Japanese Working Women Still Serve the Tea

Michiko Koseki, left, and Atsuko Kimura are among six women who have filed a lawsuit against a Tokyo-based trading company alleging sex discrimination.
Michiko Koseki, left, and Atsuko Kimura are among six women who have filed a lawsuit against a Tokyo-based trading company alleging sex discrimination. (By Anthony Faiola -- The Washington Post)
By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, March 2, 2007

TOKYO -- During her many years working for a major Japanese trading company, Michiko Koseki said, she and her female co-workers have suffered a series of indignities both small and large. But the 59-year-old clerical worker was nevertheless shocked a few years ago when her company suddenly decided to move all the men in her department to nicer offices while keeping the women in the old work space.

The affront, she said, did not end there. Koseki, whose job involves handling invoices and customs forms, was then ordered to trek down the hall to serve tea to male employees and visiting customers. The logic: There were no female employees in the new work area, a problem in a country where women in the office are still expected to pour beverages during business meetings.

"I bitterly complained, but my boss said, 'We can't hire a new woman just to pour the tea,' " said Koseki, who has joined five other women in a broad sex discrimination suit against the company, Tokyo-based Kanematsu Corp. "And of course, there was no way a man was going to do it."

She continued: "Women in this country were supposed to be taking a big step forward. But for many of us, it feels like a step back."

In Japan, home to the world's second-largest economy, women have entered the workforce in record numbers over the past 15 years. The phenomenon was once heralded by many as the start of a new era of sex equality in a country where women have long lagged a step behind men professionally.

But leading academics and workers rights groups say the vast majority of Japan's 27 million female workers have instead encountered a far different reality: a system of corporate discrimination based on sex.

As many Japanese companies have sidestepped weak labor laws, they have relegated women to "administration tracks" with substandard pay and fewer prospects for promotion, while channeling men into "career tracks" with greater opportunity for upward mobility and higher compensation.

The number of working women in Japan picked up after the burst of the economic bubble here in 1991, when companies began hiring more of them as a cheaper source of labor. Many of those new hires were brought on as part-time or contract workers without benefits or job security. Although many assumed that those positions would evolve into better-paying full-time jobs, statistics show that hasn't happened. Today, Japan has a record 8 million part-time workers -- more than 90 percent of them women.

"As women have come into the workforce, there has been only fractional progress in overall equality in the workplace," said Mutsuko Asakura, a professor of labor law at Tokyo's Waseda University. "In some companies, you've actually seen women fall further behind."

Critics say Japan has also failed to keep up with Western legal standards in the workplace, including on the issue of sex discrimination. A U.N. study released last year said Japan ranked behind all other industrialized nations in terms of empowerment of women, with 10.7 percent of senior corporate and political positions held by women, compared with 42 percent in the United States.

In Japan, women on average earn 44 percent of what men earn -- the widest income gap between the sexes in the developed world. Even as the percentage of women in the workforce rose from 37 to 41 percent between 1980 and 2005, the number of women in top management positions climbed only slightly, from 1 percent to 2.8 percent

Many analysts here see closing the gender gap as one of the most critical issues confronting the country. With a strong anti-immigration policy and a low birthrate, which caused a decline in Japan's population last year for the first time since World War II, analysts say Japan needs to fully incorporate women into the workforce.

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