Fri, Aug 11, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Refusing to toe the line in Japan

Masatao Yamada did what most Japanese men would consider unthinkable: he took extended paternity leave. The results, he says, were great

AFP , TOKYO

Clad in a dark suit, 38-year-old Masato Yamada goes on a morning commute like most Japanese men his age. Except he has a one-year-old son in the backseat of his car and the first colleagues he greets are mothers bringing their children to nursery school.

Yamada's perspective has changed after doing what was once unthinkable for a Japanese man -- taking paternity leave.

Yamada and his wife Atsuko, 37, are both high-level officials at Japan's trade ministry. When she had twins three years ago, she went on leave.

When they had another child, Yamada decided he should stay at home.

"Because my wife was in a division much busier than I was when she got pregnant, I naturally came to think that it was my turn to take leave," Yamada recalls at a crowded lunch-time cafe as office workers quickly gobble hot dogs and sandwiches.

Faced with one of the world's lowest birth rates, Japan offers generous one-year paid leave for all new parents in the hope of making child-rearing more attractive.

But the incentives are not working. The population last year fell for the first time since World War II. One problem, experts say, is that Japanese men are not pitching in at home as they are expected to be loyal first to the office.

Yamada, who has returned to work but continues to drop his children at school, says he faced a hostile reaction when he told his boss he planned to take paternity leave.

"`Are you serious?' That's what my direct supervisor told me. Although I'd been talking about my plan of taking a paternity leave for almost a year since my wife conceived, he didn't take my words seriously at all," Yamada recalls with a look half amused and half sad.

Domestic helpers are expensive and uncommon in Japan, which strictly controls unskilled foreign labor. Yamada's wife took an obligatory eight weeks off after giving birth but then rushed back to her office.

Disappearing jobs

More than 70 percent of eligible mothers applied for their full year maternity leave in the 2003 fiscal year, although many complain that their jobs disappear once they attempt to return to work.

By contrast, a mere 0.56 percent of fathers applied for paternity leave, according to the labor ministry.

"Maybe it's because a lot of people believe that taking leave could hurt your career in the Japanese working culture where people are expected to show loyalty to one organization in a lifetime-employment system," Yamada says.

"Indeed, after I returned to work in November, some members of parliament who really cared about me came to ask, `Mr. Yamada, are your prospects for promotion all right?'" he says.

After toiling in the cut-throat atmosphere of one of Japan's elite ministries, Yamada thought being a stay-at-home dad would be child's play. Instead, he nearly had a nervous breakdown.

"Despite the fact we already had twins, I had been a workaholic who was ready to work 24 hours a day, a species quite frequently seen in the central government's bureaucracy," he recalls.

"The first two months were mentally tough, terribly so," he says of his paternity leave, during which he was also in charge of taking the twins to and from school.

Every night Yamada had a dream in which he was back in his old element, working furiously in the office.

"And I enjoyed it very much. Then I would wake up in the morning and realize, disappointed, that today was again yet another day of child-rearing," he says.

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