When a College Degree Means a Job Serving Tea

Women's status in Japan Inc. receives increasingly sharp, and public, jibes

To hear Japan's women tell it, the men at work are appalling.

There's the manager who blows his nose, hands his secretary the sodden handkerchief, and asks her to take a look.

Or there's the boss who whips out his nail clippers in the middle of the office to give the toenails a quick trim.

The men aren't too happy either. They'll tell you about the piggy secretary who ate too quickly and choked. They talk of the lazy assistant who lies about how hard she's working.

Welcome to Japan's corporate battle of the sexes, a skirmish being fought in the columns of two weekly magazines. Corporate minions (the women) and managers (the men) write in each week to moan about their office counterparts.

The columns provide a sometimes hilarious, sometimes uncomfortable window onto corporate life that demolishes the image of a sober Japan Inc. They're also a barometer of women's shifting expectations and male managers' unchanging attitudes. It's a deepening divide underscored by corporate structure and generational differences.

"These older men treat the office like an extension of their home," says Chinami Shimizu. She writes a column - Shukan Bunshun - that chronicles the challenges of being an "office lady," or OL, in an overwhelmingly male world.

The men run headlong into young women who arrive at the office door with higher expectations, she says. "More women are entering the work force. They're more experienced and more independent."

The working world hasn't changed much, though.

Japan provides two basic career tracks: management or the route women are most often urged to take, the clerical or office lady path, whose workplace challenges include, and are often confined to, filing and serving tea.

Even with recent amendments to strengthen the 1986 Equal Employment Opportunity Law, young women recount interviews in which they're asked about boyfriends, marriage plans, and their ability to withstand overtime. Then they're urged to go the clerical route.

Women are often urged or asked to leave their jobs after marriage, and working women are usually in their 20s, while their managers are well into middle age.

"These women are a very bored group of people," says Shimizu, a petite powerhouse who began her career as an OL and is now the author of some 50 books on working women. "They're dissatisfied too, because there is absolutely no future to their jobs and so many small frustrations to deal with every day."

When Ms. Shimizu left her computer company to start her "OL Committee" column 10 years ago, 200 women wrote in to complain about their jobs and their male managers. Today, 8,000 women respond when she poses a question.

And the frustrations abound.

"To the former chairman of my bank," writes one woman: "Don't spend company money to buy gifts for your grandson!"

Another chides her superiors for the office politics after a merger with another company. "They have too much pride [to cooperate]. Nothing's working!" A third lays it on the line: "OLs are full of frustration!"

Rika Sudo seems typical of the women who write in. She began her OL job well aware of its limitations, but even so, she was unprepared for the irritations.

A commerce graduate of one of Japan's elite universities, she has spent the past four years at a prestigious Tokyo trading company sorting receipts and preparing refreshments. After a manager recently reprimanded her for not putting enough cream in his coffee, the only retaliation open to her was sweetness: dousing his next cup with three extra sugars.

In person, Japan's corporate warriors sound a little aggrieved and even puzzled over the changing female attitudes. "Many [OLs] actually refuse to clean our ashtrays [anymore]," says Teruo Sasaki, a researcher in the precision industry. "They don't do anything that's dirty or troublesome."

Questioned while on his way home from work in a beige trench coat, Mr. Sasaki is the picture of the Japanese Everyman, and he probably expresses the opinion of most men.

They see the situation as a matter of teamwork, and women are reneging on the bargain. "I'm not saying we're superior to them or anything like that," he argues.

"They should be aware that they're hired to do these things. Somebody has to. It's a simple division of labor, we're paid to do something more than clean ashtrays."

Similar opinions surface in another magazine column that offers a rebuttal to Shimizu's weekly complaints.

A rough translation of the title is "Stupid Office Ladies." In it, businessmen recount the latest silliness of their female staff, but the letters have none of the edge in Shimizu's letters.

Along with the newly public antagonism in print, the two sides share a new and ironic bond: Japan's weakening economy has made both groups targets of cost-cutting layoffs.

Women are traditionally the first to go when companies slash budgets, and if they're not fired, they're demoted or given lower-paying jobs. In the past month, two major securities companies have announced measures to trim or downshift their female staff.

But as Japan's vaunted lifetime employment system begins to unravel, men are losing their jobs as well. "These old managers have always seen OLs as disposable," says Shimizu. "Now they're beginning to see they're disposable too."

Women at Work in Japan

* About 41 percent of Japan's work force is female.

* Women make 62 percent of what men earn, on average.

* The number of working women has increased by 29 percent since 1986, while the number of men in the work force has grown 14 percent

* Four in 5 women work in manufacturing, wholesale and retail trade, and service industries.

* Half of working women have a "temp" position or work part-time.

* Half of companies with more than 5,000 employees have a "dual-track" hiring system that differentiates between management and clerical work.

* Women account for only 2.5 percent of employees on the management career track.

Sources: Prime Minister's Office, Office for Gender Equality

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