In the past few months, hardly a day hasgone by without a news story popping up on Japan’s tabloid TV shows replaying Diet member Mayuko Toyota’s now infamous rant.

Toyota was taped heaping verbal abuse on her male secretary over mistakes he made. She can be heard yelling “kono hage!” (“you baldy!”) and cracking a sick joke about the hypothetical murder of his daughter.

The incident, Diet secretaries and health experts say, is only the tip of the iceberg and points to a larger issue surrounding the high-stress work environment of these aides. Enduring conditions that are at times likened to slavery, they’re often powerless against exploitation by the lawmakers they serve.

Here’s an inside look into the lives of Diet secretaries and what they do behind closed doors.

How does the system work?

Diet secretaries are divided broadly into two categories: kōsetsu (public) and shisetsu (private).

Most lawmakers have at least three public secretaries, plus an unspecified number of private secretaries.

The most well-paid among the three positions is the seisaku hisho (policy assistant), whose primary job is to help their boss formulate policy. Aspiring policy assistants either need to pass an annual qualification exam in July or get special approval from a screening committee set up under both chambers of the Diet.

The remaining two public secretaries are simply known as daiichi (No. 1) and daini (No. 2), and lawmakers can appoint any Japanese national, except for their spouses, under the age of 65 to these two positions, according to the Lower House.

Although they are technically considered public servants, all three types of secretaries work in the capacity of “special service,” which exempts them from the protections of the National Public Service Act.

Their salaries come from state coffers and range from ¥268,000 to ¥533,200 per month depending on their rank, which is largely based on length of service in the position held and age, according to the law.

Private secretaries are hand-picked and paid directly by lawmakers, with no qualification or registration necessary. Their unofficial status, however, means their compensation tends to be lower than their public counterparts.

What do the aides do?

The Diet law only defines the function of public secretaries as “helping lawmakers accomplish their duties” — a vague description that critics say leaves these various duties and responsibilities open to the whims of their superiors.

Even policy assistants can sometimes find themselves consigned to a hodgepodge of odd jobs, if their bosses so choose. The assistants also have no fixed shift.

It is little wonder that Diet secretaries can have a difficult life.

Shima Kamizawa, who has served as a policy assistant for about 10 different lawmakers in the course of more than 20 years, recently published a tell-all book titled “Kokkai Joshi no Sontaku Nikki,” which translates roughly to “a Diet girl’s diary on how to read the boss’s mind.”

As Kamizawa writes, the long list of responsibilities as Diet secretary includes managing schedules, driving the boss from place to place, sitting in as a substitute at meetings, campaigning for the boss’s re-election, running errands, fixing breakfast, dealing with petitions from constituents, answering phones at the office, greeting guests and sorting letters.

What are the pitfalls of being a Diet secretary?

One of the profession’s biggest pitfalls is insecurity.

Diet secretaries lose their jobs if their bosses leave the Diet. The dissolution of the Lower House last week meant the secretaries found themselves temporarily unemployed along with the lawmakers. If the bosses are re-elected in the Oct. 22 poll, the aides will be reinstated and given a paycheck retroactively.

“So imagine our devastation if, after weeks of campaigning tirelessly for our bosses 24/7, they aren’t re-elected. If that’s the case, we won’t get paid for all the long hours we spent campaigning, unless we are hired by someone else,” Kamizawa said in a recent interview with The Japan Times. She declined to give her real name for fear of losing her job.

Although eligible for housing and transportation allowances, secretaries don’t get overtime pay for working on weekends, according to the Lower House.

It can also be a hostile work environment for women, Kamizawa said.

Many still cleave to the sexist stereotype that female secretaries cannot be trusted to represent their bosses, and that women should be relegated to demeaning tasks such as pouring drinks at parties and setting out ashtrays, she said.

“It’s only after women reach a certain age and became fully integrated with the male-dominated community that they are treated as equals. I can’t imagine younger female secretaries acting as proxies for lawmakers at a gathering of the LDP, for example,” she said.

How stressful can the job be?

Diet secretaries are by far the most susceptible to work-related stress among all professions, according to a recent survey jointly conducted by Ayano Funaki, vice president of Tokyo-based firm Mental Think Tank, and Katsuyoshi Mizukami, a professor at the graduate school of comprehensive human sciences at the University of Tsukuba.

In the survey, Funaki contacted over 500 secretaries — both public and private — and sent them copies of a mandatory “stress check” questionnaire provided by the health ministry. Of them, 144 mailed back responses.

The results were stunning. Twenty-three percent were recognized as “highly prone” to stress, far exceeding the levels logged by the most stressful professions — including farmers and fishermen (15.8 percent), and restaurant and inn operators (15.1 percent) — as shown in fiscal 2015 data compiled by the National Federation of Industrial Health Organization.

Funaki said the 23 percent figure is “extremely high,” adding that her survey, which also involved face-to-face interviews, found factors such as professional relationships and overwork chiefly responsible for the respondents’ distress and workplace anxiety.

Kamizawa said that in the past the mental pressure had become so extreme that it once caused sudden deafness and she had to be hospitalized due to stress-induced convulsions.

“It almost felt like working as a slave,” she recalled.

Is Toyota’s abuse of her secretary an isolated case?

Former and current Diet secretaries interviewed for this article said cases of verbal and physical abuse similar to Toyota’s example are fairly common. Lawmakers have discretionary power to fire their secretaries, so their aides are often afraid of speaking out against any maltreatment.

But Yuji Okada, a veteran policy assistant for an LDP lawmaker, said the Toyota saga could be a potential game-changer in terms of the work relationships between secretaries and lawmakers.

“There has long been this tacit understanding that secretaries would never go public, and they will carry their secrets to the grave,” Okada said.

“But Toyota’s case suggests that there is only so much beating and trampling secretaries can endure, and that they could indeed turn against their bosses and hit back. … I’m sure many lawmakers feel scared this might happen to them,” he said.

Paul Nadeau, a private secretary for LDP lawmaker Tsuyoshi Hoshino, said that the strained relationship between politicians and secretaries is not a phenomenon unique to Japan.

Nadeau, who previously served as a legislative staffer at the U.S. Senate, said he personally knows of assistants who “have had staplers thrown at them” in the U.S., not to mention cases of sexual harassment toward female staff.

“The idea that a member would have to resign for yelling at her secretary would be unheard of on Capitol Hill. It wouldn’t even play as a story in the press because it’s so common and everyone knows it happens,” Nadeau said, adding the health of relationships “depends almost entirely on the individual member.”

What can be done to prevent future incidents of abuse?

One solution, Okada suggested, would be to set up a counseling system in the upper and lower chambers of the Diet that would allow secretaries to complain of mistreatment or dysfunction.

He also advocates a drastic change in the recruitment system, arguing secretaries should be hired by either chamber of the Diet, not the lawmakers themselves.

Under such a system, registered secretaries could be dispatched to lawmakers’ offices and allowed to return to the Diet chambers should they face dismissal from politicians.

This will help address the issue of secretaries fearing for their jobs the instant they are fired by lawmakers, and hopefully go a long way toward their empowerment, Okada said.

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