A child sitting on his father’s shoulders smiles as they walk through a park lined with yellow autumn leaves – that’s the typical image of a Japanese “ikumen”.
The term connects the Japanese words ikuji, meaning caring for children, and ikemen, referring to cool-looking men.
The term has been widely promoted by Japanese authorities over the past decade to combat the country’s notoriously long working hours, which have not only robbed workaholic fathers of family time and stay-at-home mothers of their careers, but have contributed to the birth rate has risen to one of the lowest in the world. the world.
To seize the “last chance to turn the situation around,” Prime Minister Fumio Kishida unveiled a series of policies last week, including child benefit increases and a pledge to increase the number of male workers taking paternity leave from the current 14% to 50 % by 2025 and 85% by 2030.
But some in the world’s third-largest economy — which has long struggled with a falling fertility rate and an aging population — are skeptical that the plan can really move the needle.
Makoto Iwahashi, a member of POSSE, a labor union that advocates for younger workers, said that while the government’s plan was well-intentioned, many Japanese men were simply too afraid to take paternity leave because of possible repercussions from their employers.
Japanese men are entitled to four weeks of flexible paternity leave, up to 80% of their salary, under a bill passed by Japan’s parliament in 2021.
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But despite the law, men remained “afraid” that taking leave could negatively affect their chances of promotion or be transferred to another position with fewer responsibilities, Iwahashi said.
While it is illegal to discriminate against workers taking maternity and paternity leave in Japan, Iwahashi said workers on temporary contracts were particularly vulnerable.
In any case, “A small adjustment to paternity leave will not materially change a declining birth rate,” he added.
Hisakazu Kato, an economics professor at Tokyo’s Meiji University, said while large companies have become more accepting of parental leave over the years, smaller companies still had reservations.
“Small businesses are concerned that they will face (labor shortages) as a result of parental leave, and this puts pressure on young fathers who want to take parental leave in the future,” he said.
At a press conference last week, the prime minister acknowledged the concerns and pledged to consider providing allowances to small and medium-sized enterprises, with details set to be announced in June in his annual policy blueprint.
He also unveiled a plan to boost paternity leave take-up by encouraging companies to disclose their achievements.
In 2022, new births in Japan fell below 800,000 for the first time since records began in 1899, the latest milestone in a trend the government sees as increasingly alarming.
Last week, Kishida went so far as to warn that “the next six to seven years will be the last chance to reverse the declining birth rate trend.”
But Stuart Gietel-Basten, a professor of public policy and social sciences at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, warned that a low birth rate was often a sign of entrenched cultural factors likely to resist policy changes. Such factors can range from work culture to gender attitudes, he added.
“Increasing paternity leave is undoubtedly a good policy. It will certainly bring a positive result to many men (and women). But unless prevailing cultural norms and attitudes change, the macro-level impact may be limited,” the scholar said.
Riki Khorana, 26, who plans to tie the knot with his girlfriend in June, said the high cost of living was one of his biggest concerns when starting a family.
He worked as an engineer at one of Japan’s largest conglomerates in the heart of Tokyo, the country’s capital, and identified himself as a relatively high earner, but said he currently lives with his parents in Yokohama, the second largest Japan’s largest city south of Tokyo.
After his marriage, he will move out of his parents’ house, but will still have to stay in Yokohama due to the high rents in Tokyo.
Tokyo ranks ninth most expensive cities for expatriates to live in, according to the Cost of Living Survey by US consultancy Mercer.
Khorana said he planned to have two children, but if there were more effective government policies, he would consider more.
“For me, I feel like I can’t afford more than two kids,” he said. “There are less financially secure people who think they can’t have more than one child.”
The country’s fertility rate — the average number of children born to women during their childbearing years — has fallen to 1.3, well below the 2.1 needed to maintain a stable population.
Over the years, experts have also pointed to a feeling of prevailing pessimism among young people who have little confidence in the future due to work pressure and economic stagnation.
Last week, the prime minister said he was planning market reforms that would boost wages and economic support for young workers. He also promised to introduce benefits that could support freelancers or the self-employed and talked about extra allowances for child support, education and housing.
The economics professor Kato believed that the new policies would probably not be enough to solve the country’s demographic problems.
But he saw a silver lining in encouraging paternity leave.
“I think this is a good proposal because it not only improves family policies, but also improves gender equality,” he said.