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Japanese female bureaucrats with children demand work-life balance

by Yumiko Doi

Kyodo

A group of female central government bureaucrats with children has called for an improvement in working conditions, including an end to notoriously long hours, to bring about a better work-life balance.

The move comes at a time when the administration led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe aims to help more women pursue careers and work outside the home, as a strategy to spur economic growth.

The midcareer female bureaucrats have decided to submit to the government a set of recommendations to change their working conditions, including abolishing unnecessary meetings and documents, while giving officials the option to telecommute.

Among the bureaucrats spearheading the initiative is Noriko Kawamura, 38, deputy director of the equal employment policy division at the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare.

Kawamura, working full time while raising two children under 6, explained that almost all officials at central government ministries and agencies are expected to work overtime and that they spend most of the hours on drafting Diet interpellation documents.

“We will be labeled as disqualified bureaucrats if we fail to respond to orders 24 hours a day,” she said.

In fiscal 2012, 25 percent of career-track bureaucrat recruits were women, three times the level of 20 years ago, according to data by the National Personnel Authority, which manages personnel affairs at government offices.

But most of these women are apparently struggling to balance their career and family responsibilities.

A team led by Kawamura in April surveyed 123 women with a 10- to 20-year career at government ministries and agencies, and found more than 30 percent of those whose youngest children were 4 or older worked 40 to 60 hours overtime a month, while another 30 percent worked more than 60 hours.

Among the reasons for overtime, the largest number of respondents said they had to prepare documents for ministers to answer questions during Diet sessions.

Lawmakers of all parties are supposed to notify bureaucrats of their questions at the Diet by noon two days before the session so the officials have sufficient time to prepare answers.

But most lawmakers fail to do so and rush to bring them on the evening of the previous day, according to Kawamura.

After reviewing questions submitted by lawmakers, officials assign each department and division to draft answers.

Since it usually takes eight to nine hours to complete them, many bureaucrats, both men and women, often end up staying up all night.

To improve the situation, the Liberal Democratic Party in April introduced an intraparty rule that obliges its members to bring their questions by 6 p.m. two days before, about a day earlier than the current practice.

Kawamura welcomed the change, but urged LDP members at the end of May to comply with the new rule.

“Some people may turn a stern eye to us, suggesting that public servants should serve long hours,” she said. “But I hope that we, who work under the administration, will be the touchstone (of a change in women’s working conditions in Japan).”