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In Japan, baby-at-work fuss highlights deeper issue: few women in politics

A city council's reprimand to a member for bringing her baby to work has heightened awareness of working moms' challenges in Japan. Better daycare would help – but deeper attitude shifts require more women in government, advocates say.

The Asahi Shimbun/Getty Images
Yoshitomo Sawada (third from left), chairman of the Kumamoto municipal assembly, and others consult with assembly member Yuka Ogata about the presence of her infant son in the chamber in November 2017 in Kumamoto, Japan. Ms. Ogata was asked to remove the child from the chamber and returned to the session alone after leaving him with a friend.

When Yuka Ogata walked into work last November with her 7-month-old in her arms, she wanted to highlight the challenges working women face in Japan – child-care access, in particular.

In a way, she succeeded all too well: The municipal assembly, of which she is a member, kicked them out of the meeting and later gave her a written reprimand, setting off a media firestorm that reached far beyond Japan.

The news about Ms. Ogata and the male-dominated assembly in Kumamoto, a southwestern city of 740,000, made headlines from Washington to Bolivia. Her ejection generated mixed reactions at home, from criticism for disrupting the assembly, to a hashtag of support: translated as “It’s OK to bring your child to meetings.”

The conversation has drawn attention to barriers for working mothers, in a country where their full-time, full-benefits employment is more of an exception than the norm. More quietly, however, it has raised a related dilemma: low female representation in politics. A government with more women’s voices, advocates say, is one that will better address “women’s issues” like childcare – and change the idea that they’re specifically “women’s issues,” at all.

It’s a topic one might expect to be at the top of officials’ priorities, several years into Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s drive for “womenomics” – employment policies meant to better utilize half of Japan’s working-age population, as the aging country’s birth rate shrinks to an unprecedented low. The campaign has vowed to boost more women into leadership across the board. But that effort seems sorely lacking in politics, some advocates say – stalling progress on topics from early-childhood education to work-life balance that affect society as a whole.

“I have listened to the voices of many working mothers struggling to raise children,” says Ogata, who previously earned a master’s degree in conflict resolution from George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., and worked at the UN Development Program’s Yemen office. Now, she says, it’s her job to bring those voices into policymaking.

Women in the house

Ogata didn’t expect that the council would kick her and her son out of the meeting, citing rules that do not allow non-members – in this case, the infant – to enter during a session. Not that she had examples to go by: She was the first sitting council member to give birth in Kumamoto’s history, and one of only six women in the 48-member assembly. Japan ranks 157th in the world for women’s representation in legislatures, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union. (The United States, for comparison, places 99th.) Female lawmakers account for only 10.1 percent of the country’s powerful lower house.

The figure is far from Mr. Abe’s target for Japan as a whole: to boost the share of women in leadership positions to at least 30 percent by 2020. In 2015, however, the government set a series of modified targets: a five-year plan to boost women to 7 percent of public service posts, and 15 percent of local government and private positions.

One consequence of having few women leaders, advocates say, is the lack of attention to child care. More than 26,000 children are on waiting lists for nurseries, and some analysts argue the actual figure is much higher, including children whose mothers have given up looking for full-time work. It’s the kind of issue that would be prioritized if more politicians were female, they argue – a move that would have widespread economic benefit.

During her pregnancy, Ogata asked the assembly office to provide on-site daycare for children of councilors, staff, and visitors. But she was told it was an “individual matter,” she says.

Since being elected in 2015, “I have run up against attitudes that won’t change existing situations, while the issues of child abuse and declining birthrate have become more serious than ever,” she says. In 2016, the number of newborns fell below 1 million – the first time since the government began those records in 1899, according to the Health Ministry.

Like Ogata, Ayumi Miyazato is a city council member in southern Japan – and a new mother. Unlike Ogata, however, she was able to take her 3-month-old baby to the assembly this fall, which provided space for childcare during meetings.

Yoshinori Higa, the head of the assembly’s administrative staff in Ms. Miyazato’s town of Chatan, on the island of Okinawa, says the move did not surprise him because it is a close-knit community of about 29,000. Child-rearing is often viewed as a community responsibility, rather than an individual one, but less so in “rigid” institutions like assemblies, according to Nozomi Odagawa, the leader of a Kumamoto civic group that is pushing for reform.

Miyazato, who became the council’s first member to take maternity leave, says she can now better advocate for policies on such issues as childcare and family support. And Chatan’s assembly office and other councilors have provided a lot of support ever since she shared that she was pregnant, she says, noting that first-hand parenting experience benefits men, too.

“Male councilors tend to prioritize things like development and road work,” she says. Chatan’s assembly allows paternity leave, she notes, and “men’s active involvement in child-rearing makes them carry out more in-depth discussions on childcare issues.”

Calls for deeper change

To boost women’s representation in government, however, some argue legislative reform is needed – including Miyuki Yusa, an assembly member in Japan’s northern Miyagi Prefecture.

Ogata’s episode reminds Ms. Yusa, who was first elected in 1995, of her own experience about 20 years ago, when she tried to bring her baby into the chamber. The request was flatly rejected.

“I was told there was no such system,” recalls Yusa, a former reporter for national public broadcaster NHK. Since there was no maternity leave, the reason for her absence was then defined as an “accident,” she says.

Considering how little progress there has been on women’s representation, “we certainly need a quota system to change what legislature looks like,” says Mieko Takenobu, a sociology professor at Wako University in Tokyo. “If you go to an international conference, you can see a very different look from what Japanese people are used to.”

In Japan, “it is taken for granted that men dominate politics, thus people tend to look for political candidates among men,” says the professor, referencing the so-called critical mass threshold of 30 percent female representation – the point at which women tend to bring about significant policy changes.

Yusuke Kuroki, an official at the gender equality bureau within Japan’s Cabinet Office, says the government has yet to hold concrete discussions on a quota system. He says that raising the number of female lawmakers through party support is a “top priority issue,” however, although critics say effective measures have not been introduced. The national government also stresses that more women have been appointed to its advisory panels in recent years.

That’s not enough, Ms. Takenobu argues. And having more women lawmakers in Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party would help the premier formulate his signature “womenomics” measures more effectively, she says.

Ms. Odagawa says Japanese politics need more fundamental changes to encourage more women to run for office, however. Japanese people are good listeners, but many “are not good at exchanging opinions,” she adds, urging more opportunities to “let dialogue play a more important role.”

Her group is aiming for grassroots change. In early January, they called on the Kumamoto city assembly to create a more flexible, inclusive working environment to support councilors from diverse backgrounds: encompassing disabilities, sexual orientation, parenthood, and people caring for elderly parents. 

“We need diverse representations in a decision-making body,” Ogata stresses, “and I believe that will benefit society as a whole.”

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the number of council members in the Kumamoto municipal assembly. 

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