Landmark paternity case challenges Japan's work culture

People commute during a morning rush hour at Shinagawa station in Tokyo, July 18, 2019.

Tokyo (CNN)A 38-year-old Japanese national has filed a lawsuit against his employer for alleged harassment after taking paternity leave, in a landmark case that looks set to challenge Japan's often highly-gendered corporate culture.

Japanese law grants both men and women up to one year of leave from work after having a child. Parents are not guaranteed pay from their employer, but are eligible for government benefits while off. However, only 5% of eligible fathers took paternity leave in 2017, according to government data.
The case, which appeared before a Tokyo court on Thursday, was brought about after the man claimed that his employer, sportswear maker Asics, purposefully sidelined him from his job in sales and marketing following his return from parental leave in 2015 and 2018. Asics has denied the allegations.
    The case is among the first to tackle the issue of paternity harassment in Japan, where working culture often dictates that male employees work long hours and place company loyalty ahead of the family.
    The man, who has requested anonymity due to the sensitive nature of his claim -- media in japan have honored the request -- took six weeks off after his first son was born in 2015 and then another 13 months of leave before his son's second birthday. Asics offers male employees up to two years paternity leave.
    "This was a natural choice for me," he told CNN. "I wanted to to take care of my newborn and witness his growth. I also wanted to protect my wife from the baby blues."
    The man claims that on his return to work he was transferred to a subsidiary company's warehouse and tasked with manual jobs, which he alleges resulted in an injury to his shoulder. He was then transferred to an office job.
    "I was assigned to carry out research on disabled people's rights in the workplace and to translate company rules into English, two areas I have no experience or expertise in," he said. "I spend all day staring at my computer with not much to do."
    Following the birth of his second son in 2018, he took a second parental leave lasting for 13 months. On return to work he claims the situation has continued and feels as if he is being pushed out.
    The man wants his original role back and 4.4 million yen (US$41,000) in damages, according to his lawyer Naoto Sasayama. "The job he was transferred to was not the one he was hired for and this is very clear harassment against taking his paternity leave," said Sasayama.
    Asics has refuted the man's allegations. "We have been negotiating sincerely with the legal representative of the employee as well as with several labor unions he belonged to," said the company in a statement. "We find it regrettable that we have not reached a final solution and we look forward to clarifying the facts in court."