On a sunny September day, a nurse held a 3-month-old baby while another fed a hungry 7-month-old. Outside, two boys played in a sandbox in a spacious yard, where in the summer a wading pool will be set up so the children can splash about.
Opened Sept. 1, Kid’s Square Nagatacho is just like any other day care center — except it is located in the newly constructed complex of politicians’ offices opposite the Diet building, the country’s political power center, in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo.
“There was demand from staffers in the Diet chambers and politicians,” said Hayato Shirasaki, secretary to Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker Hiroshi Hase, who advocated the center. “We can finally meet those needs.”
Shirasaki, who himself worked to create the center, said calls for the day care center rose after LDP lawmaker Seiko Hashimoto gave birth in April 2000, becoming the first serving Diet member in 51 years to bear a child.
Opening the day care center may ease some of the difficulties faced by working mothers, including busy female politicians, in the Nagata-cho political district, but it doesn’t solve all the problems.
Operating from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., it can accept up to 34 preschool children. Kids who live nearby can also use the service.
So far, seven children, including two sons of DPJ lawmaker Koki Kobayashi, have been signed up for the center, but slots are expected to be nearly full by November, said Hidemi Sakamoto of Alpha Corp., operator of Kid’s Square Nagatacho.
It will also accept children on a temporary basis for parents who are visiting lawmakers or who want to take a tour of the Diet. This service has yet to start because the center first wants to allow children who have full-time slots to settle in.
Demand for the temporary service also appears to be high.
“We have already received many inquiries about the temporary service,” Sakamoto said. “We plan to start accepting children on a temporary basis by the end of October.”
In addition to lunch and snacks, the center provides dinner for children if they are staying into the evening.
“Many of the parents have a busy full-time job, and from time to time they need to work overtime,” Sakamoto said, indicating that the center is trying to accommodate parents’ needs.
Because it is subsidized by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, it costs ¥80,000 a month per child under the age of 1 for five days a week and up to 11 hours a day. The price for children over 4 is ¥70,000. The fees are less costly than Kid’s Square’s other, nonsubsidized, day care centers.
However, there are some issues that day care centers alone can’t solve, especially when it comes to female politicians who hope to fulfill their duties as a legislator and as a mother.
LDP lawmaker Yuko Obuchi, 36, who last year became the first-ever Cabinet minister to give birth, recalled the time when she was suddenly summoned to the Diet to attend a late-night vote on a bill after her son had been put to bed.
Such late-night Diet sessions are held when the schedule for passing a bill is tight, and often end with the ruling party ramming through the legislation.
“I had to carry the sleeping baby to the Diet and ask my driver to hold him while I went inside to cast a vote,” laughed Obuchi. “Late-night voting increased after the Democratic Party of Japan became the ruling party.”
But what Obuchi found even tougher was being pregnant and fulfilling her duties as state minister in charge of policies on the declining birthrate for a year, until the DPJ knocked the LDP-led administration out of power in September 2009.
“Ministers have to attend budget committee sessions from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. for a week in both chambers when the budget is deliberated,” Obuchi said. “I was suffering from morning sickness and had to take a break every two hours.”
Obuchi continued to serve in her post until Social Democratic Party leader Mizuho Fukushima replaced her after the DPJ-led coalition came to power — two weeks before Obuchi gave birth to her son on Sept. 30.
The case of DPJ lawmaker Miho Takai, 38, was even more dramatic.
Takai, a native of Tokushima Prefecture and now a mother of two children, had to take leave more than a month before her due date after she was hospitalized in her hometown because of the risk of premature labor. Because of her condition, she ended up having a cesarean section.
“But the surgery was scheduled when tension was rising in the Diet over the postal privatization bill,” she said, referring to the events of 2005, when Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi attempted to pass the legislation despite strong opposition from within his own party.
After the bill was voted down in the Upper House in August 2005, Koizumi dissolved the Lower House for a snap election, fielding “assassin” candidates against LDP lawmakers who voted against the bill.
The vote in the Lower House took place about a week after Takai gave birth. She considered flying from Tokushima to cast a vote, but her doctor advised her against it. In the end, the bill was voted down 233 to 228.
Some of the voters in her district criticized her for not voting, saying she should not have become a politician if she wanted to give birth to a child.
Takai lost her seat in the subsequent Lower House election, along with fellow DPJ lawmakers amid a wave of popularity for Koizumi.
Given the experience, Takai is calling for the introduction of a proxy vote so that lawmakers can vote without being physically present in the Diet, especially when it has to do with giving birth.
Proxy votes have become the norm in Norway and Sweden, where about 40 percent or more of the politicians are women.
“There are times when lawmakers are unable (to attend a Diet session) to cast a vote due to labor and other reasons,” she said. “But there hasn’t been any discussion on the topic so far.”
But while there may still be a long way to go for female politicians to secure a better environment for balancing their work and child-rearing, most agree that establishing the day care center in Nagata-cho is a good step forward.
“It is a necessary first step,” Takai said.