National / Media | MEDIA MIX

Japan's female politicians showing the way forward on maternity harassment

by Philip Brasor

Special To The Japan Times

Since July 12, when Lower House lawmaker Takako Suzuki announced she was pregnant with her first child, the news media has been full of stories about “maternity harassment.”

Suzuki’s announcement was met with negative comments posted to her blog. Some people believe she cannot be an effective public servant while she is expecting — her doctor has prescribed bed rest due to the risk of premature birth — and further imply that she will be distracted by the business of motherhood once the baby arrives.

Suzuki, an independent from Hokkaido, has rejected the criticism, saying that although she might limit her activities before the baby is due in September, she was not going to abandon her responsibilities. In an Aug. 2 article, Tokyo Shimbun said that Suzuki’s reaction was encouraging, since it showed she wouldn’t be intimidated.

It should be noted that Suzuki is the daughter of Muneo Suzuki, perhaps the most powerful politician in Hokkaido. Due to his 2004 conviction for accepting bribes, a charge he maintains was false, he has been banned from seeking public office, and it’s generally assumed that his daughter is his proxy in the government. Muneo is still popular in Hokkaido, so it isn’t likely that Suzuki’s matahara — the portmanteau of maternity harassment — will have an adverse effect on her chances for re-election in the future.

A more instructive story regarding female politicians was that of the two pregnant women elected to the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly last spring, although their victories have been attributed to their allegiance to popular Gov. Yuriko Koike’s Tomin First (Tokyoites First) party. The fact that they were pregnant made it even more important, though they, too, were the targets of internet trolls.

Ayumi Saigo, a former Chuo Ward assemblywoman, and Nami Goto, who has never held office before, say their agenda will be centered on “improving the environment” for working mothers, particularly in the Tokyo assembly itself, which has no rules regarding pregnancies or parental leave. According to Tokyo Shimbun, Tomin First actively recruited Saigo, saying they wanted more women in the prefectural government and were delighted that she is expecting, since it would draw attention to the situations of working mothers and help “normalize” them in the public’s imagination. Goto, on the other hand, wasn’t aware she was pregnant until after she responded to a public solicitation by Tomin First for candidates.

Legally, Tokyo assemblypersons are considered “special position” civil servants, meaning they are not entitled to the same kind of maternity leave given to full-time bureaucrats — 14 weeks paid leave prior to birth and up to 18 months afterward. Tokyo Shimbun reports, however, that there is an informal agreement that allows female members to skip sessions if they are having a baby.

Nevertheless, the two women said that, while there are ways to receive paid leave for pregnancy and childbirth — employment insurance (koyō hoken) provides compensation for regular employees who take time off to have children, and regular sick leave is available to assemblypersons — they would “feel bad” about doing so. Online trolls are accusing them of “stealing public money,” and though both refuse to quit, neither has said how much time they will take off to have their babies.

Tokyo Shimbun says that regardless of the law, public attitudes need to change, implying that they haven’t since 2008, when Reiko Matsushita took a few days off to have a baby and, after returning to the Tokyo Assembly, was met with “pity” for her child, who, according to critics, wasn’t going to receive Matsushita’s full attention. Even when a female politician clearly fulfills her duties and raises her children responsibly, she gets grief. Megumi Kaneko, a Diet lawmaker from Niigata, was condemned for using an official vehicle to drop her son off at day care.

Matahara is supposedly less of a problem in the private sector, but attitudes remain a roadblock, even in corporate Japan. Almost every outlet has quoted the statistic that says 100 percent of the women who take maternity leave at retail giant Aeon return to their jobs afterward, but what about those women who quit when they discover they are pregnant? In the general workforce, a majority do so.

If these employees were factored in, the return rate for Aeon female employees would surely be lower. In recent years, even a company like Japan Airlines, once considered at the vanguard in hiring and promoting women in Japan, has been hit with a matahara lawsuit.

Some have said the problem has more to do with Japan’s work culture than with lingering sexism. In a discussion last year on the Nippon TV morning show “Sukkiri” (which itself was once involved in a matahara controversy), a representative of the anti-harassment group Matahara Net said that women who take time off to have children receive more resentment from female colleagues than they do from male supervisors because those colleagues will have to do her work while she’s away.

Despite government efforts to change this culture, Japanese workers who take vacations or don’t work overtime are considered shirkers. An Aug. 17 article in Tokyo Shimbun reported how a female sales representative for household products company Lion put together a team of three novice sales reps after she returned from maternity leave. They maintain her network of contacts when she has family responsibilities and are gaining valuable experience in the process. The point being: Each employer needs to come up with its own solution.

But maybe the most effective way of changing attitudes would be to show pregnant women on the job, which is where the media can make a difference. In other countries, on-air talent appear in front of the camera right up until their delivery date, and while some viewers may be put off by it, in general it’s accepted and even welcome. In Japan, it would be good to see more announcers continue working after they start showing.