Work-life balance? Not in politics

by Ayako Mie

Staff Writer

Tamayo Marukawa, 42, seems to have it all. A University of Tokyo graduate, she scored one of the most coveted jobs in Japan as an announcer at TV Asahi. A popular presence there for 14 years, she left for a seat in the Upper House six years ago as a member of the Liberal Democratic Party.

Behind the career success, however, something is missing: a healthy work-life balance. As a parliamentary secretary at the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, which ironically promotes a stable work-life balance, she barely has time to spend with her 1-year-old son, Harumasa.

“There is no environment in Japanese politics where politicians can have a work-life balance,” said Marukawa, who occasionally has to attend question-and-answer sessions at the Diet from 6:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.

“Having a work-life balance does not necessarily encourage voters to evaluate politicians favorably,” she said.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has promised that the nation will do more to harness the power of female workers by increasing the number of women in management positions to 30 percent by 2020. Yet it is in the political arena where diversity is lacking. Politics at the national level is not an environment for lawmakers with young children, such as Marukawa.

According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, a group comprised of the legislatures of 162 countries, Japan currently ranks 161st out of 189 in the ratio of female lawmakers. After the Lower House election last year, which the LDP won by a landslide, the ratio of women in the Lower House dropped to 8.1 percent, down from 11.9 percent after the election in 2009.

The countries with the most women in politics have set quotas.

For example, Sweden and Norway, where women account for at least 40 percent of politicians, introduced quota systems decades ago. Seven of the nine countries whose ranking has dropped since last year, including Japan, lack such a system.

The LDP, a male-dominated party, is having a hard time tapping female candidates. Only nine of the party’s 78 candidates in the upcoming Upper House election are women, and only two of them are newcomers.

In a bid to demonstrate the LDP’s commitment to raising the profile of women in politics, Abe appointed Sanae Takaichi as the party’s policy chief, the first woman ever to hold the job. He also named Seiko Noda, 52, as chairwoman of the LDP General Council. Two years ago Noda gave birth to boy conceived from a donor egg.

Women with toddlers have served as ministers in the past. And Yuko Obuchi, 39, daughter of the late Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, became pregnant with her second son after being appointed state minister for social affairs and gender equality in the 2008 Cabinet of Prime Minister Taro Aso. She was the first minister ever to become pregnant while serving.

But these rare cases point to the difficulty of serving as a lawmaker while also being a wife and mother.

Makiko Otsuka, a work-balance consultant, says both the voters and the political system have to change to bring greater gender, age and professional diversity to politics.

“The voters should stop expecting politicians or the public servants to completely sacrifice their lives for the country, as it is important for them to have a work-life balance to understand the real public needs,” said Otsuka, whose company, Work Life Balance Co., gave a presentation on the topic to the Lower House Budget Committee in March.

“At the same time, politics should introduce a system where results and efficiency should be evaluated rather than actual working hours,” said Otsuka, referring to Diet sessions or party meetings that take place early in the morning or late at night, the most inconvenient times for working mothers.

Marukawa has an added hurdle: Her husband, Taku Otsuka, 40, is an equally busy LDP Lower House lawmaker. They are currently the only lawmakers who are both a couple and raising a toddler.

The couple employ a baby sitter to take their son to day care in the morning and bring him home at night. Both Marukawa and Otsuka say it is especially hard when their son falls ill because sick children are barred from day care.

Leaving a fundraising party or meeting early to tend to a sick child is a no-no for both male and female lawmakers. Consequently, special arrangements have to be made with a baby sitter.

“The current day care system works for parents who have regular jobs with somewhat fixed schedules,” said Marukawa. “But as a politician, it is impossible to predict our schedule, and it is very hard to arrange baby sitters when things erupt so suddenly.”

Abe has said that the government will extend nursery leave from the current 18 months to three years to help keep mothers in the workforce. Yet female politicians will fall outside this law. There is no guarantee of maternity or nursery leave for lawmakers in the Diet.

The Upper House has revised its rules to allow lawmakers to be absent when giving birth. The revision was made right before Seiko Hashimoto of the LDP, a bronze medalist in skating at the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France, became the first Upper House lawmaker to give birth in 2000.

She faced criticism from some for setting a bad example for working mothers by returning to the job just a week after giving birth. According to labor laws, expectant mothers must leave work six weeks before their due date and rest for eight weeks after giving birth.

Marukawa returned to work three months after she had her son. She said that although other female lawmakers had encouraged her to take maternity leave for at least three months, it was difficult for her to do so.

“We are elected officials, and it is hard to miss our work due to personal reasons,” Marukawa said.

The situation is much more difficult for Lower House lawmakers like Marukawa’s husband, Otsuka. Despite having four-year terms, Lower House lawmakers are at the mercy of sudden Diet dissolutions by the prime minister. Upper House lawmakers have fixed six-year terms.

“I would not recommend to any woman who is raising a child to run for a Diet seat, unless she is strongly determined to do so,” Taku Otsuka said.

Even male lawmakers are pressed by the demands of child-rearing. Their schedules are packed with meetings, ceremonies and drinking parties to woo voters, even on weekends.

“When I encouraged young male lawmakers to spend more time with their children, one of them said he would do it if that would help him win re-election,” said Marukawa.

While acknowledging that Japan needs more female politicians like her and the situation is slowing changing for the better, Marukawa said the parties need a better system to support female candidates.

“Japanese politics already sets such a high hurdle for women. The political parties should have a stronger system to support both male and female professional candidates who have no experience in the political sphere,” she said. “But at the same time, it is my job to create an environment where women can enjoy both their career and the time to raise their children.”

  • Redlotusglenn

    (From the article: Even male lawmakers are pressed by the demands of child-rearing.
    Their schedules are packed with meetings, ceremonies and drinking
    parties to woo voters, even on weekends.

    “When I encouraged young male lawmakers to spend more time with their
    children, one of them said he would do it if that would help him win
    re-election,” said Tamayo Marukawa.)

    It’s quite depressing when a country’s lawmakers are chosen for their ability to slug back drink and make endless social calls rather than their ability to look after their own families.

  • http://getironic.blogspot.com/ getironic

    What’s this? The Japan Times publishing another article about “work-life balance” that has zero focus on volition, and total focus on victimhood? I’m blown away!

    These women knew what they were getting into before they had children. No one pointed a gun to their head and said, “Go join the world of politics! (or whatever).”.

    You know what the demands of your current occupation are. The balance you desire is a simple life choice away: quit and do something less demanding. It’s the independent and responsible thing to do.The dependent, irresponsible, and childish thing to do is complain with the expectation that other people be forced to subsidize your attempt to have your cake and eat it too.

    • Itsrealfunnythat

      First off its not just a “womans” problem. The population of Japan is aging and the birth rate is declining, this is a Japan problem.

      Second other countries dont have as high demand, and there has to be a problem with a job that encompasses your entire being at the expense of everything else.Telling women to quit will only lead to an lower percentage of women working in the field.

      • http://getironic.blogspot.com/ getironic

        What’s the problem with that?

        Also, if we accept it as one, when would it no longer be a problem? If relatively more women (or men) working in all fields is a necessarily good thing, then how many or what ratio are we talking about exactly?

        10:1, 5:1, 3:1, 1:1? What is the goal? Why can’t it be defined? Are you willing to force a woman to become a street-sweeper (or CEO) just because other occupations have reached their “gender quota”?

      • Itsrealfunnythat

        Clearly the ration for the public office should be 50/50 a ratio no country has yet to meet. Saying there should be a gender quota is an understatement when you consider the fact that there are only 9 women compared to 70. Or are you one of those insightful males that think women should stay in the kitchen? Maybe you belong in Japan.

      • http://getironic.blogspot.com/ getironic

        If that’s where she wants to be, and if she can find a man who is willing to be her economic slave to support her endeavor.

        You know, you make it sound like such a bad thing too, being in the kitchen. Any achievement-oriented woman interested in having a supporting house-husband, please contact me! You can be the breadwinner and I will take on the kitchen any time! You want to reverse roles? Sounds good to me!

        “…the public office should be 50/50 a ratio…*

        Again…what are you saying? That if women don’t want to participate at that level of politics, it is up to everyone else to make it cushy enough so that they will?

        And then when they still won’t, what will you do? Put a gun to their heads and tell them they must serve? Put a gun to the heads of voters and tell them they better for this “minority” candidate? Nice democracy.

        The reality is that women tend to value flexibility and men tend to forgo flexibility and seek further achievement. So, choices of occupation reflect that. Why is that so hard to understand? No one is “doing something” to anyone. People are just making choices:
        There is no law forbidding men from valuing flexibility more and making different choices, just as there is no law forbidding women from forgoing flexibility and pursuing careers that require a laser-beam-like focus.

        The culture is just doing what the culture does, and it will change when individuals decide they want to. All the state is required to do is ensure equality before the law. Anything else is facism under the guise of *insert social goal that makes me feel better here*.

      • Itsrealfunnythat

        I think its astounding how much youre missing the point… Theres nothing wrong with a woman wanting to be a home maker, but if women make up 50% of the population they should have 50% of a say in how the world is run. You are saying all this assuming women really have a choice in the matter, and disregarding the expectations put on Japanese women.

      • http://getironic.blogspot.com/ getironic

        This is vague. 50% of a say in what?

        When someone can go to the bathroom?
        Whether or not they own what they earned?

        Those things are part of the world.

        What if someone doesn’t want to be politicians at that rate? Are you going to force them to be? What if they have demonstrated that they don’t want even 50% of a say, even when they are more than 50% of the population?

        At the end of the day, you have to drop they “they”‘s: You are operating on the premise that just because institution A (government) is made up of mostly members of one particular group, that those members will consistently act to promote their group’s welfare to the detriment of other groups. This is called the frontman fallacy. If your premise were true, Japan never would have gotten past feudalism.

        I don’t have 50% of a say in how the world is run, and I don’t identify as male or female in any important political sense, I identify as an individual. So where does that leave the non-bigots, non-racists — the non-collectivists? Who is going to represent them, and individual rights?

        Politics is only a war among pressure-groups battling over “group rights” if you let it be. It stops when you stop categorizing and polarizing people into groups, and instead start viewing them as individuals, equal before the law, and with full autonomy to make their own choices, including the choice to get involved in politics, or not. And when those choices yield inequalities in whatever way, shape, or form, they are chosen inequalities, to which anyone’s endeavor to “correct” or shape by way of law to their desired view of “justice/equality/insert catchword here” constitutes the equivalent of that person pointing a gun at someone else’s temple.

      • Itsrealfunnythat

        I cant fix your level of ignorance. You dont seem to understand the glass ceiling effect, its as though you think women prefer working in the kitchen and the mean man hating feminists are trying to pull them into positions they dont want. I feel bad for you.

  • Starviking

    Here’s a simple solution for politicians – don’t turn up for Q-and-A sessions that would leave you missing important time with your children. If old fogeys berate you for that, remind them that they were at the helm for the past 50-odd years and that they are responsible for the mess Japan is in, AKA “shut up!”