Photo/IllutrationYoshitomo Sawada, third from left, chairman of the Kumamoto municipal assembly, and others consult with Yuka Ogata about the presence of her infant son in the chamber on Nov. 22. (Shimon Sawada)

Last month, a member of the Kumamoto municipal assembly tried to attend a plenary session cradling her 7-month-old son in her arms. But the assembly’s chairman refused to allow her to stay with the child.

Her action caused quite a stir.

Some people have voiced their support for the woman's action, saying she has spoken for many mothers who can’t hold a job because of their child-raising responsibilities.

Others contend that an assembly member cannot do the job properly while caring for an infant.

Another argument put forward is that the assembly member should have first tried to do something to help increase the number of local nurseries for working mothers like her through her political activity instead of bringing her child to the assembly hall, her workplace.

While all these arguments hold water, we regard the assembly woman's action as a valuable attempt to raise some important issues.

In a nutshell, she demonstrated in a straightforward manner the difficulties confronting working mothers.

Her action sent such a powerful message that it provoked broad debate across the breadth of the nation and across the spectrum of professions.

It also provided a positive incentive for all assemblies in Japan to ponder this issue.

The job of assemblies is to take all sorts of views and opinions among the public into consideration and incorporate them into administrative acts.

From this point of view, the composition of an assembly should reflect a demographic cross section of the public. In reality, however, assemblies are dominated by elderly males.

In particular, the ratio of people raising young children, especially women, in assemblies is disproportionately small. This is a serious problem.

Women account for less than 13 percent of all local assembly members. The ratio of women in the lower chamber of the Diet is even smaller, around 10 percent, which is among the lowest in the developed world.

We believe that the situation could change if female assembly members are able to attend assembly sessions with their babies.

Each local assembly should come up with its own ideas to achieve this goal while taking account of any special circumstances that prevail in their communities.

This would also go a long way in helping to solve the dearth of people seeking to serve as local assembly members.

In Chatan, a town in Okinawa Prefecture, for instance, a female member of the municipal assembly attended a plenary session in September while breastfeeding her baby in a waiting room during recesses.

The atmosphere of an assembly is likely to change if the number of female members increases.

A female member of the Lower House was heckled when she discussed the nation’s shrinking population during a session. The heckler shouted, “You should first have your own children.”

A female Tokyo metropolitan assembly member also faced an unwarranted tirade from a male colleague, who shouted out, “You’d better get married now.” A female member of the Osaka municipal assembly was called “a salary thief” after she gave birth.

Such verbal attacks against female assembly members--and we have witnessed many in recent years--would vanish if it became the norm for assembly members to have and raise children.

The situation in Japan stands in sharp contrast to that of other industrial nations.

Sweden and Denmark, which have many female assembly members, provide generous childcare leave programs for legislators.

In Australia, a female Cabinet member gave birth in April. In May, a female Senate member became the first woman to breastfeed her baby during a parliamentary session there.

Creating systems and environments favorable for female assembly members having and raising children would help introduce diverse viewpoints to assemblies and contribute to the well-being of society.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Dec. 4