Japan's Young Women Find Few Job Options

Companies, squeezed by recession, revert to tradition and trim their intake of female graduates

TOMOKO KOGUCHI, a senior at Waseda University, one of Japan's best private colleges, is job hunting. She says she has written to 300 companies over the past few months and has been invited to interview at 42 of them.

The outcome: no offers. One company told her she was on a reserve list.

Ms. Koguchi also reports that her 16-student senior seminar at Waseda includes 14 men - all of whom have received offers of employment.

If this year's job market is grim for Japan's blue-suited young recruits, as would-be employees are called here, it is especially severe for the women. Only one-half of Waseda's 1,400 women seniors had been offered a job by mid-July. By contrast, 70 percent of the school's 3,865 male seniors had gotten a nod.

``Our staff is desperate,'' says Hiroshi Baba, director of Waseda's career planning section. In a measure of that desperation, Mr. Baba held a job fair late last month - the first in Waseda's 112-year history. To generate more opportunities for female graduates, he tried to bar companies that hadn't hired at least two women in each of the past three years from the fair, but ultimately allowed 50 companies that did not meet the standard to join the 400 that did.

Despite the backtracking, Baba's criterion was an unusual attempt to counter one of the lesser-noticed effects of the Japanese recession: the tendency for companies to curtail or stop hiring women for entry-level positions, particularly for job tracks that lead to roles in management.

Some experts are concerned that the economic downturn, now in its fourth year, could limit or even undo recent advances women have made in gaining entree to corporate Japan.

``Plainly, the companies are saying `We don't need any girls,' '' says an executive at a large Tokyo-based chemical corporation. Concerned about the repercussions of her comments, she asked that neither her name nor her company's be used. (See related story.)

Judging from both anecdotes and statistics, Japan's young women are facing a much tougher market than their male counterparts. According to a survey of 225 large corporations released on July 17 by a national federation of labor unions, the average company planned to hire 49 women next spring, a 56 percent drop from the 113 women taken on two years ago. The figure for men was 102, down 42 percent from 177.

For male graduates, the problem may be a matter of not getting a job at their first-choice company. Another survey this summer reported that there are enough jobs for men, but only 6 positions for every 10 women.

The women who are trying to preserve their avenue into corporate Japan are battling a de facto division of labor that emerged during Japan's postwar decades of concentrated economic development, says Yoko Sato, who covered women's issues for a leading Japanese newspaper before retiring to run a municipally funded women's center in Tokyo.

Women who stayed home or did clerical and menial chores in offices effectively facilitated the utter devotion to company that Japan's ``salarymen'' are famous for, she says. While the system may have had its efficiencies, she adds, ``Men and women are seeing that such a division of labor is not always happy.''

An equal-opportunity law in 1986 prompted many corporations to employ more women and to admit them to the elite executive-trainee job tracks that were once reserved for men. The boom economy of the late 1980s also allowed managers the financial latitude to hire more women.

But corporate chiefs are now saying they can't risk hiring women. The Japanese stereotype says most women graduates enter the work force for a few years and then leave when they marry or become pregnant.

AT the same time, however, women employees report that companies are doing little to accommodate working mothers. In interviews, women at three major Japanese firms said corporate efforts to create flex-time programs or to design policies to welcome back women who had left to have a baby were superficial and insincere.

Part of this insincerity is perhaps due to ignorance, since there are so few women managers to tell their male colleagues what should be done. Keio University professor Sumiko Iwao's 1993 book, ``The Japanese Woman,'' reports that only 5 percent of Japan's working women are managers, compared with 29 percent of the men.

Tokyo-based Citizen Watch Co. Ltd., the world's leading watchmaker, has more than 3,100 employees, 460 of whom are women. One of them is a manager.

Company president Michio Nakajima, a male executive with unusual candor, says he is ready to move more women into management, ``but not immediately.'' He adds: ``In starting new things in the past, Citizen has taken an attitude to follow suit to the major current of other companies, so we will wait and see.''

He suggests that women lack the will to become full-fledged employees and says they tend to leave after a few years. The new batch of recruits Citizen hired this spring included 31 graduates -

all men.

Despite the hiring slowdown, Ms. Sato finds several encouraging, long-term factors: Japan's birthrate is declining, which will mean broader opportunities for all Japanese; women who have already made it into management tracks will be reaching positions of power in a decade or so; and as Japanese society slowly relaxes in its affluence, men are spending less time at work, creating openings for women.

There is also the expediency argument. In a globalized economy, where women are active players in competing corporations, Japan's companies will need to conform, some observers say.

Waseda's Baba says he is often invited to speak to corporate audiences. He says he tells them: ``Unless you employ women and promote them, you won't survive in the 21st century.''

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