Governor of G7 summit region urges Japanese fathers to take paternity leave

Mie governor urges more Japanese men to take paternity leave
Winning bid: Eikei Suzuki, governor of Mie prefecture, announces that the summit will be held in Ise-Shima © Getty

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Eikei Suzuki is Japan’s biggest winner from this month’s G7 in every way but one: the summit has made him delay his paternity leave.

As governor of Mie prefecture — home to the summit venue in Ise-Shima — the relatively youthful Mr Suzuki has garnered a wave of national publicity, boosting both his own prospects as a rising political star and those of his beautiful but little-known part of Japan.

But for now it means the 41-year-old Mr Suzuki will have to wait until July or August to do what he says all Japanese men should do, and take some time off to care for his new baby daughter.

“I’ll be the first governor to take paternity leave twice,” he says, in an interview with the Financial Times at his offices in Tsu, the prefectural capital. “There are some people who say I’m just taking a summer holiday, but no — I’ll be taking time to look after the children so my wife can work.”

Paternity leave is a hot topic in Japan. The population is in relentless decline, and despite the “womenomics” policies of prime minister Shinzo Abe, it is still hard for Japanese women to combine career and family.

“For women to flourish, it isn’t enough for women to do their best,” says Mr Suzuki. “Unless we change Japan’s men and their way of working, it’ll be hard to change the falling number of children. Paternity leave is one important way to do that.”

He takes pride in having raised the percentage of Mie men who take paternity leave to 6.3 per cent — still low, but well above the national average of 2.3 per cent. He also calls on chief executives to do what they can to change the culture of working long hours that keeps parents away from their children.

Decades of low birth rates mean Japan’s population is expected to fall from 127m to 92m over the next 40 years. A geriatric political class often attacks the young as feckless and self-indulgent, but Mr Suzuki’s age gives him greater insight into why Japan’s young people are not having more babies.

“The issue is different for the first, second and third child. For the first child, the hurdle is being able to marry, or being able to combine work with family,” he says. Lack of stable employment is the biggest reason why younger Japanese do not marry.

“For the second child, it’s work, and whether your partner offers enough support. For the third child, it’s the economic burden. Underlying it all is low incomes for young people.” This understanding affects how Mie prefecture — which has a total fertility rate of 1.49, again above the national average of 1.42 — goes about trying to raise the birth rate. “Whether or not to have a child is a personal decision and it’s not for us to interfere,” Mr Suzuki says. “Instead, we should focus on people who want to have a child but can’t.” In 2014, Mie became the first prefecture in Japan to subsidise fertility treatment for men, and Mr Suzuki has kept raising the budget for supporting families — an increasingly hard ambition in Japan, where the overwhelming weight of older voters in the electorate means politicians must cater to their whims.

Ise-Shima: The local governor is hoping that hosting the G7 summit will deliver the ultimate prize — an upsurge in tourism

Visitors ascend the steps to Ise’s Grand Shrine © Alamy

After the G7 summit has taken place in Ise-Shima, the big future prize on offer for the surrounding Mie prefecture is achieving an upsurge in tourism.

Despite the booming number of visitors to Japan, most follow the so-called Golden Route from the modern capital of Tokyo to the ancient capital of Kyoto. Eikei Suzuki, governor of Mie, wants them to take a detour and visit the splendours of his region.

“Kyoto and Nara have the temples, the bit of Japanese culture you can see. But in Mie, especially at the Ise shrine, we have the intangibles. If you want to know why Japanese people have the mentality they do, this is the place to come.”

Few places in Japan have escaped a coating of concrete, but Ise, the most sacred shrine in the Shinto religion, is one of them. With the wooded mountains above protected to keep the Isuzu river pure, the shrine has endured for more than a thousand years — and is rebuilt every 20 years.

Mr Abe will take his fellow leaders to the Ise shrine on the summit’s opening day. That will mean wonderful images to promote Mie, but could also create some controversy, given the shrine’s close links to the Imperial family. Shinto has not been Japan’s state religion since the second world war, but Mr Abe has taken to visiting Ise every year.

Mie has many other tourist attractions: it is the birthplace of ninja assassins and female ama divers, — the “sea women” who have been free-diving for pearls for centuries, although many of the remaining women are now elderly. However, the G7 is fleeting, and other host locations such as Deauville in France and Lough Erne in Northern Ireland have enjoyed no lasting tourist boost as a result of hosting such events. Indeed Lough Erne recorded a rise in tourist numbers of just 6.3 per cent in 2014, the year after the G8, which was less than the overall rise enjoyed by Northern Ireland.

Mr Suzuki insists there will be benefits, starting with name recognition. He says Mie had the biggest rise in foreign tourism of any prefecture in the second half of last year, and the summit has generated publicity worth ¥44bn ($406m). “Above all that there’s our pride — that Mie prefecture is a place that can host a summit of world leaders,” he says.

Observers in Mie expect Mr Suzuki to run for parliament when his governorship ends, backed by Mr Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party. He does little to play down such expectations, saying: “I want to continue as a politician, but of what kind, I need to ask my supporters.”

If Mie can shine in the reflected glory of Mr Abe’s G7 moment, then who knows — perhaps one day Mr Suzuki will welcome G7 leaders again, as a future prime minister of Japan.

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