Thursday, 25 October 2012

The importance of Japanese female assembly-members.

It is often argued that the most industrialized states enjoy the highest ratio of women in politics. Interestingly, Japan, one of the strongest economies in the world, experiences ridiculously low percentages of women involved in decision-making in the local governments. According to information found on the website of the Gender Equality Bureau, in 2010 there were only 8.2%  female members in prefectural assemblies, 10.8% female members of city, ward, town, and village assemblies, 6.4% female prefectural governors and 1.3% female mayors.  

A year ago I got an opportunity to interview three assembly women in Japan: Wakao Kimie, Reiko Ueda and Mitsuko Murao. I was surprised when I realized that despite being driven towards politics for very different reasons they all shared a common political agenda: environmental aspects and facilities for children and elderly people were given a priority. 

Wakao Kimie, an independent representative in the Hachioji Assembly, told me that she has been always close to politics because of her friends´ influences. People around her were interested in national political affairs, they followed news and then discussed it together. When her son was a little child, she, as every mother in the world, wanted to ensure his healthy development. „All Japanese citizens know how important it is to segregate garbage, however, there is still so much space for an improvement ...And the air is very polluted”, she said. 

Concerns about the children's future and their health motivated her to challenge these issues as an assemblywoman. She stressed a need for an improvement of social welfare, especially services for elderly people and children. “Costs of medical care are far too high. These expenses are increasing on a daily basis. Elderly people have a right for being happy and healthy and our responsibility is to ensure that they will have good life until they die.” She worried about her parents and parents-in-law who live far away and have nobody to take care of them. “There must be some opportunity for them to get help if it will be needed.” Also the demand for kindergartens is far higher than available facilities. When her son was a child, she needed to ask her neighbors for help. This was stressful and uncomfortable situation for her. „All people should have a right to access such facilities”, she concluded.

For Mitsuko Murao, a Hitachi assemblymember, the reason for entering electoral decision-making was not a problem that she wanted to solve, but rather an encouragement of inhabitants of her town. She lives in a countryside characterized by backwardness and lack of any structural organization; a place where „people do not have manners and it is impossible to get along with each other.” When she received a MA degree in chemistry, people living in the same dormitory asked her to run for the elections. They believed she would make a good representative because she was not only intelligent but... she was also a housewife. The combination of these two roles allowed her to keep her office for 21 years. 

Several times in the year she organizes a meeting with inhabitants to encourage them for more interest in politics.“If people remain passive and uninterested in political affairs, there will never be true democracy. Often members of local assemblies do not care about their duties towards citizens they are representing. More awareness of electorate could change it.” Murao wants to ensure that economic aspects will not overshadow the importance of objectives that are closely related to human well-being and health, such as peace and environmental issues.

My last respondent, Reiko Ueda was always concerned about unfair employment opportunities for women. In her hometown, Edogawa, women are regarded as secondary citizens with no choice but household duties. She complained about a city mayor who was old-fashioned and looked down at women. He did not understand women´s requests for equality in a working environment. Ueda co-founded  the Edogawa Working Women Group (1999) which gave support to working mothers. Her organization strengthened women but it failed to bring significant changes. Determined, she ran for the elections. As she said: “Every year more working women become angry with Japanese policy makers who are unfair and old-fashioned.” For this reason she knew she could count on their support. 

Ueda's priority is to guarantee equal employment opportunities for men and women. Edogawa must
become a women-friendly region with a good policy for working mothers. If women have the
opportunity to leave their children under the custody of a nursery, their chances on the labor market
will increase. This will benefit not only women but also the government provided with more income from taxes: “It is win-win case where both sides are better off”. In order to make it possible, there cannot be place for conservative politicians who ignore women's aspiration and limit their access to job market.

The discussion with these women made me realized how important their role is in politics. Environmental issues and child-elderly care facilities are aspects often forgotten by decision makers; however they are essential for future generations. While male politicians are more concerned about economical aspects, women see a need for dealing with issues that create obstacles in their everyday life. They want to ensure that every woman will be provided with an opportunity to place her child in kindergarten and to think about her own career. She might also have ambitions and other things to do than child rearing. However, because the burden of child and elderly care is put on them and never on men, male politicians fail to recognize the lack of proper facilities as a problem. Women are also interested in environmental issues. Because they are mothers concerned about their children's health they want to protect them from polluted air and dirty surroundings. 

"How to help women in Japan” remains a problematic issue without an answer. There will never be created more child and elderly care facilities without female decision makers on all levels on governance who make it happen themselves. And paradoxically, the number of politically active women will not raise until they will be provided with facilities helping them to take care of their dependents and providing them with time to make their ambitions happen.

By Klaudyna Mikolajczyk

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