From March 2021 to April 2022, I was able to enjoy 3 months of maternity leave plus 11 months of childcare leave, thanks to Japan’s generous leave policies (at least on paper). The reason I say “on paper” is because while the leave policies are generous, some people are not able to take leave due to financial reasons (more on this later) or harassment/responsibilities at work.
Below is Kai at 14 months old
In Japan, leave around babies is divided into two: maternity/paternity leave and childcare leave. All mothers who contribute to the national health insurance/pension scheme are entitled to paid maternity leave that can be taken 6 weeks before birth and 8 weeks after birth. If the birth of the child is delayed, the days between the expected due date and the actual birth date also count as maternity leave period. You get 67% of your basic during maternity leave, although some employers may choose to pay you the full amount of your salary. However, you apply for this maternity allowance, which is paid in a lump sum, after you have completed your maternity leave, and it will finally be paid when the baby is 4-5 months old!
So first of all, you must be contributing to the national health insurance scheme (through your company or directly) and you must have enough money saved to survive at least 6 months without your pay. We’re talking rent, food, utilities, etc and new baby expenses.
Solution: maternity leave allowance should be paid monthly!
Childcare leave starts from the day after the maternity leave ends (i.e. 8 weeks after the birth date), to the day before the child reaches the age of 1. In my company’s case, you can take time off for childcare until the child is 3 years old, although you only get paid for the first year, unless you can prove that there is no daycare space available, in which case you can extend for another 6 months. Childcare is available to either the mother or the father (or both, but only one parent is paid). To receive any payment during childcare leave, you must have contributed to the labour insurance scheme for at least one year, and you must prove that you’ll go back to the company for at least a year after your leave is finished (in other words, your contract must be longer than a year after going back to work or you are a permanent employee). The pay is 67% of your base pay (no allowances, bonuses, etc) for 6 months, and 50% thereafter, with a maximum cap of about ￥287,000 (some employers may top up the amount). In my case, if I had to stay in Tokyo with all the rent and expenses, I wouldn’t have afforded to take off an entire year, as my monthly pay during childcare leave was only about ￥216,000.
For financial reasons, many couples cannot actually afford to take off an entire year of childcare leave. Having a cap on the childcare leave allowance also means that someone whose basic pay is high will lose a lot of their income during this period, which is quite discouraging.
The solution is to remove the maximum cap, and also to maintain the 67% throughout the period (why not 100% though).
Please note that the allowances during leave come from the insurance – health insurance and labour insurance. The employer does not bear this burden, unless they want to top up the amounts you are paid. I think this is a very good idea that should be adopted in other countries.
Going back to work after maternity leave is quite a challenge. With many people working long hours in Japan, new parents (especially women) who have to leave work at 5pm to pick their children from daycare, or who have to take days off several times a year due to childhood sickness, may face harassment at work. I am glad I do not work for such a company. In fact, we get an extra 5 days of leave to use when your child is sick, in addition to 24 days of paid annual leave.
(I haven’t touched on paternity leave during the first 8 weeks after the baby is born. I know men who take only one day off – although they may be entitled to 2 weeks – or 4 weeks from October, 2022. Here is a link I found about some changes to parental leave, including abolishing the requirement for a years’ service?.)
How Did I Spend my Leave?
After Kai was born, we spent two months in Tokyo and then flew home to Kenya and spent 8 months there. Kai was (is) the kind of baby who demanded continuous and engaged attention. I could not put him down for a second to even go to the bathroom. You would think I would get some reprieve during nap time, but he only took two 20 minute naps per day. When he was 6-7 months, he started demanding help to walk around. He never crawled and took his first steps when he was 9 months old.
Recently, I was chatting with an expectant friend. She said she was considering taking a year of maternity/childcare leave, and that she would find “something to do” during her leave. As if taking care of a baby (and a home) is not demanding enough.
I held my tongue. I too, had a list of projects that I had wanted to accomplish during leave, but it turns out that taking care of a new baby demanded my whole self, and at the end of the day I would be so drained I could only watch an episode of something light – Seinfeld – on Netflix before falling asleep, only to wake up several times at night to nurse the baby.
We would have someone come over to clean our house, do the laundry and help out with the cooking, but there was never really a nanny to help with Kai. He was wholly my (welcome) responsibility.
I was very lucky to have had a whole year plus an extra month to spend with my son, before passing him onto to other people to “raise him” during the week. It was also great spending time with Jeremy and my family.
After 7 years of living in Japan and only visiting for a few days, I thought that being in Kenya for an extended period of time would be the chance I needed to revive my friendships and pick up a social life. However, in reality, my friends – while remaining close – had of course developed several relationships and friendships along the way, of which I was not a part of. Remember that I was having a young baby to look after, which may be an isolating experience in modern Kenya as it is anywhere in the world. I met them once or twice, much less than I would have wanted to.
That is not to say I spent the whole time in my parents’ house in Nairobi’s suburbs. Just most of the time. I managed to visit my maternal grandmother in Kisii, the only surviving grandparent. I also took a trip down to Mombasa, and we even had a New Year’s Eve trip to Masai Mara as an extended family. I also managed to apply for and obtain Kai’s Kenyan passport (I’ll do a post soon, I promise).
The months passed by fast enough and I could have stayed longer in Kenya but I needed to get back to Tokyo to prepare for daycare and getting back to work – including looking for a new apartment (another post to come). I hadn’t maintained my previous lease (couldn’t afford to!). I wrote in detail about coming back to Tokyo here.
I was supposed to go back to work in April but I was able to extend leave for another month as Kai was also starting daycare in the same month. I wasn’t sure it would be paid, but luckily it was, as I was able to prove that Kai wasn’t enrolled in daycare on his 1st birthday (which was at the end of March). Even if it wouldn’t have been paid, I did need that extra month to help ease Kai into daycare (another blog post here?).
I went back to work in May, after the Golden Week holidays. It’s already been three months of balancing child care, house work and a full-time job. I plan to do a do a post on “a day in my life.” (Update, I did).
In early June, I received the last of my childcare leave payments. It was a bitter sweet moment. A reminder that a chapter of my life was closing, as I don’t plan on having any more children.