Women's rights? Not in Japan. David H. Ahl.
Although most colleges in Japan are open to women, a degree for them has little meaning--fewer than 30 of Japanese companies will even consider hiring a female college graduate. *in the other 70 of the companies, the jobs open to women are typically assembly line workers, secretaries, and clerks.
Good penmanship, physical attractiveness and manners are valued much more highly than knowledge or intelligence. "Office ladies," or OLs as they are called in Japan, who have a good penmanship are much in demand by senior managers who gain much face with a neat letter or report. And for serving tea or coffee to guests, it is desirable for an OL to have a polite, attractive, and charming disposition.
Many companies arrange to have teachers come in to give lessons in a wide variety of subjects including flower arrangement, the tea ceremony, and even cooking. This is one of the few fringe benefits for women. Since the company knows that the girls will leave when they get married, the company helps prepare them for this inevitable event; in addition, this ensures that girls will not delay their marriage.
The highly admired concept of lifetime employment does not apply to women, and there are no career paths open to them. Young women are expected to work, living at home or in company dormitories, until they get married, usually in their mid-20's. They are then expected to quit work to raise their children full time. At the NEC semiconductor plant in Kyushu, for example, it is expected that 300 young women will enter and leave every year.
A working career is almost impossible for a married woman. When a company moves a male employee to another location, he is not asked whether he wants to go. Thus, the wife must be ready to move with her husband at any time. On the other hand, she will remain behind if the children's needs require it, even if he is transferred overseas for two or three years.
More than half of all housewives eventually return to work after their children grow up and leave home. However, these women generally do not work for large companies, as the office ladies in such companies are expected to be young. Instead, they usually work part-time for a smaller company or service establishment (restaurant or shop). A part-time schedule is important, as the wife must prepare the evening meal for her husband and must also attend to family and household management.
Japanese women do not find this objectionable as they do not seek personal fulfillment through a career. Instead, they get satisfaction in helping other family members achieve success--a husband in his company and children in school.
Women college graduates looking for a career position are rare; most are content to accept a position as an assistant or even an office lady. Those who do want professional or managerial positions usually turn to foreign firms with offices in Japan
Japan is trying to introduce legislation to provide equality of employment for men and women so it can ratify a United Nations convention on ending sex discrimination.
The government pledged to ratify the agreement in 1980, and ever since, an advisory council to the Labor Ministry has been trying, unsuccessfully, to get consensus for a bill to present to Parliament.
Labor representatives to the council-- all women--urged a ban on different hiring and employment practices for men and women. However, both management and public representatives were opposed. They said that companies should only be "obliged to make efforts to treat both sexes equally."
No punishment for non-compliance was suggested. Nor were any quotas or affirmative action type of goals proposed.
In a public statement, Labor Minister Misoji Sakamoto said that Japan should proceed "slowly and steadily" toward equal opportunity. "I doubt if it is best to regulate everything by laws," he added. "It is better to promote equality through mutual confidence between labor and management."
Most Japanese women seem to agree with this approach. Even Japanese feminists such as Ryoko Akamatsu, director general of the Women's and Young Workers' Bureau of the Labor Ministry, feel that attitudes are more important than legislation. Said Akamatasu, "Legislation cannot change traditional views and consciousness."
For their part, the managers of most companies are vehemently opposed to equal treatment for men and women. Management representatives to the Labor Ministry advisory council say that the government never should have signed the U.N. convention without having sought public approval.
Companies have good reason to oppose job equality measures. Today, 39 percent of the Japanese labor force is composed of women; on average, they receive salaries about one-half those paid to men. Moreover, Japan is the only industrialized nation in which the wage gap between male and female workers widened in the decade ended in 1983.
The computer industry appears to be one of the few that is welcoming women into the fold. In 1984, for example, Hitachi hired 150 female programmers, up from 40 five years ago. And Shigeru Watanabe, in describing the nationwide Microcomputer Qualification Test, said that for job advancement, "many successful young ladies have proved that commanding a computer is a powerful qualification." In some cases, school administrators encourage the entire senior class (of girls) to take the qualification test.
It seems likely in Japan, even more than in the U.S., that middle and top managers will refuse to learn how to use computers, thus the OL concept may change somewhat. In addition to penning letters and serving tea, OLs will be called upon to use computers. Thus, their work will be at a higher level and, because it is more appreciated, the positions will be upgraded.
In other professions, women are beginning to break in, but the numbers are very small. A few more women every year are entering professions such as law, medicine, and journalism. This may not seem dramatic, but in a nation in which 75 percent of the women are happy wiith their jobs and 71 percent favor separate roles for men and women, it is.