Japanese Women in a Male Society. Bound by tradition, women struggle to take on responsibility at work while society still expects them to leave their jobs for family life

YUKO Murakami is a top postgraduate art student at Tokyo University, one of Japan's most prestigious universities. Last year she applied for one of 16 positions available at a private television network. There were 15 openings for men, but only one for women. Out of 2,500 female applicants, Ms. Yuko was among the top three women candidates for the one job. She was finally turned down, she believes, because another woman with an influential relative got the position.

``It made me mad to think that if I were a man, I would have gotten in with 15 possibilities. But perhaps it's just as well. Had I gotten in, I'd probably be serving tea now,'' observes Yuko, who has opted to continue her career in art.

In 1980 Japan signed a United Nations pledge to eliminate discrimination against women during the ``UN Decade for Women: Equality, Development, and Peace,'' which started in 1976. This year Japan is rushing to make some of the promised changes. Despite the various noises being made and the Equal Opportunity Bill being discussed in the Diet (parliament), many Japanese -- especially women -- say the social attitudes are slow in changing.

In a country where industry is dominant, the female work force has long been considered secondary and only complementary to that of men. In actual numbers, working women are on the increase, however, accounting for 38 percent of the work force today, and 60 percent of working women are married, according to a recent study on women by the Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living (HILL), a private research institute.

However, the actual quality and condition of women's jobs remain poor, making women a ``useful and inexpensive source of labor for most companies,'' according to a report in the Nihon Keizai Shimbun, a financial daily.

Studies show that starting salaries for Japanese women are close to that of men. According to the Ministry of Labor, the starting salaries for women with four-year college degrees is 93.9 percent that of men.

But the gap widens with the years. In Japan, as many other Western countries, women's salaries are about half those of men. According to a June 1983 study by the Labor Ministry, by the time women reach their peak salaries (between ages 54 and 59), they are earning 51.6 percent of what men make during their peak salary years (45 to 49).

In 1983, for the first time in 20 years, working wives outnumbered housewives, the HILL study notes. ``A typical working woman is no longer a young single woman working several years until she gets married. She is, instead, a middle-aged woman who reenters the work force now that her children are in school.''

The number of working women over age 35 has increased mainly because these women are willing to work part time. More and more Japanese corporations are hiring female part-timers because they are more experienced and less expensive than full-time, younger high-school graduates.

According to Sohyo, Japan's major labor organization, 20 percent of female workers are part-timers working under poorer conditions than full-time women workers. Most are between the ages of 35 and 49, and they usually work six-hour days, five days a week, earning an average hourly pay of 561 yen (about $2.35). This is approximately 76 percent of the average pay of full-time working women. Not only is the pay low, but companies rarely give protection or compensation. These women can be fired on short notice, and they usually don't get employment insurance, bonuses, or holiday pay. Even under these conditions, most work part time for about 31/2 years.

Even with more women getting higher education, and more seeking jobs, many Japanese still harbor the image of women as homemakers. ``To be intelligent, educated, and to have a responsible job creates problems for women, especially when looking for a husband,'' says Yuko, who is still single at 25. (The average Japanese woman gets married at age 25.)

Most companies still have policies that reflect prewar attitudes that women mainly want to get married and will quit when they reach marriageable age three or four years after they leave school, the HILL study says.

In fact, many companies expect women to leave once they are married. As a chief representative of the Federation of Employers' Associations, or Nikkeiren, said in a recent article, ``I didn't oppose when my wife first started working, but I said very clearly that she must first take care of the house.'' Three months later his wife left her job.

If some women persist in their jobs even after they marry, they are encouraged to quit after they have their first child. ``As mothers, they are expected to take on full responsibility of raising their children,'' says the HILL survey.

Once in their jobs, women face other obstacles. Even if they are university graduates, they are expected to make tea for their male colleagues. Many firms still put women in uniforms, and women complain that they're not taken seriously enough to get responsible jobs.

One young woman, Yoshiko, says in the HILL report: ``There is a woman in our section. She's been there for years and she tells me I should not mind doing the menial tasks around the office. If I stick to it, she tells me, eventually I'll be able to do more responsible work. But I feel I can't wait around. I want to do something more challenging.''

But employers say they can't take women seriously if they don't have staying power. What's more, they complain that the women often abuse their rights. One bank executive notes, ``Every woman has the right to take menstrual leave, but most of the time we discover that the women took off the extra days to go skiing.''

Why then are working women on the increase? What most of these women seem to be seeking, the HILL report suggests, is not so much extra income as a sense of fulfillment by doing something useful beyond their housework. For similar reasons volunteer jobs are becoming popular, as are cultural centers.

How the proposed Equal Opportunity Bill will change the present situation remains to be seen. The bill states that employers should strive for equal opportunity in recruiting workers. It also says that employers should not subject women to any ``discriminatory treatment in regard to retirement or dismissal'' and that marriage and pregnancy should not be considered grounds for dismissal or early retirement.

Many feminists are opposed to the draft of the bill becuse it is too ``watered down,'' as former Labor Minister Misoji Sakamoto himself admits.

There is no mention of penalty to help enforce these guidelines. Feminists are against losing their guarantees of menstrual leave and protection from working overtime and on night shifts. Vice-Foreign Minister Mayumi Moriyama, recently appointed as the second woman to take up the post in 36 years, said recently: ``We can't change everything overnight, but the working environment will eventually change to make it easier for women to have jobs and to keep them.''

The employers' federation Nikkeiren is expected to oppose the bill, saying it would escalate costs, which would then burden the Japanese economy and industry.

Even the labor unions aren't expressing strong support for the proposed equality bill. One writer, Taro Yayama, expressed this general sentiment in a recent article: ``The law may very well destroy the lifetime employment system and the seniority wage system -- the very basis of the stability of Japanese society and the source of power of Japanese corporations.'' Chart: Living situations: how Japanese and Americans differ Japanese men 2.2% American men 22.9% Japanese women 9.1% American women 55.3% Living with spouse Japanese men 34.2% American men 59.5% Japanese women 16.6% American women 25.2% Living with children (no grandchildren) Japanese men 18.5% American men 8.6% Japanese women 12.1 American women 8.1% Living with three generations Japanese men 31.0% American men 1.2% Japanese women 42.4% American women 1.9% Other Japanese men 14.0% American men 7.9% Japanese women 19.9% American women 9.5 Source: Japanese Ministry of Health and Welfare

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