OSAKA--After Mayu Murakami became the first incumbent Osaka city assembly member to give birth, her colleagues called her a selfish rule-breaker, a remuneration thief and a betrayer of the public.
According to Murakami’s accounts, one assemblyman yelled at her, “You should apologize to voters for having a baby.”
Treatment of women in Japan became a hot topic after Ayaka Shiomura, a Tokyo metropolitan assemblywoman, was targeted by sexist heckling during her presentation on measures to increase the birthrate.
Now, Murakami and other female politicians are speaking out about what they describe as a structural defect in local politics that works against women trying to juggle motherhood and a political career and can lead to incessant harassment.
The key problem, they say, is that most local assemblies in Japan still do not have a maternity leave system.
“Assemblies’ disregard for women is deeply rooted,” Murakami, 29, a member of Osaka Ishin no Kai, a regional party affiliated with the Japan Restoration Party, said after learning about the heckling of Shiomura. “I hope that more assembly members jointly fight against it.”
Murakami was first elected to the Osaka city assembly in April 2011. She soon got married, and found out she was pregnant about four months later.
She said she was surprised that the city assembly’s rule book did not mention maternity leave.
Murakami proposed changes to the rules to other assembly members, including those of other parties. But she said she received jeers instead of support.
“It is a personal choice (to give birth),” one of her colleagues said. Another suggested that she feign illness to follow the rules: “It is possible to take a leave of absence on the ground that you are suffering from a disease, isn’t it?”
“It seems that the city assembly’s rules discourage women of child-rearing age from becoming assembly members and giving birth,” Murakami said.
She took time off to have her baby. But because of the lack of a maternity leave system in the assembly, she continued to receive remuneration.
Some assembly members accused her of “stealing” her remuneration. Others questioned the timing of her pregnancy, saying she was only thinking about herself.
To end the accusations that she was skipping work, she returned to her assembly job six weeks after her baby was delivered.
But the criticism had already spread against the woman elected from the Chuo Ward constituency.
During a cherry-blossom viewing party, a drunken male voter asked her angrily, “Which is more important for you, Chuo Ward or your child?”
She broke down in tears while trying to counter his argument.
“There have been many cases in which I have had to quietly endure (criticism) in order not to spoil the atmosphere,” Murakami said.
In the assembly of the neighboring city of Sakai, the efforts of assemblywomen led to the word “childbearing” being listed as a reason to be absent from work.
However, the rules have no stipulations on maternity leave, and female assembly members still have no idea how long they can be absent from work for childbearing.
During the campaign for the Upper House election on July 21, 2013, Sakai assembly member Yoshika Kobayashi gave speeches for candidates of her party, Osaka Ishin no Kai. She was only weeks away from giving birth, but she felt obligated to continue stumping.
“If I was absent from the job (due to my pregnancy), I could have been told that women are not useful. I felt pressure to avoid that,” she recalled.
She proposed that assemblies follow the example of private-sector companies.
“If assemblywomen can take maternity leave of a certain period, even if remuneration is cut, such pressure will be reduced,” said Kobayashi, who had her child in late July 2013.
The Labor Standards Law stipulates that workers can take a 14-week maternity leave--six weeks before giving birth and eight weeks after. However, the stipulation does not cover assembly members.
In both houses of the Diet, lawmakers can take leaves of absence for childbearing purposes.
That permission was established after Upper House member Seiko Hashimoto gave birth in 2000. The period of absence is decided by each lawmaker who applies for the leave.
So far, eight lawmakers have taken leaves of absence for childbearing, including Yuko Obuchi, a former state minister in charge of measures to deal with the declining birthrate, and Seiko Noda, chairwoman of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s General Council.
But “childbearing” is not listed as a reason for absence from work in many local assemblies.
According to Kimio Ito, professor of sociology at Kyoto University’s Graduate School, current international norms for gender equality prohibit sexual discrimination based on differences of physiological functions between men and women.
“The jeering at the Tokyo metropolitan assembly and the harassment against assemblywomen who gave birth are the same in the sense that gender equality is lacking,” he said.
Ito said that in Europe, it is common sense for politicians to take maternity leave.
“Japanese assemblies should guarantee childbearing rights of their members if they want to prevent the country’s birthrate from declining further. They should immediately introduce a maternity leave system,” he said.
Murakami also plans to propose a system that can reduce remuneration to assemblywomen when they are taking maternity leave.
She said she learned about the world of politics when she was a university student working as an intern for an assembly member in Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture.
She decided to run in an election at 25, the youngest age permissible under Japanese laws.
After working at a foreign consulting company, she campaigned for a seat in the Osaka city assembly election. But she never gave up on her other dream of becoming a mother.
In spring this year, she became a member of the city assembly’s committee on education and children. She now plans to have a second child.
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