TOKYO (Reuters Life!) - Hiroyuki Ogino stayed home from his job in telecoms to take care of his son for a month this spring -- one of a tiny but growing number of Japanese men opting for paternity leave despite the risk to their careers.
"It really is as if we are putting a minus against our names, causing problems for our colleagues by not being around to pull our weight," said Ogino, a 38-year-old father of two.
"In spite of it all, I'm glad I did it."
With only 1 percent of the country's eligible male workers taking time out, dads like Ogino are hard to come by in Japan.
Japan's fathers spend less time on child care and housework than their counterparts in any other developed country.
But thanks to a new set of government initiatives that encourage working dads to take time off -- part of a broader effort to boost Japan's rock-bottom birthrate -- the number of fathers who swap their desks for diapers may be about to rise.
Under the revised Child-care and Family-care Leave Law, which takes effect on Wednesday, fathers will be allowed to take more time off to look after their children.
Employers will also be obliged to allow a shorter six-hour working day to staff with children under three years old and in some cases, fathers will be exempt from working overtime.
Masayuki Yamaguchi, a spokesman for Japan's labor ministry, said the initiative, which includes the launch of a self-help website, aims to help dads manage their work-life balance.
According to a Ministry survey, as many as a third of Japan's dads would like to take paternity leave.
But many of Japan's "salarymen," who are notorious for working grueling hours, are afraid that taking time out as a stay-home dad could harm promotion prospects and damage relations with colleagues who have to cover for their absence.
Even at the ministry, leave-taking dads account for a mere 2.3 percent, far below the government's target of 13 percent by 2020, Yamaguchi said.
"When I decided to take leave, my parents told me that it was the end of my working life," Masaaki Hashimoto, a product developer at Benesse Corporation who took a month off for paternity leave last April, wrote on the Ministry's new website.
"When I told my boss and my colleagues, it felt like everyone around me was saying 'that's the guy who's going to take leave'," Hashimoto said.
Mitsuhiro Sato, 34, a lawyer who works in Tokyo, decided to take six months of paternity leave to look after his newborn son.
"Compared to working it was a completely different sort of challenge," he recalls. "But there really wasn't a down side."
One group trying to change Japan's dads' workaholic image is "Fathering Japan," a not-for-profit organization aiming to promote understanding of stay-home dads.
"If a male worker announces that he is going to take paternity leave, people around him start to doubt his suitability for the job. There's a chance that they'll start thinking that he's planning to quit," said Tetsuya Ando, who founded the organization five years ago.
"So many male employees are worried about even talking about taking time off. We need a change in attitudes, and a change of environment in the work place."
And there are some signs of change.
A relatively new, and so far small, group of prominent stay-home dads who put their career on hold to look after their children have been making headlines.
Japan's so-called "Iku-men" -- a play on the Japanese word for child-rearing, "iku-ji" -- include the mayor of Tokyo's Bunkyo ward, Hironobu Narisawa, and Takeshi Tsuruno, a high profile celebrity.
"I would wake up at 6 a.m. to make the kids' packed lunches and then see them off to school. I've seriously come to understand the difficulties my wife faced," Tsuruno, 35, told reporters when he announced his plan.
"But I hope that society will change so that men can take leave too."
To gauge these changing attitudes, O-net, one of Japan's most visited online match-making services, asked 900 single women what was most important when looking for prospective husbands.
Iku-men fared better than high wage-earners.
The dating service, which has over 40,000 registered users, found that 88 percent of its respondents gave high scores to men with a positive attitude toward housekeeping and childcare, compared to 75 percent who listed income as important. Only 61 percent cared about their prospective husband's profession.
Back in his Tokyo apartment, Sato looks back on his time as an iku-men. "It was up to me to prepare all of our meals and do all of the cleaning," he recalls, as his wife Yoko took care of their son Kiichi.
"I don't think that paternity leave is for everyone. But if a man wants to take time off to look after his child, it's important for there to be an environment where he can do so."
The revised Child-care and Family-care Leave Law comes into effect on Wednesday.
(Editing by Linda Sieg)