In March, the government set the objective of drastically increasing the rate of parental leave taken by men, as well as the time they spend on housework and other family affairs. Its position is that male participation in housework and child care is essential to promote the success of women, and to curtail declining birthrates.
The Yomiuri Shimbun looked at some examples of private companies leading the way in rethinking how we work.
'Let the wife handle it'
A systems engineer for Tokyo-based Hitachi Solutions, Ltd., Tomoaki Takama, 32, took six months parental leave starting last October to relieve his wife, 31, when she returned to work three months after the birth of their second daughter.
His wife is also a systems engineer at the same company, and he felt he owed it to her because, "Even though we do the same job, when we had our first daughter - now 3 years old - I left everything for her to handle."
During his parental leave, Takama handled almost all of the child care for their two girls in addition to the housework. Though he was somewhat frustrated by not being able to work, he says, "Taking care of my kids gave me a way of thinking about things in the long term."
Hitachi Solutions has been promoting greater male participation in housework and child care for several years through such measures as featuring fathers who have taken parental leave in its company newsletter. Last fiscal year, eight of its male employees took long-term parental leave of a month or more.
Seeing low male participation in housework and child care as a hindrance to women's social progress and a cause of Japan's declining birthrate, the government adopted the guidelines on measures for the declining birthrate in March. The key objectives of this initiative are to, in the next five years:
■ Raise the current male parental leave rate of 2 per cent to 13 per cent.
■ Raise the current average amount of time spent on housework and child care by males from one hour a day to 2½ hours.
■ Raise the percentage of men who take parental leave immediately after their wives give birth to 80 per cent.
To make time for men to spend on housework and child care, more and more companies are rethinking the way we work.
In 2009, Sumitomo Life Insurance Co. in Osaka stopped allowing employees to work after 8 p.m. except under special circumstances. Employees are barred from using work computers and cannot check their e-mail until the following day. The initiative is popular with employees who like to be able go home without feeling conflicted, and those raising children.
At Earth Create, a 25-employee construction company in Gifu, employees are allowed as many days of special paid leave as they need until a child finishes middle school. All eight male employees who were the target of this policy have used this special leave, including one employee who took a month off when his child was hospitalised.
Since adopting this system in 2007, the company has achieved significant growth, with its sales doubling. Director of Sales Ryo Iwata says, "When we're able to take time off when our family needs us, we're better able to focus on our jobs when we're at work."
Creating the right atmosphere
Merely creating a system, however, has its limitations. In an environment where men do not use parental leave or take advantage of options for temporary part-time hours, concerns about reduced pay, or how they will be perceived in the workplace, become both economic and psychological barriers to making the system work.
To remove such barriers, in 2006, Asahi Kasei Corp. in Tokyo made the first five days of parental leave paid leave.
The company also began creating an atmosphere that encourages men to take parental leave, sending gift baskets of the company's own goods to employees on parental leave, and asking employees to submit ikumen senryu, comic haiku about men who enjoy raising children.
As a result, the rate of men taking parental leave has stayed at about 40 per cent since 2006, with more than 200 employees a year taking advantage of it. Akemi Yoshizawa of Asahi Kasei's human resources department says, "The average number of days taken is only about five days, but that is enough time to see how difficult it is for their wives, and also the joy of raising children, giving them an opportunity to reconsider their own way of working."
Going home on time
For men to participate more in child care and housework, they also need to find ways to reduce the amount of overtime they work.
In March, Recruit Works Institute published an in-house "manual for starting a life with shorter hours for workers who cannot seem to go home on time" to counter an increase in reasons for working overtime (http://www.works-i.com/research/2014/jitan/).
The manual divides the causes of overtime into five categories such as "No-plan overtime syndrome" and "Obsessive overtime syndrome," and proposes coping methods for each. Workers learn which causes apply to them by asking themselves a few questions.
The institute's Naoko Ishihara says, "Planning certain days to not work overtime forces you to think about ways to be more efficient and condense your work."
5 causes of overtime
■ No-plan overtime syndrome: failing to understand your work priorities
Solution: Consult superiors when you lose track of your priorities.
■ Obsessive overtime syndrome: focusing too much on the details of the job
Solution: When taking on a job, verify the nature of what is expected.
■ Insufficient know-how overtime syndrome: trying to teach yourself how to do everything
Solution: Find a mentor on the job, and follow his or her lead.
■ Do-it-myself overtime syndrome: thinking that nobody else can do your work
Solution: Reconsider whether you can entrust your colleagues to do the work.
■ Social obligation overtime syndrome: staying to fit into the workplace atmosphere
Solution: Go home at the set time as a test. Realize that nobody really cares.