Ayaka Shiomura, a member of the Tokyo assembly, speaks during a news conference at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan in Tokyo on June 24, 2014. / Kazuhiro Nogi, AFP/Getty Images
TOKYO - At least one lawmaker apparently didn't get the memo about women being crucial to Japan's economic and social rebirth - and it's causing embarrassment for the nation's leader.
Assemblyman Akihiro Suzuki, a member of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's ruling Liberal Democratic Party, was forced to apologize and withdraw from the party this week after taunting and heckling a female member of the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly.
Assemblywoman Ayaka Shiomura, who is single, was attempting to discuss measures for improving childbirth and child care for women in Tokyo earlier this month when several male legislators interrupted her with taunts such as "You should hurry up and get married" and "Can't you even bear a child?" The comments were accompanied by loud laughter from some members.
The incident has been a sore spot for Abe, who has made the removal of workplace obstacles for women a major component of his economic recovery program.
"Enhancing opportunities for women to work and to be active in society is no longer a matter of choice for Japan. It is instead a matter of the greatest urgency," Abe said in a speech at the U.N. General Assembly in September.
While Abe has not made any public statements about the incident, LDP secretary general Shigeru Ishiba apologized for Suzuki's remarks on behalf of the party Monday.
Shiomura, 35, a first-term legislator, said she was shocked by the harassment and struggled to finish her remarks.
"The comments were so personal and so insulting and disparaging to women, I had no way to prepare for it. They were completely out of place in a modern society," Shiomura said at the news conference.
The incident went viral after Shiomura tweeted about it. Within days, more than 75,000 people signed an online petition demanding the perpetrators be identified and punished. Suzuki had his office pelted with raw eggs.
After initially denying his involvement, Suzuki, 51, admitted making disparaging comments and met with Shiomura, bowing deeply in apology. Suzuki said he had withdrawn from the LDP but that he would not resign from the Assembly.
Shiomura - one of just 27 female members of the 127-member Assembly - said she wants other legislators who harassed her to also be identified and she is considering whether to pursue formal punishment, including seeking their expulsion or resignation from the Assembly.
"I must admit that it's a very difficult environment for women to work," Shiomura said, speaking about both the Tokyo Assembly and the workplace in Japan at a news conference Tuesday. "Everything is run by the male standard, and naturally that kind of environment causes problems."
Japan has one of the lowest rates of female participation in government and business among developed countries and is struggling with a shrinking workforce and an aging population.
A report issued by Goldman Sachs last month in May found boosting the number of women in the workforce could increase GDP by 12.5%.
Boosting the birthrate - Japan has one of the world's lowest at 1.4% - is also a high priority. At the current rate, Japan's population will shrink by 40% by 2060.
Abe wants to add child care capacity for 400,000 children over the next three years, and he has ordered government ministries to raise the number of female workers and managers to 30% each by 2020, the year Tokyo hosts the Summer Olympics.
Makiko Fukui, who runs a recruiting agency for female managers, says sexism in business and government in Japan has declined dramatically over the last 20 years but has not disappeared.
"This incident is very embarrassing for the city, particularly as it's preparing for the Olympics," she said. "It shows there are still people around who don't get it."
Read the original story: Japan lawmaker's sexist taunts spark uproar