TOKYO -- Nearly every Japanese office has them, those demure young women who welcome visitors with a smile and a bow, prepare and pour tea for the men in the office and run their errands.
Popular mythology long has had it that these office ladies, or OLs, are content with their lot, happy to save money and buy clothes in Hong Kong and Hawaii while waiting for Mr. Right.
Now, it turns out that under their calm and smiling exteriors, many OLs are seething with resentment and irritation at the men they work for. Through a rash of new, wickedly humorous card games and in letters to a popular column in a weekly magazine, these supposedly servile women are wreaking what might collectively be titled the Revenge of the OLs.
These unexpected eruptions of discontent not only have shaken the stereotypical view of Japanese women, but they also have jarred the image of those upstanding bureaucrats and executives who have charted Japan's economic miracle. Seen from the perspective of those who pour the tea, Japan's decisive and hard-working captains emerge as ear-nibbling, hard-drinking, helpless and sexually infantile clods. And the new culture of defiant OLs suggests rising dissatisfaction with Japan's traditional division of labor, in which men still hold the important jobs while Japan's highly educated women are assigned mostly low-level, low-paying and low-status jobs or stay at home to raise children.
"The office ladies want more respect and better treatment," said Chinami Shimizu, 27, a former computer programmer and self-described office lady who puts together the popular weekly column in Shukan Bunshun. "Times have changed, so theoretically this kind of behavior should not continue."
The biggest sore point for 1,300 OLs who contribute to Shimizu's column is that their bosses, and other men in their offices, don't take them seriously, treating them as little more than personal servants. The column is filled with anonymous comments detailing the most recent office outrages (such as bosses who nibble ears at office parties, tell them they are "cute" and make more openly suggestive remarks) and cloddish behaviors (such as bosses who constantly pick their noses, are befuddled by telephone hold buttons, unzip and drop their pants in front of the entire office when they tuck in their shirts).
"It was very bad for my heart," a 24-year-old printing company employee reported of the first time the boss tucked in his shirt in front of her.
In a column devoted entirely to the issue of making and serving tea for the office, one OL confessed she hated the task so much that she often squeezes a dirty dishrag into the tea water. Another, forced to serve a particularly detested boss, lined the bottom of his cup with soap or old soy sauce. "Then I served it to him and he drank almost all of it. His taste buds must have been cut," the 22-year-old OL reported with a vengeful satisfaction. A 25-year-old employee of a real estate company reported with disgust that a section chief once asked an OL to cut a sugar cube in half for him with her teeth: "He's been hated by the girls ever since."
"When we graduate university and enter a company, we think of those who receive us as our superiors" and therefore respect them, Shimizu said. "But these old guys don't think of us as part of their ... staff, they just think of us as a new girl. So when they're too busy to go to the bank they have us withdraw the money, or if they have a cut they have us get the Band-Aid and put it on, or buy a present for someone."
According to Tamaki Negishi, who helped create the popular "No-Men-Allowed Office" card game for Yannoman toy company, the game was sparked in part by the increasing interest in "seku-hara" -- sexual harassment in Japan.
The cards feature a menagerie of unattractive men, such as the 45-year-old pervert section chief, the 50-year-old sex fiend executive, the 60-year-old president with body odor, the 33-year-old alcoholic and the 23-year-old lazy complainer. The players are put into awkward, usually sexual, situations and, depending on their luck picking cards, get to tell off the boss by kicking him between the legs, slapping his face or threatening to tell his wife. Unlucky players, however, end up having the affair or tearfully enduring some office indignity.
"This is a hit with office ladies because it is used to relieve their frustrations," said Negishi, who used the experiences of her OL friends to develop the game. Another game, "This Is What You're Thinking, Right?," instructs players to use real names from the office. The players then pick cards with such blunt assessments as, "I will kick his ass at the company trip," or "He was rude to try and get me to go to a hotel so I will get back at him at the next conference."
Not all of the games, however, work on the theme of telling off the men at work. "We Can Play for 24 Hours," a board game, is also popular these days. Its goal is to marry a handsome, rich second son. In Japan, the wife of the first-born son is expected to take care of the in-laws in their dotage, a task few OLs nowadays are eager to take on.