YOKOHAMA – Japanese mothers with little option except to bring their babies or toddlers with them when they visit the gallery sections at prefectural and municipal assemblies are in many instances being turned away.
About 40 percent of prefectural and municipal assemblies prohibit such mothers from attending even though many of the issues being debated by assembly members — such as education, pediatric care, or safety concerns about nuclear power — directly concern young families.
Women’s interest in politics is seen to be rising as a result of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s attempt to push controversial national security legislation through the Diet, with the package of bills recently sent to the Upper House.
“There has been an increase in the number of mothers who want to come and listen in the galleries since the debate started on the security legislation. But because of the rules, they are not permitted to attend with their children,” said one local assembly member from the Kanto region.
Although steps are being taken to re-evaluate the antiquated rules and make assembly sessions more accessible to mothers and their children, many obstacles remain.
Even in more advanced regions where special rooms for mothers and their children have been set up where they can watch proceedings without disturbing others, the number of attendees each year is still small because such facilities are not promoted.
The standard rules of the National Association of Chairpersons of Prefectural Assemblies, drawn up in 1959, state that toddlers and infants are barred from the gallery. Chairmen have the discretion to give permission for women with toddlers and infants to attend, but essentially they are treated like pariahs.
“Mothers with children cannot come inside,” a 32-year-old mother from the eastern part of Kochi Prefecture said she was told when she tried to bring her 10-month-old son into a city council plenary session three years ago.
In her case, she had no option but to bring her son with her as she had no one else to look after him.
“If you’re raising a child you want to hear about the policies that concern children. It’s outrageous they say we can’t even do that,” she said.
Momoko Konno, 32, a member of the municipal assembly in Toda, Saitama Prefecture, is reminded of her disappointment at having to turn away a mother and her child in June. The mother had contacted the office the day before a general assembly but was told the rules prohibited her from attending.
“It’s necessary and essential for mothers raising children in today’s generation to be able to witness and give their opinions in the local government assemblies,” Konno said.
She has worked hard to get the municipal chairman to revise the rules for attending assembly meetings and a change in the rules is currently under review.
Yuki Okada, a 31-year-old housewife from Otsu who sometimes brings her 3-year-old boy along with her to attend meetings of the Shiga Prefectural Assembly, said she was shocked to learn that such regulations against bringing children exist.
“It was really a surprise to hear they have a rule against bringing children,” Okada said.
The regulations in the Shiga assembly were abolished in 1999 and there are currently no restrictions.
Okada said she took an interest in environmental issues and the fight to break with nuclear power following the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant reactor meltdowns in 2011.
Last year she joined a discussion group of mothers that’s called The Cafe of Living and Politics.
“When you watch the assembly with your own eyes, you know when to laugh or jeer an assembly member who’s made some kind of statement. This doesn’t come across on the Internet or in a videotaping of the proceedings,” Okada said.
She said by attending assembly meetings she feels she can get involved in the process, for instance by collecting signatures to submit to local assembly members on particular issues.
The Tochigi Prefectural Assembly scrapped its regulation against prohibiting mothers from bringing children in 2007, and along with building a conference hall the same year it set up a mother-child room.
The room includes a baby bed and a curtain that can be drawn when mothers are breast-feeding. The proceedings in the assembly can be watched and heard through the glass.
Because the room is structured to keep sound from leaking out, mothers can watch the assembly without worrying about their children crying or getting cranky.
But the problem is that only a small number of mothers take advantage of the facility each year since they are unaware it exists.
“We sometimes hear ‘Oh, you have this room!’ We have to promote it much more,” said the person in charge of the Tochigi assembly office.