Kumamoto assembly debate helps highlight challenges of mothers in politics

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An assemblywoman who brought her 7-month-old son into the assembly hall has sparked controversy in Japan, but a Sophia University professor says there are several solutions to the issue.

On Nov. 22, Yuka Ogata, 42, took her seat on the floor of the Kumamoto Municipal Assembly while holding her son. Following a quarrel with the assembly chairman, Ogata was eventually persuaded to leave her baby with a friend before attending the session, which was delayed about 40 minutes by the fracas.

Ogata said she had been asking the assembly office whether she could bring her baby in with her ever since she became pregnant last year. Unable to get permission, she decided to do it anyway.

The assembly said Ogata was responsible for obstructing the session and later issued her a written warning for breaching the rules.

Sophia University’s Mari Miura, a professor of politics, said Ogata’s action illustrated the challenge facing politicians who are mothers.

“To increase the number of female assembly members, we need a system that accepts people of various backgrounds. The root of democracy is that all people participate in politics,” Miura, 50, said.

Miura said that in Australia and New Zealand, female lawmakers are allowed to breast-feed their children in assembly halls, a right obtained after mothers fought for nursing in public.

“We also need to start a careful discussion . . . and create public rules that anyone can accept,” she said.

Miura said some rules assemblies in Japan could adopt include allowing nursing capes, having mothers leave the session upon the chairperson’s request if a child cries, or accepting proxy votes when mothers are unable to attend sessions because their children are sick.

But former Shiseido Co. Executive Vice President Kimie Iwata, 70, said she does not agree with the action taken by Ogata as politicians have been entrusted by society to carry out public responsibilities.

“In the first place, is it really acceptable to bring a child that may cry or move around to the assembly?” Iwata asked. “The assembly’s plenary session or its committees are the place where assembly members need to concentrate on debate.”

Iwata said if Ogata is unable to find day care, “(The assembly) should provide subsidies for hiring a baby sitter.”

However, Iwata said politicians should not be allowed to take child care leave for a long period or receive the same level of support as members of the general public.

Ayumi Miyazato, a 38-year-old assemblywoman from the town of Chatan in Okinawa Prefecture, took her 4-month-old girl to the assembly in September. But instead of taking her to the session, Miyazato hired a baby sitter to take care of her child in a waiting room and breast-fed her during the recess.

As the first member of the town assembly to become pregnant, Miyazato asked the assembly office to let her use the room, explaining she could not apply for day care services until her child was 6 months old.

Her request was accepted and nobody has made a fuss about it.

“I have no plans to take my child to sessions as I want to concentrate on discussions. But I’m using the waiting room because I want to be close to my kid and work with peace of mind,” Miyazato said, adding that holding discussions between assemblies and politicians who are mothers is the key to changing the situation.

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