Babies are always news, but an even more special baby than usual is expected in Japan in April. Its mother is a news-maker herself: Diet member and former Olympic speed skater and cyclist Ms. Seiko Hashimoto. Dubbed a “superwoman” of Japanese athletics, Ms. Hashimoto competed in seven consecutive Olympics Games, both winter and summer, and won a bronze medal for speed skating in 1992. Doubtless on the strength of her celebrity, she was elected to the Upper House as a member of the Liberal Democratic Party in July 1995.
A standout in two sports by virtue of her physical gifts, Ms. Hashimoto is a standout in the Diet merely by virtue of her gender. Fewer than 10 percent of the 752 seats in both Houses are held by women. The shortage of separate bathroom facilities for women in the male-dominated Parliament building is legendary — and a long-standing symbol of the sheer demographic lopsidedness of the legislature. Female Cabinet appointees are routinely acknowledged to be tokens, a cynical sop to women voters.
In a sense, Ms. Hashimoto is also a token, as much a product of the public’s fascination with celebrities as both the previous and current governors of Tokyo. Catapulted into politics by her athletic achievements, she has drawn criticism during her tenure in office for sacrificing Diet responsibilities to her training schedule. Certainly it must have been a stretch fulfilling parliamentary duties while simultaneously participating in the Olympics, as Ms. Hashimoto did when she competed in cycling events in Atlanta in 1996. And so far she has shown no sign of emulating the brilliant career of an even more luminous sports star-turned-politician in another country, former U.S. Senator and current presidential candidate Bill Bradley.
Yet tokens can be valuable, too. Ms. Hashimoto may not be remembered for her political activities or for the substance of her convictions — though neither will the vast majority of her faceless male colleagues in Nagata-cho — but she will be remembered for symbolic cutting-edge achievements in the Diet as notable in their way as the swath she cut with her skates on Olympic ice.
She is already, as an elected female Diet member, one of a precious elite. She is the first Upper House legislator to be allowed to use her own rather than her married name in the Diet; even if this was because her own name was so stellar, a precedent has hopefully been set. And now, if all goes well this spring, Ms. Hashimoto will become only the second Japanese legislator ever, and the first in the Upper House, to give birth while Parliament is in session. Lower House member Tenkoko Sonoda had a baby on the job in 1950; since, then, Parliament has been barren (only an incurable cynic would see this as in any way metaphoric).
It is to be hoped that, once again, Ms. Hashimoto will be responsible for bringing the Diet a small step closer to the 20th century (let alone the 21st) in matters affecting the women who serve in it. Reportedly, there are no provisions for maternity leave for women legislators, although the law mandates it for women in other jobs. The Secretariat of the Upper House was quoted as reflecting helpfully last Monday that since the House has no record of members taking pregnancy leave, Ms. Hashimoto will probably work right up until the birth. That is all well and good, if that is what the mother-to-be wants, but what if something were to go wrong? What about the period after the birth? This is surely an appropriate time for the Diet to begin thinking about paid maternity leave for its members. It may not affect many yet, but if the country is lucky, that will change.
Still, the Diet would here be following rather than leading the rest of the country, unless it decided to throw in paternity leave as well. This pregnancy has an even broader potential suggestiveness, and lawmakers would be foolish not to note it in the context of growing concern about Japan’s plunging birthrate. Leading factors in the decline, demographers say, are the related tendencies for women to marry later, keep working, give birth later (if at all) and have fewer children. Ms. Hashimoto, who is 35, obviously fits this pattern in most respects. What does not fit, though, is her high public profile — the very thing that makes her a social role model. Clearly, the message that shrewd opinion-shapers will want to draw from her pending motherhood — as from Judge Cherie Blair’s in Britain — is that the demands of a job and the rewards of having children are not incompatible.
Let us hope that Ms. Hashimoto’s colleagues help her reconcile both her splendid roles — as a politician and as a mother — without having to be a superwoman again.
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