A typical image of a Japanese “ikumen” is a child riding on his father’s shoulders as they stroll through a park lined with yellow autumn-touched leaves.
The term combines the Japanese words ikuji, which means “child care,” and ikemen, which means “cool-looking men.”
In the last decade, Japanese authorities have widely promoted the term to combat the country’s notoriously long working hours, which have not only deprived workaholic fathers of family time and stay-at-home mothers of careers, but have also contributed to one of the world’s lowest birth rates.
To take advantage of the “last chance to reverse” the situation, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida unveiled a slew of policies last week, including increases in child support and a pledge to increase the number of male workers taking paternity leave from 14% to 50% by 2025, and 85% by 2030.
However, some in the world’s third-largest economy, which has long struggled with a declining fertility rate and an aging population, are skeptical that the plan will actually make a difference.
While the government’s plan was well-intended, Makoto Iwahashi, a member of POSSE, a labor union dedicated to younger workers, said many Japanese men were simply too afraid to take paternity leave due to potential repercussions from their employers.
According to a bill passed by the Japanese parliament in 2021, Japanese men are entitled to four weeks of flexible paternity leave at up to 80% of their salary.
Despite the law, men were “afraid” that taking the leave would jeopardize their promotion prospects or that they would be reassigned to a different position with fewer responsibilities, according to Iwahashi.
While it is illegal in Japan to discriminate against workers who take maternity or paternity leave, Iwahashi believes workers on fixed-term contracts are especially vulnerable.
In any case, “a minor change in paternity leave will not significantly affect a declining birth rate,” he added.
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