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Japanese Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi to Take Paternity Leave, Setting a Progressive Example

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Japanese Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi, widely regarded as a potential successor to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, is set to become the first sitting cabinet member to take paternity leave. Koizumi, 38, announced during a news conference on Wednesday that he will take two weeks of paternity leave spread over three months, ensuring it does not interfere with his ministerial responsibilities. His son is expected to be born this month, according to local media reports.

Koizumi’s decision, hailed as progressive by the government, aims to inspire more men in Japan to take advantage of the country’s paternity leave policies. Despite offering some of the most generous paternity leave in the developed world, Japan sees very few fathers using it. Chief government spokesman Yoshihide Suga expressed hope that Koizumi’s example would encourage other men to follow suit.

“The atmosphere needs to be changed, not only the system. Otherwise, the number of public officials who take paternity leave won’t increase,” Koizumi said.

The announcement quickly gained public attention, making “Minister Koizumi” and “childcare leave” trending topics on Japanese Twitter. Justice Minister Masako Mori, one of the few women in Abe’s cabinet, applauded Koizumi’s decision, noting that he had consulted her about it.

Koizumi, the son of a former prime minister, has been under intense media scrutiny since his marriage to a well-known TV newscaster and his cabinet appointment last year. He has been vocal about the stigma surrounding paternity leave, describing the media fuss over his decision as indicative of Japan’s “rigid and old-fashioned” societal norms.

In Japan, fathers can take up to a year off for paternity leave, but doing so is often considered taboo. Only 6% of fathers take paternity leave, and about 60% of those who do return to work within two weeks, according to the health ministry. In contrast, over 80% of working mothers take leave, typically returning to work 10-18 months after giving birth.

This imbalance poses a significant challenge for Japan, which is grappling with a demographic crisis and striving to keep women in the workforce to counterbalance its aging population. Currently, individuals aged 65 or older constitute more than 28% of the population, a figure projected to rise to over 38% by 2065, even as the overall population declines.

Japan also struggles with gender equality, ranking poorly among developed nations. The country’s gender pay gap is one of the widest in advanced economies, with Japanese women earning only 73% of what men make, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

“This decision takes a lot of courage,” one Twitter user commented. “It will remove an atmospheric barrier that has impeded men from taking paternity leave.”

By taking paternity leave, Koizumi hopes to lead by example, encouraging more men to participate in child-rearing and helping to shift societal norms towards greater gender equality and family support.

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