Earlier this month, I decided to take my 7-month-old baby into the chamber of the Kumamoto municipal assembly because I believed it was the only way I could overcome the huge obstacles that had been placed in front of me as a working mother.
I saw it as my best chance to move forward with the policies I have devoted myself to ever since I became a councillor in my home city: to improve childcare provision and make Japan’s working environment more family friendly.
But almost none of the proposals I have made since I was elected two years ago have been accepted by the city.
After I discovered I was pregnant, I asked the assembly to support me so that I could look after my infant son and continue my job as a councillor. I asked for permission to breastfeed him in the chamber, or for daycare to be provided in the assembly building for the children of councillors, assembly staff and visitors.
But my proposals were turned down. Instead, I was told to resolve those issues myself. Once again, I came up against a mindset that supports the status quo and makes bringing up children in Japan very difficult.
People overseas may find it hard to appreciate just how severe the situation is in Japan.
The shortage of childcare facilities forces many women to give up work. Even parents who manage to find a place for their child have to deal with lots of rules and regulations. For example, they have to write their child’s name on every single item of clothing, including nappies, and provide proof from a doctor that they have recovered from a cold or other communicable illness. When our children get sick – as they often do – it is very difficult to take time off work to look after them.
As a last resort, parents take their children to work, where they encounter negative remarks from their colleagues and bosses. When they become pregnant, many women are pressured into quitting their jobs, or are harassed by colleagues who have to take on their workload while they are on maternity leave.
But this isn’t a women’s problem – it is a management issue. In general, Japanese companies think balancing work and bringing up children are the sole responsibility of the parents. Very few workplaces have measures to help parents balance work and family life.By sitting in the assembly chamber with my son on my lap, I wanted to represent all of the parents who are struggling to raise children in Japan. I hoped it would mean that their voices would no longer be ignored.
The assembly session held on the day of the incident was due to last only 15 minutes or so. My son is usually well behaved so I was confident we could sit through the session together without any problems.
I certainly wasn’t expecting the strong reaction I got from my colleagues and assembly staff. As soon as I took my seat in the chamber, staff from the secretariat rushed over to me, followed by the chairman. He told me: “Don’t do this. Please take your baby and leave the chamber immediately.”
I was surprised, but tried to hold my ground. I said: “I am a councillor with a baby, so I will stay here with him. Please go ahead and open the session.”
I thought it was wrong of them to attempt to eject an elected councillor who was only trying to represent other citizens in a similar position to mine.
My treatment that day proved that too many employers in Japan expect us to work and forget about other important parts of our lives, like raising children, caring for ageing parents or dealing with illness.
For many Japanese women the situation is even worse. They do short-term contract work that comes with lower salaries and fewer benefits than regular employees, most of whom are men.
It is time for the Japanese workplace to change to accommodate the needs of working parents, and that includes taking care of their families. I will continue to use my position to turn Japan into a country where people can enjoy a proper work-life balance.
Yuka Ogata is a member of the Kumamoto municipal assembly in south-western Japan