For 30 years, Hisami Naka climbed the ladder of the Japanese pharmaceutical company where she worked. Her superiors loved her work, and told her the company should be paying her more.
But she was a woman, they explained. And women get paid less than men.
Naka, 56, will finally get even. A week ago, she won a court judgment for $260,000 for back pay and discrimination. On Friday, her former employer said it would not appeal the Osaka District Court award.
Naka's legal victory, unusual in both its outcome and size, gives another boost to women trying to break the hidebound traditions that limit women's roles, pay and promotions in the Japanese corporate world.
Last Wednesday, the Mazda Motor Corp. announced it will voluntarily promote about 500 women in its Hiroshima corporate offices. A company spokesman said Mazda's American president, James Miller, decided to reverse "the traditional Japanese way of thinking," in which women serve as assistants to men.
Four months ago, a new law on gender equality took effect with tougher language and new government powers in an attempt to end sex discrimination in the workplace.
"Full-time Japanese women now have the law, and a raised consciousness, and increasing courage to bring a case to court," said Katsuko Terasawa, a lawyer in Osaka specializing in women's issues. "It is not so possible any more to have a woman doing important work and not getting paid what she should."
But these advances face opposition from a corporate world that clings to male prerogatives, and change is being slowed by a sagging economy that some say is hitting those workers on the lower rungs of company ladders--usually women--hardest. Many of those jobs are being converted to part-time or temporary, for even less pay and fewer benefits.
"The situation for women is getting worse," said Keiko Tani, deputy secretary of the Tokyo Women's Union. "We don't have the luxury to fight for the same salary as a man when our very job is in danger."
Women were guaranteed equality in the 1947 constitution dictated by the U.S. occupation forces, a status reaffirmed by an equal opportunity law passed by the Japanese parliament in 1985.
But the laws had little relation to reality. In the Japanese corporate world, women were typically clerical assistants. They were hired for their eagerness and fresh faces, expected to serve tea, act subservient and quit when they got married or had children.
The arrival of well-educated and career-motivated women in the work force has expanded the boundaries of women's roles only slightly. Women still are a rarity in management jobs. At Mazda, for example, almost two years after Miller brought a new attitude toward women to the company, there are only three women among the 700 managers and four women among 2,300 deputy managers.
Nationwide, women earn on average 64 percent as much as men, according to Keizo Kiyokawa, assistant director of the Women's Policy Bureau at the government Labor Ministry. The reason for the gap is because women as a group have less seniority than men, he said.
But even starting in the same entry-level jobs and with the same education, women only get 90 percent of the pay of their male colleagues. The gap widens through the years even if men and women have the same seniority.
"There's a certain amount of distance between what we are aiming at, and what the social attitudes are now," Kiyokawa said. As he spoke in the government office, a young woman poured tea for a visitor, and Kiyokawa's assistant, a woman 10 years older and with nearly twice his seniority, sat quietly by his side. In the government, women constituted only 1.1 percent of management in 1997.
As with many cultural descriptions, statistics may oversimplify the issue for women. The corporate mind-set that helped create the postwar Japanese economic miracle held that Japanese men must be "warriors for the company," willing to work 18 hours a day.
Someone had to raise the children and mind the house, so women were expected to quit their jobs to do that. Until then, they were usually put in jobs where they could be replaced and given more reasonable work hours than men. Some modern Japanese women are not sure the trade-off for higher pay is worth it.
"Many women don't want their lives assimilated by the company," Tani said. "They want to be more independent."
Japanese men still lag far behind Western male spouses in the time they spend on household or family chores. Annual surveys show that working Japanese fathers spend only minutes a day with their children and on household duties.
"We have to abolish the principle that men are responsible for work and women are responsible for the family," Kiyokawa said. "Work and family matters both ought to be shared equally."