AS IMMIGRANT Asian and Third World workers flood into Japan, attracted by the dynamic economy, a steady stream of young Japanese, many of them women, are moving to the United States. Abandoning dead-end jobs, they go abroad in search of a new identity free from the constraints of this highly conformist, status-conscious society.

Rigid social norms govern every aspect of Japanese life. A woman is expected to marry, preferably in her early or mid-twenties, have children and run the household. Around the age of 30, "Miss" assumes a negative connotation. Of course, this is sexual stereotyping, but the real problem is a society that categorizes everyone by social role.

Why do you have to be like everyone else in this society? Who wants to marry just anyone? Still, if you wait for Mr. Right, you're in a quandary.

For many years, I worked in an office, but lacking professional training, I was relegated to perfunctory tasks. There was little chance of promotion or personal fulfillment. Other employees, especially those younger than myself, wondered why I stayed on, making me feel self-conscious and out of place.

In the 1980s, many women rejected the narrow choice of marriage or a career, left Japan and struck out on their own. Most went to the United States, where, unhampered by role stereotyping, they could acquire a working knowledge of English and find challenging work and maybe even a spouse.

After several years of hesitation, I made a break. In 1981, at age 31, I headed for the greener pastures of San Francisco.

I went to the United States on a tourist visa and soon ran out of money and had to look for work. One day I saw a poster advertising the Nobirukai (Japanese Newcomers' Services), a group of Japanese expatriates who counsel recent arrivals about visas, work, housing, school, legal aid and medical care. The Nobirukai was just what I needed. Most of the association's members were women about my age. Impressed by their devotion and efficiency, I, too, later volunteered.

One of the members told me, "Japan is a hard place for women. Those of us who don't think marriage is the answer, or who don't want to spend the rest of our lives as drones, have a third choice: leaving the country."

"Most Japanese women who end up here," Emiko said, "are past 30. They don't have definite goals when they arrive, but they are determined to find their own lifestyle -- something that's difficult to do in Japan. They are social refugees."

The intriguing expression "social refugees" seemed an apt term for misfits like myself. Unlike political or economic refugees, Japan's runaways are fleeing an oppressive conformism.

Women join the Nobirukai because they are subjected to greater psychological stress than males. Not bound by a management position or status considerations, they are also freer to drop out and start over.

Japanese society has always generated square pegs. Before the age of foreign travel, they suffered in silence, resigned to their fate.

For nearly two decades after World War II, overseas travel was restricted because of a foreign exchange shortage. In 1964 the curbs were lifted, enabling ordinary citizens to visit other countries.

In the 1970s and 1980s, young people took short group tours and package excursions to the United States. The trend accelerated after 1980, when the strong yen made travel cheap and America a tourist bargain. Last year, about 10 million Japanese were abroad. Many are staying and putting down roots.

Every year, between 4,000 and 5,000 Japanese apply to reside permanently in the United States. Today, there is a sizeable expatriate community in most major American cities.

But not everyone succeeds in acquiring the coveted green card. I spent 20 months in the United States, 15 of them working illegally. In the mid-1980s, there were 10 million undocumented foreigners in the United States; about 17,000 were Japanese.

I applied for immigrant status but was turned down. Threatened with imprisonment for overstaying my visa, I had no choice but to come home. I wrote a book about my experiences and became a freelance journalist. Since then many single women have told me that they, too, longed to leave Japan. It is distressing to think that nothing has changed in the 10 years since my American sojourn. If anything, today more women are looking for a way out.

The mass media deride them for wanting to live abroad, labelling the phenomenon the "spinsters syndrome." Even in the United States, hostile commentators say, "They'll never master English."

The male-dominated media, of course, miss the point. What kind of society makes life so difficult for young women that they prefer to live elsewhere?

Few men realize how liberating the decision to act on one's deepest feelings can be. Taking responsibility for your destiny requires courage and determination, but the rewards more than compensate for any hardship. Women discover an inner strength that enables them to shape a more self-reliant, satisfying existence.

Being an outsider in your own country is no fun. Sexism leads to alienation, which can exact a heavy psychological toll. But despite the risks, we are staking out new territory, creating an alternative lifestyle and pluralistic value system that respects individuality and diversity. The search for a new identity transforms our personal relationships.

Social refugees inhabit an exciting world beyond the Establishment's imagination. It's time Japan heeded these quiet voices.

Michiko Yamamoto is a free-lance writer. This article, excerpted from the Japanese weekly Asahi Journal, was translated by The Asia Foundation's Translation Service Center.