When a municipal lawmaker, Yuka Ogata, brought her 7-month-old baby to her job in a male-dominated legislature, she was met with such surprise and consternation by her male colleagues that eventually, she and the baby were asked to leave. Officials of the Kumamoto Municipal Assembly, of which she's a member, said although there's no rule prohibiting infants, they booted her citing a rule that visitors are forbidden from the floor.
It's a far different response by a legislative body than in Australia, where Sen. Larissa Waters was able to breast-feed her baby on the floor of Parliament.
Ogata, who was able to return to the session alone, expected this kind of response in rules-bound Japan. The plenary session was her first after giving birth to her son, who stayed quiet during his time on the floor with his mom. She said she wanted to highlight the plight of working moms in her country, which ranks near the bottom on scores for gender equality — especially in politics and business. Women are still largely expected to give up work after having children, and face chronic shortages of child care. And, as the Economist notes, there are additional challenges:
"Women cite factors pushing them out of the workplace, such as mata hara, harassment for getting pregnant or taking maternity leave. Women are disproportionately in part-time or casual work (see chart)—with worse pay, worse benefits and worse career prospects. They earn 74% of the median male wage on average, compared with 81% in America.
"The disparity is especially stark at the highest ranks. Only two of Japan's 20 cabinet ministers are women. A woman cannot head the imperial family. No company on the Nikkei index has a female boss, an even poorer showing than the paltry seven on Britain's FTSE 100."
Japanese women are working in bigger numbers these days — an estimated 68 percent of those ages 15 to 64 are employed or looking. And Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has pledged to boost women's economic opportunities in order to revive the slumping economy. But changing cultural mores about working moms is a far more difficult challenge.
Freelance journalist Nathalie-Kyoko Stucky says Japanese society still expects men to work and women to give up working when they have children. Women who do not give up working have a difficult time of it — a condition Yuka Ogata wanted to emphasize on her first day back on the job since having her baby.
"It was very hard for woman at work to find day care or nannies," Stucky says. "I myself sometimes had to attend meetings and interviews with my baby. The reaction of people, even in the Metro, when you take a baby in the stroller and you look like a working woman, it is like I am doing something offensive."
NPR producer Melissa Gray contributed to this post.
ELISE HU, HOST:
A Japanese lawmaker did something shocking earlier this week. She brought her baby to work. Yuka Ogata took her seat in the front row of the Kumamoto Municipal Assembly and held her 7-month-old in her lap. The baby quietly sucked his thumb. He seemed content. And the male politicians seated in the chamber around him, they looked pained. They stared at him and his mother, murmuring to each other with furrowed brows. Then four of them confronted the assemblywoman at her desk.
NATHALIE-KYOKO STUCKY: The action of Ogata is very unusual and maybe provocative. She did it because she had no other choice.
HU: That's Nathalie-Kyoko Stucky, a freelance journalist in Tokyo. She talked to us about this via Skype while holding her 6-month-old daughter.
STUCKY: So according to the rules, as Japanese people like to follow the rules, a baby is considered as a guest.
HU: A guest. Guests are barred from sitting with or on lawmakers at their desks in the chamber.
STUCKY: So they asked the mother to bring the child in another section of the assembly, where she had to leave her baby there.
HU: Was there somebody to care for the baby?
STUCKY: Usually, there's - we never leave a baby by itself. It's something that Ogata said was inappropriate.
HU: Yuka Ogata eventually got a friend to watch her baby. There actually is no rule against lawmakers being accompanied by a young child in the chamber. It was Ogata's colleagues who instead insisted that her baby was a guest. The majority of them were men.
STUCKY: I was absolutely not surprised.
HU: Nathalie-Kyoko Stucky says Japanese society still expects men to work and women to give up working when they have children. Women who don't have a difficult time of it, a condition Yuka Ogata wanted to emphasize on her first day back on the job since having her baby.
STUCKY: It is very hard for women at work to find day care or nannies. And I, myself sometimes had to attend meetings and interviews with my baby. And the reaction of people even in the metro when you take a baby in a stroller, you look like you're working women, it is like I am doing something offensive. The eyes of the people around is very difficult to bear.
HU: More Japanese women are working these days, and the country's prime minister has pledged to boost opportunities for women as a way to help Japan's slumping economy. Changing attitudes about working mothers may be a harder task, but it's one that Assemblywoman Ogata says she's determined to take on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.