessary-- to take on a fair share of the work that has to be done around the house. Otherwise, they will never learn to regard housework and child-rearing as their responsibilities. Of course, before an affirmative action program can be developed, it will have to be widely discussed, and once it is, there is bound to be heated opposition.
Japan's current policy of compensating child-care leave with 25 percent of the employee's regular salary will not do --it is simply not a sufficient incentive. To make it more attractive, the compensation would have to be increased, but with Japan's social insurance system in deep financial trouble, this will not be easy.
There is also the problem of how much official interference individuals are prepared to accept in their private lives. I myself feel uncomfortable with the notion of the government telling me how much leave I must take. When I took my three months off back in 1992, I worked things out in relation to my family's particular situation. I did not say to myself, "This is what a man living in these times owes to the community, therefore I'll do it."
But there is something fundamentally wrong with a situation like Japan's, in which company employees practically live at the office and sometimes visit their homes. My three months as a full-time house-husband and full-time father allowed me to observe with some objectivity a state of affairs I might not have seen without the opportunity to distance myself from it. Work is not the sum total of a man's life. In this age of the nuclear family, men have work to do at home too, and in their own local communities. Each man must decide for himself just what his domestic life should involve, striking a balance between household and professional responsibilities so that neither makes the other impossible.

The article and the photo are reprinted with Asahi Shimbun's permission. No reproduction without written permission of the author and Asahi Shimbun.