The 'office lady' who wouldn't serve tea

Haruko Obuchi wasn't sure what to expect when the mayor called her into his office.

She had only met him once before, when she first began her job as a caseworker at the Yono City Social Welfare Foundation.

With seven men looking on in the expansive office, the mayor called her up to his desk and read a statement: He was firing her.

"I was astounded," says Ms. Obuchi, a soft-spoken single mother who asked that a pseudonym be used. "I asked why they were firing me, but [my boss] said they didn't have to give a reason."

Later, in court, her former employers admitted it was because Obuchi had occasionally refused to serve tea to coworkers and guests, a duty traditionally reserved for women in offices here.

After four years of gritty court battles, Obuchi has finally won compensation and the right to return to her old job. Unlike the US, Japan has enshrined women's equal rights in its constitution. But culturally, Confucianism, which considers woman second best, still casts a long shadow.

Obuchi's struggle highlights the difficulties working women face here, but her victory points up changes now taking place. This precedent-setting case and new laws about sexual discrimination and workplace equality provide fresh ammunition in the fight against gender limitations.

"Most working women no longer seem to go home and cry in bed. Now they complain when there are gender problems at their companies," says Taeko Kojima of the New Japan Women's Association.

The division of labor in corporate Japan generally falls along gender lines. There are two career tracks: career management and the clerical or "office lady" path, which involves serving tea.

Just 2.5 percent of working women are on the career management track, according to the labor ministry. And even though the government beefed up the 1986 Equal Employment Opportunity Law, intended to end discrimination and sexual harassment, young women are commonly asked in job interviews about marriage plans. Once they marry, women are often expected to leave their jobs.

But women are changing the working world here. Birthrates are declining, divorce rates are rising, and women are marrying later as more enjoy the freedom a salary brings. As more women delay marriage, they will stay longer in the workplace. Women now make up 40 percent of the labor force. More of them, like Obuchi, want or need to continue working after they've had children.

After her dismissal, Obuchi told her boss she wanted to stay. "I worked so hard," she says of her job evaluating welfare claims. "It was unfair to fire me.... "

In late 1995, she filed a suit in which tea became an issue. Obuchi says she occasionally served beverages when she had time, but would ask her male boss why women were saddled with the job. She says her manager sometimes told her that if she could not serve tea obediently then she wasn't a proper woman. At other times, she claims he told her, "women are brought here to please men. So you have to thank me for this."

Her boss denied those allegations in court, but the company did charge that she "created work place disharmony." They explained that she occasionally refused to serve tea, was late for work from time to time, and once said "help yourself" when her boss asked her to get files in a cabinet.

For Obuchi's attorneys, it was a case of discrimination. "My client wasn't [a stereotypically] cute and passive woman," says Takashi Makino, Obuchi's chief attorney. He says Obuchi wasn't obedient enough for her male bosses, and she criticized their customs. "If she had been a man, then they wouldn't have fired her."

Kazuko Kawaguchi, a labor management lecturer at Chuo University in Tokyo, says there is a perception gap between men and women on this issue. Most Japanese women want to work until they retire, she says, but few husbands want their wives to do this. And there are few social supports to help women continue working, she adds.

"The revised Equal Opportunity Law is an advantage for women because it clearly bans sexual discrimination at work. Now, it is up to women to use it," she says. Previously the law only urged employers to make efforts to avoid discrimination and carried no penalties.

The revisions, passed this April, prohibit discrimination in recruiting, training, firing, retirement, and in classified ads, which until recently specified gender. Women can now visit local labor ministry offices for advice or arbitration, and visits to these offices are rising.

But Ms. Kawaguchi of Chuo University warns that women will be expected to put in the same long hours as men now. Restrictions on women working late shifts, overtime, and holidays have been annulled.

Obuchi returns to work on Jan. 1, and will immediately be on loan to another municipal social welfare organization. "I'm nervous about going back," she says. "But I will work until I retire and if I face unfairness, I'll speak up again."

If she's asked to make tea? "I'll say, 'Please take care of it yourself," she says.

*Staff writer Nicole Gaouette in Tokyo contributed to this story.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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