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.”