In 2012, I was elected Mayor of Otsu, Japan; a city with 342,000 residents. It may surprise some to know that, at 36, I was the youngest woman to be elected mayor of a Japanese city.

That statistic is less surprising when one notes that only 1% of Japan’s mayors are women. Additionally, only 11% of national Diet members and 7% of corporate executives are women. Though I recognize that similar statistics can be found throughout the world, it is rare to see such numbers within OECD member states.

Partly in recognition of the statistical gap in gender equality, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has recently pushed for legislation related to the empowerment of women. Though I am an enthusiastic supporter of such national measures, one of the main reasons I chose to get involved in local politics is that I recognized that the most direct and significant changes occur on the local and regional levels.

A terrible choice for women

Astoundingly, 60% of Japanese women leave the workforce after having their first child. A primary cause for this labour-related exile is the state of Japan’s childcare system. Restrictions on immigration have limited the number and affordability of home-based childcare providers in Japan. Most women who choose to continue working after childbirth are thus forced to seek out a coveted spot in a nursery for their newborns. In April 2014, about 21,000 Japanese families could not find a nursery to admit their child.

I have seen many of my female friends struggling between work and children, and this dichotomy has essentially created a scenario in which women must choose one or the other. This terrible choice further leads to two other very serious problems; population decline and a labour shortage. As an illustration of this point, Japan’s population has been falling since 2011 and Japan’s total fertility rate stands at a low 1.43 children per woman in 2013.

Since becoming Otsu’s mayor, I have focused a great deal of my energy on improving childcare programmes and encouraging women to stay in the workforce. Along these lines, I have increased city subsidies to private nurseries and have successfully pushed for the construction of 20 new nurseries capable of accommodating about 1,500 children. As a result, parents have had improved access to childcare. Recently, the birth rate has been increasing in my city.

In addition, efforts should be made to encourage Japanese men to participate in child-rearing. While working as a lawyer at a New York firm in 2010, one of my male co-workers told me that he would take a year-long parental leave. I was surprised at hearing this as I had never heard of any of my male colleagues in Japan taking such parental leave.

Legally, both men and women can take parental leave and lately many young Japanese men want to spend more time with their children. Despite this, however, only 2% of male employees took parental leave in 2013 all over Japan. This is likely because there is still a deep-rooted cultural expectation that only women will take such leave, and many male employees are concerned that taking such leave will adversely affect their professional trajectory.

Monetary incentives

Partly as an attempt to challenge these cultural mores, I have recently launched a new initiative which gives monetary incentives to male citizens who choose to take parental leave. Furthermore, starting this April, every male City Hall employee will be strongly encouraged to take parental leave when their wife gives birth.

Though, as a woman in politics, I am unfortunately not surprised to be the only woman in the room during most meetings, I am hopeful that policy shifts, such as those I describe above, will act to further change the current gender breakdown in Japan’s boardrooms and governmental centres. I would like to do my part in making my city the best place for men and women to raise a family while working. A change in Otsu will act to further strengthen the Japanese voices that are pushing for gender equality nationwide. A policy change on the local level can thus affect the country as a whole.

Author: Naomi Koshi is Mayor of Otsu, Japan, and a member of the 2015 intake of World Economic Forum Young Global Leaders 

Image: A girl walks with her mother after her first day of school at the Shimizu elementary school in Fukushima, northern Japan April 6, 2011. REUTERS/Carlos Barria