The Office Lady in Japan
by Jean Forrest

From the student: After spending over two years in Japan, working in a traditional Japanese office environment, I could not help but feel empathy for the plight of so many Japanese working women. As a foreigner, I am accepted at the same rank as my male Japanese counterparts, but Japanese women are not looked upon for more than to serve tea, and are not considered valuable assests to be promoted into management. Times are changing but mainly in multinational companies. The traditional Japanese companies are still in the dark ages!

From the teacher: Jean took Writing Studio 1 as a nontraditional student enrolled in S.U.'s long-distance, continuing education program (the Independent StudyDegree Program). When she wrote this essay, she was living in Tokyo and working as a manager for an international hotel firm. The second of thethree units in the course called for an essay developed through Peter Elbow's free-writing techniques (Writing with Power), and the choice of topics was open. Jean did not have to look far to find an interesting one.

Two years have now passed, and in that time I feel I have come to some understanding of why the Japanese women that I work with seem to have no inner desire for success or a professional career. These women are called Office Ladies. Office Ladies are referred to as OL's in Japan. Since I work with these women every day, I try to understand what motivates them. I would like to share my perspective of what an Office Lady is in Japanese society, as I believe not many people in the western world understand the interesting role they play. The clearest way for me to do this is to explain some of the background, describe what a typical Office Lady is, her role, her aspirations, and what challenges she faces if she truly wants to be a career woman in Japan.

Historically, in Japan, women have idolized men. They waited on their every whim and desire. Women were educated to perform for their men, to play musical instruments, to sing, to whisper in their ears, and to take care of even their smallest needs. The most famous and highly trained in this profession were the famous Geisha. In the Japanese offices of today, sometimes it seems not much has changed. The cultural traditions of the sexual roles run deep, and women still feel that it is their duty to tend to the needs of their male counterparts.

It is difficult to break from tradition in Japan, because tradition and rules are a way of life. From the time you are a young child in school you are programmed to behave and conform to the group. There is no room for individual ideals and expression. To be the first to break free and strive for your individual belief could run you the risk of being treated as an outcast. The fear of being different or an outcast still plays a strong role in the work place today. Society has a stronger hold over people than the law. Even though there are laws granting equal rights for women, it is a rare case that a woman would actually try to wield her power outside the family home. She would be ostracized for not trying to get along with the group.

The typical OL is between the age of 2l and 30, and is probably a university graduate. She lives at home with her parents and has no desire to move out until she gets married. Dressed in the haute couture of the day, every morning she travels the hour and a half to work on the subway or train. Upon arriving at her locker at work, she changes her fashionable clothes for the navy blue suit which is the standard uniform of almost all OL's. She takes her Louis Vitton or Gucci handbag to her desk, as this is the only real individualistic quality that is allowed of her dress. At 9:30 A.M. her work day is about to start. She is tired, since she has been up for three and a half hours already. She moves slowly and quietly to her tiny desk, which is set in an island format with all of her co-workers surrounding her, ready to jump to duty. Most of the day she will do monotonous jobs, such as paper clipping piles of documents, delivering office memos, and filing. However, her most important role is to be courteous, smile sweetly, make tea, and welcome guests when they come to the office. There is never much relief from the monotony, as even among her fellow workers there is not much conversation. Most of the time, the only issues which are discussed are those which have to do with work. She is an unknown, clone-like in identity, moving through her daily routine like a robot, and not allowing any of her own individuality to shine through.

The role of the OL is to support her co-workers and to be a part of the group or system. She does not have to do a fantastic job; in fact, she does not have to do much of anything, and this is acceptable as long as she does not offend anyone. The interesting side of this is that the OL's are paid quite well, and if you live at home and have no expenses, you end up having a lot of disposable income. Meet the largest consumers in Japan. The OL of Japan makes the wheels of the consumer industry spin. The higher the ticket price or more exotic the item, the more they like it. Buying things allows them a venue to express their own personality and status. It is an escape from the real world at work and at home. They travel, eat in fine restaurants, and buy high ticket luxury items. In many ways they keep the economy turning. The role of the OL is not just confined to the workplace, she has a very important role as a consumer in Japanese society.

I have always wondered how companies can afford to have so many inefficient staff. This is where Japan, Inc., comes into play. It is the responsibility of the business community to keep people employed. They are the social welfare of society. Once you are hired as a graduate from university, you are hired for life. This is slowly changing, but in the majority of cases, it is still a reality. Therefore, the role of the OL is to support her boss, who is 99.9% of the time a man, do menial tasks, look nice, be polite, and spend as much money as she can on consumer goods.

After about a year in my position, I spent time with each one of my female staff to do an evaluation. At the end of the evaluation, I asked each of them their career goals, in the short-term and in the long-term. None of them showed any enthusiasm to move ahead, or to be in a position of more power and responsibility. Not one could foresee leaving the current position that they were in, and had no desire to leave. They wanted to do their job, improve if possible, and be comfortable until the time they got married or had a child, at which time they would be retiring from their career. At first this was really difficult for me to understand, but as time passes and you feel the pressure of your peers around you, you soon understand that life would be very uncomfortable living outside of the acceptable norm. After spending three to four years in university and devoting six or seven years of your life to a company, you will hopefully meet the right person and get married.

The pressure is intense to get married. If you are in your late 20's, your boss will start to introduce you to possible candidates. This is also true for men, although they are given a little more time. In Japanese society, it seems unnatural for a woman to be unmarried by the time she is in her early thirties, and if this is the case, she will probably be introduced to her future spouse by a matchmaker. In Japan, matchmakers are called Go-betweens.

It is when a woman is finally married that she has control over her life, because she runs the household and controls all of the finances. She is free to come and go as she pleases because her husband is always at work, and there is time to socialize with friends and family. This is what the average OL aspires to; a small home, a husband, hopefully one child, and a life of her own.

For a Japanese woman who aspires to have a meaningful career in Japan, it is very difficult, and there are many obstacles in the way. As a foreign woman living in Japan, you are allowed to live by the same rules as Japanese men. It is still difficult for the men, but since you are foreign, they would never expect you to conform or understand the Japanese way of thinking. One of the Japanese women who worked for me was married to an American, so she was quite open-minded. She became pregnant and wanted to work out her term, and come back to work once the baby was born. I thought this would be a great opportunity to show the others that it can be done, and I wanted to support her as much as possible. By the time she was six months pregnant and showing, she received too much criticism from her peers as to why she was still working. It was an embarrassment to have a pregnant lady still working. She finally decided to leave until she had the baby. Once she had the baby, the next issue to face was that of daycare. Unless, you have a relative to look after the child, it is almost impossible to come back to work. There are no daycare facilities which take infants, baby-sitters start at $18.00 per hour, and a nanny would cost approximately $40,000 per year. Needless to say, she did not come back to work.

A Japanese woman who wants to have a career faces an uphill battle. Not only does she have to fight the male dominated system, but she also has to contend with the majority of women who do not understand why she would choose a career instead of a family, because it is not conceivable to have both. "A 1996 survey, for example, found that 37% of Japanese women strongly believed that a home and children were what women really wanted; only 7% of American women agreed"("The New Women in Japan, Free at Last?" The Economist 8 March 97: 35). In some respects, it is not surprising that women choose the domestic life. You only have to look at the work environment and how they are treated to understand why they would choose it as an escape route. The long commutes into work, the boring jobs, and knowing you are never going to be promoted to a management position can really deflate the spirit. Of course, there are laws that say women are to have equal opportunities. In fact, "in 1986 there was a law created to encourage equal opportunity. Large companies have to establish two career tracks for women: one (which most choose) for those who do not want to be a part of management, and one for those who do"(35). The fact that they should actually be made to decide upon entering a company instead of having their skills and qualifications examined tells you something is very wrong with this system. I would love to be a little fly on the wall as the senior management interviews new recruits out of university. I am sure they make the women feel so intimidated and inadequate that they would be terrified to accept such a challenge. It is also in the Japanese culture to say you are not worthy of a position, and that you could never possibly do a good enough job. "Given the frequent transfers, long hours, and lack of domestic help, moving up the corporate ladder all but requires a stay-at-home spouse. Corporate practice has done nothing to adapt to the woman who wants to reach the top and also to bring up a family"(35).

It seems that Japan is 30 years behind in the Western feminist movement, but there are some small changes which are beginning to take place. It is hard to comprehend, but 37 years after the low dose, safe contraceptive pill was ruled safe in America, the Japanese Government has at last agreed, and it should be available in Japan within a year or two. Japanese women will finally have a more reliable form of birth control. Women are also starting to take some action in the workplace against sexual harassment. "There are currently about two dozen sexual harassment cases pending in the court system and in November of 96, 12 female bank employees won $890,000 in compensation and were promoted by court order after they successfully sued the Shiba Credit Association. It was the first time a company had been held liable for sex discrimination in promotion"(35). In 1996, the Tokyo Securities Exchange accepted its first woman floor trader. These accomplishments are not huge, but they are a start.

There have been small accomplishments for myself as well, which I have found rewarding. After many discussions with management, I was able to have the uniform policy removed from my office so that the woman could wear their own professional business attire. At first, there was some apprehension even from the very women for whom I had changed the policy, but it was amazing to see what a small difference the change made. Personalities became more apparent, the women were more willing to be themselves and express their thoughts, and it created a more pleasant environment. No longer were the woman in the office embarrassed to go out for lunch because they were wearing the uniform of an OL.

Change will surely come to the OL in Japan, but it is going to take time. As the older management staff are replaced with younger staff who are more accustomed to working with women, there will be more acceptance of their capabilities. There is some light and hope for the situation, even in my own environment. Just recently, I have been told that I will be having a new staff member join me. I know her, and she is coming back from maternity leave from another department. She will be the first woman in the hotel to ever come back to work after having a baby. Luckily, she has family to support her, and I will also do all I can to support her. It is encouraging, and I do hope all her fellow workers will be just as supportive.

Until Japan Inc. changes dramatically, I do not foresee changes for the OL in Japan in the near future. Until there are changes, the economy hopes they keep serving tea, smiling, and buying expensive goods.


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