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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)

"Unless we begin seeing a major shift, with women integrated more equitably into corporate Japan, it is going to be very difficult for this country to find the labor needed to sustain the economy in the future," Asakura said.

Such concerns come as women here rethink their place in society, with statistics showing more of them choosing to forgo traditional lives of marriage and child-rearing. And although younger Japanese men appear to be embracing those changes -- and show a willingness to view women as equals -- the older Japanese men who hold most of the corporate and political power seem far less willing.

Health Minister Hakuo Yanagisawa, 71, in January publicly described women as "baby-making machines" and suggested Japan had a birthrate problem because women were failing in their duty to produce children. In November, Hakubun Shimomura, 52, one of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's top aides, said the country could easily address a national shortage of public day care if women would simply "stay at home and raise their children."

"For many years in Japan, managers saw women in the office largely as prospective marriage prospects for their junior male employees," said Katsutoshi Kezuka, a labor law professor at Tokyo's Chuo University. "Obviously, there are still men out there who are having problems shedding that image."

Female workers are increasingly breaking taboos by taking their grievances to court. They have not, however, found a sympathetic ear in the legal system.

Japan lags severely behind North America and Europe in anti-discrimination laws and enforcement. The country passed its first comprehensive workplace sex discrimination law in 1985 -- a measure initially considered a "guideline" for companies rather than a requirement. Subsequent refinements have added teeth to the law, but legal experts say courts still tend to favor private-sector discretion in hiring and advancement practices.

Koseki and five other women launched their discrimination suit against Kanematsu Corp. in 1995, alleging that the company systematically created a caste system and kept female employees on the lower rungs. Company officials declined to be interviewed, citing the pending lawsuit.

One plaintiff and longtime employee, Atsuko Kimura, 49, said she was once told by a male personnel director that the only women who should work for the company were those who "wanted to do office work or were suitable to become wives for male employees."

Court records and testimony from the plaintiffs indicate that of the 333 employees Kanematsu had on career tracks, only nine were women. Its administration track included 121 women and one man, who was disabled.

Kimura, Koseki and other plaintiffs claim that assigning women to the administration track helped the company routinely pay larger bonuses to men who had no more training than their female counterparts. A court has also been presented with evidence related to Kanematsu's decision to relocate the men in its sales department to the new, sunnier office area in 2001.

A Tokyo district court judge ruled in favor of the company in 2003, arguing that Japan's equal opportunity law does not "prohibit a corporation from applying different hiring, job assignment and promotion rules" to men and women. The case is now on appeal, with a ruling expected this summer.

"There is a 27-year-old man who does almost exactly what I do, and he is already making more than me," said Koseki, a single woman who is set to retire next year. "I've been with the company for 42 years. And the court says that's fair? Well, I strongly disagree."

Special correspondent Akiko Yamamoto contributed to this report.


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