Could Japan's paternity leave policy narrow the gender gap?

Man carries girl on shoulders: Increased paternity leave uptake in Japan could help bridge the gender gap.

Increased paternity leave uptake in Japan could help narrow the gender gap. Image: Unsplash/Brittani Burns

Naoko Tochibayashi
Communications Lead, Japan, World Economic Forum
Naoko Kutty
Writer, Forum Agenda
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  • In Japan, men increasingly take up the government’s proposed paternity leave benefit and get more involved in parenting.
  • Despite increasing uptake of postpartum paternity leave, overall, men in Japan still face challenges in the workplace regarding the acceptability and perception around taking up this type of benefit.
  • The uptake of paternity leave could help achieve gender parity, fostering a society where it is natural for both families and companies.

According to a survey conducted by Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare in 2022, the percentage of men who took childcare leave increased by 3.16 percentage points from the previous year to 17.13% – a record high. This data was gathered from over 3,000 workplaces employing more than five people nationwide. In large companies with more than 1,000 workers, the figure was 46.2%.

Increasing leave uptake isn’t the only marker of progress. The Childcare and Family Care Leave Act was revised and as of October 2022, a new system called “Postpartum paternal leave” makes paternity leave more flexible for fathers, which has encouraged greater male involvement in childcare.

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The boost from legal reforms

Behind the gradual progress of men’s involvement in parenting in Japan lies the revised Childcare Leave Laws, which have been rolled out in phases since April 2022. These legal changes mandated companies to raise awareness of the childcare leave system and confirm employees’ intent to take it, in addition to allowing for the division of childcare leave.

Furthermore, the introduction of the “Postpartum paternity leave” system allows male employees to take up to four weeks of childcare leave within eight weeks after the birth of their child, in addition to the existing childcare leave system, which allows either parent to take leave until the child reaches two years of age. These measures have created an environment where men can dedicate more time to parenting.

Even before these legal reforms, Japan’s childcare leave system had received high praise on the global stage. According to a report published by UNICEF in 2021, when assessing the parental leave and childcare policies of 41 high-income countries that are part of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development or the European Union, Japan ranked highest regarding the comprehensiveness of its childcare leave system. That is because they provide the longest leave for fathers and the highest level of leave benefits. However, the island nation still doesn't rank among the top 11 countries for its uptake rate of paternity leave as it introduced it more recently.

The role of companies

Companies also play a crucial role in ensuring employees take up the benefits. Since March this year, publicly listed companies have been mandated to include information related to human capital, such as talent development and creating a conducive internal work environment, in their annual securities report. Among these, the notable aspect of this policy reform is the disclosure of the male parental leave uptake rate as a key indicator contributing to a comfortable and well-being-enhancing workplace.

Despite a system in place, men may find it challenging to take paternity leave due to an unsupportive work environment and staff shortages. Concerns around inconveniencing colleagues or the potential negative impact on their future career development when taking time off work can factor into men’s decision to take paternity leave. Addressing these challenges requires companies to promote changes in approach and establish systems that can handle temporary staffing gaps without disrupting operations.

The government has significantly raised its targets for paternity leave uptake, aiming for 50% by the beginning of the financial year in 2025 and 85% by 2030. As well as increasing the uptake rate, the number of days taken is also paramount. Even if uptake improves, if new fathers or companies don’t take the recommended time, it would be difficult to say that meaningful paternity leave is being implemented. Therefore, companies must align with the government’s system reform efforts and create an employment environment where men can take paternity leave without hesitation and for a sufficient duration.

A situation where men do not participate in childcare, hindering women’s labour force participation, results in economic loss.

Pereric Högberg, Swedish Ambassador to Japan

Efforts to modernize work practices in Japan

Sekisui House, one of Japan’s leading housing manufacturers, has been promoting the full utilization of paternity leave for all male employees with children under the age of three since 2018, encouraging leave periods of one month or more. The company has implemented their unique system that designates the first month of leave as fully paid, which has, to date, a 100% uptake rate. The company’s CEO was inspired to instigate these initiatives when he saw Sweden’s high paternity leave uptake.

The company empowers its male employees to confidently balance parenting and work by guaranteeing treatment for male employees returning from paternity leave that is on par with what they received before their leave and by allowing flexible part-time work for childcare after their return.

Sweden serves as the role model for this system and its Ambassador to Japan, Pereric Högberg, has said, “A situation where men do not participate in childcare, hindering women’s labour force participation, results in economic loss. It’s crucial to acknowledge that when women are unable to work despite their desire to do so due to being primarily engaged in childcare, it constitutes a significant missed opportunity.”

These initiatives aren’t limited to companies alone. While the Kishida administration has set a goal to achieve an 85% paternity leave uptake rate among male public servants by 2025, the Fair Trade Commission has already surpassed this goal with an 87.5% uptake, significantly exceeding the average of 34% across 25 central government agencies. One of the reasons for this substantial increase, considering that their uptake rate was a mere 23.8% in 2015, is that whether reportees take paternity leave is directly linked to their supervisors' personnel evaluations. This development has fostered an organizational culture where taking paternity leave is considered a norm.

Paternity leave as a catalyst for societal change

According to the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Report 2023, Japan ranks 123rd out of 146 countries for economic participation and opportunity, lagging significantly behind other developed countries. The report also estimates it will take 131 years to close the global gender gap. The uptake of paternal leave could be a leverage point toward achieving gender parity, fostering a society where it is natural for both families and companies.

It’s also important not to overlook the need to enhance men’s awareness and capabilities in household and childcare responsibilities. In some cases, husbands take paternal leave but do not take sufficient responsibility for housework and childcare, resulting in simply “taking leave” without reducing the burden on the wife. Increasing opportunities for men to acquire the knowledge and skills necessary for parenthood and encouraging them to commit themselves to housework and childcare responsibilities proactively will be the crucial first step in shifting society.

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