In Tokyo today, it is rare to see Japanese women in silk kimonos meekly following men who strut three steps ahead. " . . . now most Japanese women prefer to wear Calvin Klein jeans or an Yves St. Laurent suit," and walk beside their boyfriends, writes Jane Condon. But "once inside a chic little French restaurant, they will pour their boyfriends' tea and debone their fish, much as their mothers did for their fathers," she writes. "In their minds, the majority of Japanese women still follow their men -- not three steps any longer but a half step behind."

But the status of Japanese women is still "by far the lowest . . . in advanced industrial societies, at least to Western eyes," writes Condon, an American who has lived in Japan since 1981 as a stringer for People and Life magazines. She carefully explains in this book of interviews with Japanese housewives, career women, blue-collar workers, students and bar hostesses that the key qualifier is "to Western eyes."

Because in Japanese men's eyes, women wield a lot of power, at least at home. Today, it is common for Japanese husbands to hand over their entire paychecks to their wives, who then allocate an allowance. It's the husband who must plead with his wife for a new pair of shoes. As the saying goes, since the war, women and nylon stockings have indeed become stronger.

But "not strong enough" is the message of Condon's book, even though she writes that Japanese women are a satisfied lot. In a 1983 survey of women in six countries cited by Condon, "Japanese women topped the list in believing in separate roles for women and men (71 percent); putting one's husband and family first (72 percent); and affirming that housework is the woman's responsibility (89 percent)." According to the author, another survey revealed that more women than men (80 percent versus 74 percent) were "content with their lives."

Kiyomi Saito, a graduate of Harvard Business School and former secretary to Sony Chairman Akio Morita, is not content. She says, "Do you know how Japan keeps its unemployment figures at only 2 percent? The full-time, lifetime employes are all men. The second tier of workers are full-time women who are forced to quit after two to three years when they get married or have babies. The third tier of workers are the part-timers who are housewives. They receive no social security benefits or bonuses. The worst thing is that women are not calculated in the unemployment figures. In this way, women are not considered people. People who are born women have already lost the business game. This gets me mad."

The sacrifices a Japanese mother makes for her children are legendary and are depicted daily in the mass media. She has become a cultural stereotype -- the tender, devoted mother and wife, the bedrock upon which Japanese society is built. A husband, as some of the wives admit in this book, merely brings home the paycheck. Most of his time is spent in the office or gallivanting about after dark to discuss business strategies in bars and nightclubs. Meanwhile, at home, mothers are busy taking care of the children and making sure their homework gets done.

Some of these women and their daughters are interviewed in Condon's book, offering their views as to why they tend to remain in their comfortable niche and why it is so difficult to go beyond the traditional roles that a comformist society quietly but sternly imposes on them. There are, of course, many women who have succeeded in large corporations and many more who have struck gold by creating businesses on their own, as well as physicians, writers, journalists, politicians and artists, but not many of these women appear in "A Half Step Behind."

For the American audience, Condon's book provides a rare opportunity for Japanese women to speak their minds and show how the other half really lives. To Japanese men such as myself, "A Half Step Behind" shows that some of the old ways must change.