Hong Kong CNN Business  — 

Sachimi Mochizuki has worked in Japan for two decades, but she’s never taken a day off for her period.

That’s mostly because Mochizuki is lucky — her periods aren’t a big problem. But she’s also been reluctant to use Japan’s long-standing leave entitlement as that would have involved telling her managers, most of whom have been male, that she was menstruating.

“It’s very private and, especially in Japan, that’s still kind of a taboo,” said Mochizuki, who works in event management. “We don’t want to talk about it with any men.”

Japan’s period leave entitlement has existed for more than 70 years, and the country isn’t alone in Asia in having such a policy. South Korea adopted period leave in 1953. And in China and India, provinces and companies are increasingly adopting menstruation leave policies with a range of entitlements.

The landscape on the other side of the world, however, looks a lot different. Period leave policy is almost nonexistent in the United States, the United Kingdom and Europe.

And even in countries that do have period leave, feminists are split on whether period leave is a step back or a sign of progress when it comes to women’s rights. Some argue that it’s as necessary for working women as maternity leave, while others say that it casts women as less able than men and could lead to further discrimination.

Widely available, but rarely used

Japan introduced its period leave policy in 1947 to address labor rights concerns.

For at least a decade, female factory workers had been granted period leave to give them a reprieve from harsh labor and poor sanitary conditions, while struggling with menstrual pain. After Japan’s defeat in World War II, the country wrote period leave into its new labor laws as a right for all female employees whose periods are “especially difficult.”

At first, there was a relatively high take-up — around 26% in 1965, according to local media. Estimates vary on the proportion of women globally who experience dysmenorrhea, or period pain so bad that it interferes with daily activities, but all point to it being a common condition.

As time went on, fewer women took the option. A Japanese government survey in 2017 found that only 0.9% of female employees claimed period leave.

In South Korea, usage is also dropping. In a 2013 survey, 23.6% of South Korean women used the leave. By 2017, that rate had fallen to 19.7%.

There are a few reasons that might explain this. Although all companies in Japan have to give women period leave when they request it, they are not required to pay. And some woman may not even know that it’s available to them, as companies don’t typically advertise it, said Yumiko Murakami, the head of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Tokyo Center.

But the bigger issue in both South Korea and Japan is cultural.

A woman browses products on a shelf in a discount store in the area of Shibuya in Tokyo, Japan, on March 1, 2013.

Women already face an uphill battle in both countries, which have some of the highest gender pay gaps in the OECD and some of the lowest shares of female managers. Although it’s illegal to discriminate against female employees in Japan, they often face pressure to quit once they become pregnant, Murakami said. And workers of all genders in Japan are discouraged from taking leave of any kind, Murakami added.

Mochizuki remembers one colleague taking her period leave once. “I thought, ‘Why?’ and, ‘How can you do that, how can you tell your boss?’” Instead, she thinks more general sick leave would work better than menstruation leave for helping women with particularly difficult periods.

On top of that, periods remain a sensitive subject. When women buy tampons from the store, for example, the clerk puts them in brown paper bags, as if they are something that need to be hidden, said Murakami.

“If you tell people you’re taking leave because of your period, that will be seen as you’re not as good as men,” she said.

The case for period leave

In other parts of Asia, companies aren’t just using period leave to support their workers — they’re also making a political statement.

Indian food delivery company Zomato, for example, said when it rolled out its policy in August that it wanted to change perceptions in India where periods are shrouded in shame.

“At Zomato, we want to foster a culture of trust, truth and acceptance,” founder and CEO Deepinder Goyal told staff in an email, which was released publicly. “There shouldn’t be any shame or stigma attached to applying for a period leave. You should feel free to tell people on internal groups, or emails that you are on your period leave for the day.”