Tokyo — When the British ambassador, Sir Michael Wilford, inspected construction of the world's longest undersea tunnel, in nothern Japan, his wife got no farther than the entrance.
Politely but firmly, a construction site official insisted: No women, allowed in the 32- mile Seikan Tunnel. Lady Wilford was told that "it is said the gods will become angry if a woman enters the tunnel, and a bad accident will occur. It may only be an old superstition, but the workers still get very worried about it."
The ambassador's wife accepted the rebuff with good grace and could at least be consoled that she had joined a growing list of women in public life who have run into the same problem at tunnel construction sites up and down the country.
Masako Kobayashi, a member of parliament, for example, also had to wait outside the Seikan Tunnel while fellow male members of a parliamentary transport committee went underground on an inspection tour.
Her angry observation later: "It defies logic that in this day and age such silly superstitions should still sway men's minds."
Incidents like this, however, demonstrate the mixed results that Japanese women have so far achieved in their drive for equality.
Women are often regarded as too impure to participate in the inner mysteries of religious observances, although one woman has just been appointed a chief priest in successsion to her late father, because of the absence of a male heir.
In the ancient sport of sumo wrestling, which retains its original Shinto religious connections, no woman is allowed to step over the straw boundary into a salt-purified ring. And even the less-than-pure sport of professional boxing bars females from the ring in any capacity.
A Japanese woman may have conquered Mt. Everest, but for centuries many mountains at home considered sacred have been off limits to women. The barriers are slowly coming down, but on Mt. Omine, which is mecca for Buddhist mountaineering ascetics, the signs stil baldly declare, "Area closed to women."
Chief priest Junna Nakada, an authority on mountaineering asceticism, insists this is not done out of any discriminatory feeling. "The mountain is actually regarded as mother. Climbing the moutain means traveling to the heart of the mother, or Buddha.
"In fact, far from discriminating against women, this practice puts them on a pedestal and worships them. Of course, the actual presence of women would interact from this worship."
No woman so far appears to have challenged the ban.
This cannot be said for other areas of endeavor, where the challenge has been strong, if not always successful.
Delegates from 48 national women's organizations recently met in Tokyo to assess the progress made by Japan in the first five years of the United Nations International Women's Decade, proclaimed in 1975.
The judgment was that the government had fallen well behind its targets for promoting the advancement of women, and in a number of areas the position was even worse than before. Among the findings:
* Although the government has just appointed the first female ambassador (to Denmark), the percentage of women in national and local public service is still infinitesimal, despite a professed official target of 10 percent. Government at national level is an all-male preserve.
* Since its inception, the government's policy headquarters on women's issues has not employed one woman in its ranks.
* In teaching, far from encouraging women, a growing discriminatory trend has emerged. Women are often given only temporary teaching posts and encouraged to retire early. Discrimination in employment and promotion is especially rife in the national universities.
* Although the number of women in the work force has grown rapidly in the past five years, the vast majority are in temporary and part-time work with no security. Women university graduates, in particular, have difficulty finding jobs and more often end up as mere attractive adornments to offices, making tea.
* Adverse economic conditions in recent years have led to a deterioration in women's working conditions and social welfare programs. For instance, government support has repidly dwindled for the establishment of child care centers.
* Medical treatment during pregnancy and childbirth is still excluded from health insurance benefits, and most women are still excluded from joining pension programs.
The conference approved 36 demands to put to the government, noting that the majority had been submitted five years ago and virtually ignored. It also approved an action program to try to change public attitudes, especially the ideas expressed in the news media and in children's books, which were seen as perpetuating women's inferior role.