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Why Japanese Fathers Don't Take Paternity Leave

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Japan is facing a number of challenges, including an aging, shrinking population and a low birth rate, all of which is leading to a severe shortage of workers. The government there has been trying to fix that by getting more women into the workforce by providing more maternity leave and day care options and getting dads to take paternity leave, too. But as NPR's Anthony Kuhn found out, that often comes at a great personal cost.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: This Japanese father applied to his employers to take paternity leave in 2015.

MR. H: (Through interpreter) Their reaction was, so your wife has to work?

KUHN: The implication was that if she wasn't working, then his wife should look after the child because child care is a woman's job. The man asked that we identify him just as Mr. H to protect him and his family from discrimination. He works for the Japanese sporting goods company Asics. After his paternity leave, Mr. H says he was transferred from the human resources department to a warehouse. He says his employer's only explanation was this.

MR. H: (Through interpreter) We had to look for a job that you could do.

KUHN: He believes his company was simply bullying him to get him to quit. He says this is what's known in Japan as pata-hara, or paternity harassment. He's suing Asics for damages, and he's getting help.

MR. H: (Through interpreter) Lots of Japanese people simply do not raise their voices. They just give up. But there is a way to negotiate with the help of unions that doesn't cost much.

KUHN: Asics has denied his allegations, but Mr. H is not giving up.

MR. H: (Through interpreter) I want to stress that we as fathers have the right to raise our children.

KUHN: That right is well-protected, at least on paper. Yoshiaki Wada, a lawmaker with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, explains that under Japanese law, fathers can get a year of paternity leave or more if they have no available child care options. But...

YOSHIAKI WADA: Even though we have one of the best system in the world, still, the paternity leave percentage is, like, 6%, whereas the percentage of maternity leave is about 83%.

KUHN: Wada is introducing legislation to change Japan's workplace culture and to help Japan reach its target of having 13% of dads take paternity leave by 2020.

WADA: I would like to make company push the workers, inform workers that there is a system in the company to encourage paternity leave. And if environment allows, then worker has to take paternity leave.

KUHN: But Emiko Takeishi, a sociologist at Hosei University in Tokyo, disagrees with the idea of compulsory paternity leave.

EMIKO TAKEISHI: (Through interpreter) Paternal leave is a right, and it should be taken by those who want it or need it. The government making it a duty is going too far.

KUHN: She explains that besides pata-hara, there's also mata-hara, or maternity harassment. What they have in common is that companies punish men and women alike for inconveniencing them by taking time off to have kids. The difference, she says, is this.

TAKEISHI: (Through interpreter) The mindset is that men's jobs are more important and involve heavier responsibility. So how can men shirk these jobs for the less important task of child care?

KUHN: Takeishi says this is the mindset of a society in which most families have one male breadwinner. But the mindset and the model are fading, she says, simply because it's harder for Japanese families to survive on a single income. That may be little comfort for those who claim to be victims of pata-hara.

Glen Wood is a former sales manager at Mitsubishi UFJ Morgan Stanley, an investment bank. When his son was born prematurely in 2015, Wood applied for leave to deal with the medical emergency.

GLEN WOOD: From the minute I mentioned needing to take some time off for family, my whole world changed. I became the outcast. I became the enemy.

KUHN: Wood, a Canadian who's worked in Japan for around 30 years, says he was marginalized and eventually fired despite his successful track record at work.

WOOD: The expectations for someone doing my job in the financial industry in Japan in a traditional Japanese company was that I devoted a hundred percent of my time and energy to the company, and anything short of that is viewed as treason.

KUHN: Wood is suing his company for his job back. They deny the harassment charges. Wood goes to take his 4-year-old son to his cello lesson. He says music is one of the things that brought him to Asia in the first place.

WOOD: It's been a real joy to - you know, to have a son and be able to be teaching him music and the love of music.

KUHN: Woods says his battle over paternity rights has not brought him many rewards, but his young son is clearly an exception.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Tokyo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.