Friday, December 13, 2013

Memories of Japan: Office Ladies

Japanese office ladies on their way to work
Today is Friday, December 13, 2013.

A couple of months after my husband and I arrived in Japan to live permanently, I landed a job teaching English conversation at Berlitz.  Back in those days, the economy of Japan was booming, and people were looking for ways to spend their money.  Companies were expanding and sending their employees overseas to do business.  Berlitz was booming, too, with students, including enterprising high school and university students who were planning to study abroad, movie and TV stars, high-level managers and entry-level employees from all kinds of companies (some of whom were well-known in Japanese business circles throughout the country), and bored, middle-aged wives of rich men, who had nothing better to do.  When the companies were footing the bill, they sent their best and brightest employees, but only the guys.  When a businesswoman came to Berlitz, she generally paid out of her own pocket for the lessons, which were not cheap.  I came to realize that most of these women were desperately hoping to better their situation in life, and they were willing to pay big bucks for English lessons.  

I spent a year with Berlitz in Osaka, then hung out my own shingle, so to speak, as an English conversation teacher, working out of my own home, and I never lacked for students.  I taught elementary age children, high schoolers, housewives, and a few businessmen and public school teachers.  My private clientele were people who could afford the lessons, but couldn't afford the Berlitz prices.  Two of my private students were university women, just finishing their undergraduate degrees.  They didn't know each other when they first came, but I introduced them and asked if they'd like to come together because I knew they couldn't quite afford private lessons.  The arrangement worked out well, and the girls were a lot of fun to talk to.  

Once they graduated, they began to look for work, hoping to be hired by the biggest company that would take them.  They had both graduated from a top women's university, so they were recruited by some of the best companies.  I asked them what sort of work they wanted to do.  

"I want to be an OL," they said. 

"What's that?" 

"Office lady," was the reply.  

"What does an office lady do?"

This was a little harder to answer, but over the years, I began to get the sense of it.  An office lady does just about anything: basically, whatever the guys in the office want her to do.  

One of them landed a plum job with C. Itoh, as it was known until 1992, now known as Itōchū (as it has always been known in Japan).  Itōchū is the largest trading company in Japan, and now ranked 174th on the list of Fortune Global 500 companies.  The girls' English lesson was scheduled for the evening of her first day at work, so as soon as the lesson started, we excitedly asked her to tell about her first day.  

I realized with some surprise that she was deeply disappointed in her new job, and I soon found out why.  There were a number of women who had been hired all at the same time.   The young ladies were all assembled in one room, with bright, shining faces and all wearing their spanking new company uniforms.  The trainer, a man, proceeded to welcome them to the company, but told them that the company's expectation was that the vast majority of them – if not all of them – would eventually quit once they got married, and if not right after their marriage, then certainly as soon as they were pregnant.  I hated to admit this, but it was true.  As I've written before, a single woman's place in the order of things is at the very bottom of Japanese society.  Things may have changed a bit since then, but at the time, they had essentially no value in society until and unless they married and had children, preferably boy-children.

The young women were told that the company did not intend to invest much time in training them for a specific job, and that they would be expected to do various general housekeeping and "go-fer" jobs around the office.  They learned that they would be supervised by the older women on staff, who would assign them to do the most menial tasks: scrubbing the office toilets, vacuuming the carpet, dusting office furniture, and serving tea to the guys in the office, as well as for "guests" and clients.  They would be expected to go out and get cigarettes for the guys, or buy presents for wives, girlfriends and mistresses.  They would make copies, send faxes, answer the telephone, and keep the office supplies coming.  Since the only way to have things printed in Japanese, in those days, was to have an offset press, the office ladies would be expected to write out various business documents with pen and ink.

Remember, this is Japan we're talking about, and the sheer number of Japanese characters used in communication made it impossible for the Japanese to use typewriters, unless they were typing something in English, so a lot of things were written by hand back in those days.  Employees who had extremely neat, precise handwriting were in demand, not only in private, for-profit businesses, but also in the government, especially at the local level.  Who did all that writing?  The office ladies. 

So-called "word processors," essentially glorified typewriters that allowed you to type a whole sentence and edit it before pressing the return key, were in limited use, but not yet modified for the Japanese writing system.  Computers for use in business were still huge, boxy machines that took up a whole room.  I never saw a woman working on one of the big computers, but I did see women learning how to use the standard QWERTY keyboard, and this proved to be a very useful skill, indeed.  Desktop computers came into use on a limited basis in the mid 1980s, with software that converted the ABCs into the syllabary characters, with an option to print the appropriate Chinese character (kanji).  At Berlitz, we trained one particular "office lady" named Wachi  (her surname, and I never knew her first name) on special software.

Those of you who were around and working on desktop computers in those days no doubt remember how touchy they were.  It was easy to erase what you had just typed, or delete whole files, and there were a lot of bugs in the programming.  The computer programmer who worked with Wachi to learn how to use the special software, a happy-go-lucky young man from Scotland, was exasperated at the frequency with which Wachi managed to crash the computer.  He finally programmed in a screen message that said, "You did it again, Wachi!" whenever she messed up.  Wachi quietly and  doggedly mastered the use of both hardware and software.  

One of my students at Berlitz was a woman named Ms. Watanabe.  Once again, I never used her first name, even if I knew it.  She told me about the double-standard system of employment in Japanese companies.  Basically, you were either on "A Track" or "B Track."   All male employees were on A Track, and their salary increased incrementally throughout their career, until they reached a certain level, at which time they were either made part of the management structure or not.  The managers' salaries would continue to increase exponentially, while the other A Track employees' salaries would start to top out, increasing only slightly to keep up with the cost of living until the employee retired. 

B Track included all the female employees, and their salaries started out much lower than that of the men who entered the ranks at the same time.  As the trainer at Itōchū had told the young women, companies did not expect their female employees to stay long.  If they were 22 or 23 when they were hired, they were generally expected to stay a maximum of about 10 years, and most of them were expected to be history within five years.  This was, unfortunately, a pretty good estimate of what actually occurred.  After all, what woman in her right mind would forgo marriage if the right guy appeared and the family approved?  Who wouldn't want to come up a bit in society?  Who would turn her back on getting a little more respect from other people?   It's pretty much a vicious cycle, because when the girls realize that their careers will never truly advance, and that their salary is never going to amount to much – it will positively flatline once they hit age 30 – why should they stay?

If you think this is only true in Japan, you are dreaming. This is true for women all over the world, even right here in the United States, even now.  Sure, it's more of a deal in rural areas than in the cities, and more powerful in the South and the Midwest than in other parts of the country, but think about it: A wedding makes you Queen for a Day (plus all the days of the formal engagement before the wedding and for at least a few weeks after).  And we still treat our young pregnant mothers with a great deal of awe and respect.  Women will attest to this.  Young women are showered with gifts when they marry and when they have a new baby.  Whom do you have more respect for: a young mother or a single working girl?  Think about it.  For too many young woman, a job is just something to do between high school graduation and marriage.  This is doubly true in Japan.

Both Japan and the United States have undergone social and economic changes, over the years.  In both countries, young women are waiting a bit longer to get married, and it is a lot more acceptable for women to continue their careers after marriage, and even throughout the childbearing years.  And in the United States and Canada, it's much more acceptable for young couples to live together without a legal marriage contract.  Still, marriage is a powerful attraction for women, and in Japan, if you were over 30 and still single, you were referred to as an "old miss," their version of our expression "old maid."  I would surmise that the age threshold for becoming an "old miss" has probably gone up slightly, but I doubt very much that the term has gone away completely.

Japanese women account for 48% percent of the university graduates, and yet, even these days, only 67% of college-educated women are employed.  Many of these are in low-paying part-time jobs in retail and the restaurant industry, or in dead-end "office lady" positions. Japanese women are more likely to quit working voluntarily (74% as opposed to 31% of American women).   For American women, the issue is generally the difficulty and expense of finding childcare.  For Japanese women, the main issue is unsupportive work environments and managers who fail to value them as employees.  68% of those surveyed said they quit because their job was not satisfying.  49% said they left because they felt stymied and stalled at work, with no prospects for career advancement.  This is not surprising, given the tracking system that Ms. Watanabe told me about.  When the young women see that the male employees get the plum assignments, even though the women are just as qualified, it's no wonder that they quit in frustration.

I noticed that Ms. Watanabe's English lessons were paid for by her company, and I asked her why.  She said she had begged and pleaded to be allowed onto the "A Track."  Her boss was not supportive of this at all, saying the company was sure she would leave as soon as she found a husband.  Watanabe was already in her late 30s when I met her.  Watanabe said she had to promise that she would never marry and that she would stay with the company and do whatever it took to advance.  They moved her to A Track, against what they considered to be their better judgment.  Ms. Watanabe told me that even if she found a man, she would never marry. She said she was doing this not just for herself, but for all Japanese women.  Her bosses fully expected her to cave in, and she intended to show them that they were wrong.  How sad it was to see this brave young woman have to give up marriage and family for the sake of a career, just to prove to men that she could. 

A recent article in Time magazine mentions the fact that wives in Japan still spend much more time doing housework and childcare per day than their husbands, and they are often expected to take care of the husband's aging parents, as well.  Strict labor laws make it hard to find domestic help, and Japanese working women cannot sponsor a visa for a nanny from another country, the way American women can.  As well, options such as childcare for female workers and flex-time schedules are still largely unavailable in Japan.  

With their economy in shambles, especially since the devastating earthquake and tsunami, not to mention the Fukushima nuclear disaster, Japan needs more workers, and the answer to their problem will have to be making it easier for married women to work.  According to the data mentioned in the Time article, 77% of the women surveyed said they would like rejoin the workforce if possible, after their children are older.  If women were given an honest chance to work, 8.2 million people could be added to the workforce, and Japan's economy could boost itself by 15%, according to data by Goldman Sachs.

Not only that, but the population of Japan is aging and shrinking faster than that of any other developed nation.  In 1990, working-age Japanese outnumbered children and the elderly by 7 to 3, but by the year 2050, if the current conditions remain, the ration of working-age adults to children and elderly will be 1 to 1.  This means Japan simply cannot afford to keep her women from marrying and having children.

An article in Women News Network published last May says that Japan is now rethinking its cultural bias against working women.  Right now, 80% of working-age men are employed, where only 60% of working-age women are working outside the home.  (They're working, all right, just not ouside the home, for pay.) 

The government is coming up with some "womenomics" strategies.  Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced plans to establish tax incentives for working mothers, a better system of daycare, and more female representation on executive boards.  

Minhee Yushi, a freelance graphic designer, commented on the fact that she got less work after the birth of her son. "Japan has this perception in its culture that women with children cannot work," she said.

Naoko Toyoda took a maternity leave and then went back to work on a flex-time schedule.   Unfortunately, she quit a short time later.  The reason?  "Once you move into flexible working hours, there's a rule that you get demoted to the same level as the new starters."   As you can see, the Japanese have their work cut out for them, if they want to attract women back into the workforce. 

In addition to the changes proposed by Prime Minister Abe and less restrictive flex-time policies, I really hope Japanese companies will get rid of the whole tracking system that keeps women relegated to dead-end jobs.  I hope never again to hear a Japanese women say that she is an "office lady."   :-/


Ronney Bla said...

It sad to see Japan,one of the major economy in the world has such horrible treatment towards women.

It's no wonder those Japanese OLs fled to Bali and seek the service of gigolos there.

>Among Japanese OLs, the demand for Balinese beach boys peaked about 10 years ago. Now, says Murakami, it’s Japan’s sex industry workers who vacation there.

Do you know any Japanese OLs that went to Bali to find Bali gigolos? I wonder if it mostly older Japanese OLs or younger Japanese OLs or both that seek the Bali gigolos.

Ronney Bla said...

It sad to see Japan,one of the major economy in the world has such horrible treatment towards women.

It's no wonder those Japanese OLs fled to Bali and seek the service of gigolos there.

>Among Japanese OLs, the demand for Balinese beach boys peaked about 10 years ago. Now, says Murakami, it’s Japan’s sex industry workers who vacation there.

Do you know any Japanese OLs that went to Bali to find Bali gigolos? I wonder if it mostly older Japanese OLs or younger Japanese OLs or both that seek the Bali gigolos.