As Japanese Councilwoman Yuka Ogata returned to her first day back at work from her maternity leave, the 42-year-old politician calmly sat in her front row seat in the council chambers with her 7-month-old son in her arms. As seen in a video from the assembly session, the child silently watched the activity of the assembly as many of the men of the assembly looked on with expressions of concern and disgust. Just moments after sitting down, five councilmen, including Chairman Yoshitomo Sawada, approached Ogata regarding the presence of the baby in the room. By arguing that the assembly regulations forbid visitors and observers on the floor during meetings, Ogata was asked to accompany Sawada into his office to further discuss the matter. Forty minutes later, Sawada and Ogata returned to the assembly chambers while Ogata’s child remained with a friend.
Elected in April 2015, Ogata had already encountered similarly insulting treatment for being a working mother. Japanese assembly etiquette requires representatives to stand while asking questions, but Ogata created quite the fuss when she chose to remain seated while she spoke to the assembly at eight months pregnant. In addition, Ogata has asked for either aid in finding day-care facilities or permission to bring her son to the assembly. There was no support given for either option.
Women in the Japanese general workforce face a constant struggle to balance motherhood and a career after having children. Suffering from a nationwide shortage of public childcare facilities and outdated opinions of women in male-dominated work environments, 70% of Japanese women stop working for a decade or more after their first child, compared with just 30% in the United States.
Acknowledging the growing issue of Japan’s shrinking workforce and population, during his 2017 re-election campaign, Prime Minister Abe pledged to work towards improving employment opportunities for women. Unfortunately, Abe did not consider the difficulty of changing cultural and working norms in a country that values tradition and patriarchy.
Following the incident, Ogata stated that she wants to see “the assembly to be a place where women can actively participate.” She hopes that having women involved in decision-making will make it easier to raise a child and have a career in Japan.