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Japan: more wives work, more young women seek 'male' jobs

Emi Uehara works in Shiga Prefecture as the director of the culture section of a government office, a position she attained by competitive examination. Although she is married, she chose to live apart from her husband in Tokyo for one year to take the opportunity to be a section director.

She is hardly typical. Few Japanese women are willing or able to commit themselves so fully to a career. Yet Ms. Uehara is part of a growing number of young women who are choosing to explore opportunities for full-time, professional careers in traditionally male fields.

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Women constitute almost 40 percent of the Japanese labor force. Of these workers, 64 percent are married. These women defy the popular stereotype of the Japanese woman who marries at a young age, devotes herself fully to raising children and keeping house, and avoids full-time employment.

Almost all young women work for three to five years after they complete their schooling, and a growing percentage returns to work around the age of 40, when their children are more independent. Nevertheless, these women face considerable pressure when they choose to continue to work after marrying and having children.

It is traditional sentiment that without a mother's total commitment, a child's emotional development and security may be threatened. Ilustrative of this is a headline in one major newspaper: "Son of working mother commits suicide."

Employers rarely hire women, particularly those who are married, on a long-term basis. In discussing the employment "track" system which determines the promotion of an employee, Joyce Lebra, in her study "Women in Changing Japan ," quotes one employer as saying: "There is no elite track for women. They marry." Because of this assumption, companies hire women for short-term, unskilled work, a practice that provides a cheap and flexible labor pool.

Such hiring practices cause 33 percent of young women to enter secretarial, service, or "coffee girl" employment. This kind of work is often a filler between college and marriage, and, in the case of "coffee girl" or "gofer" jobs, requires little more than doing errands or serving coffee and juice to executives.

Women like Ms. Uehara, who try to pursue demanding careers in government or business, often face limitations. She was a graduate of Japan's prestigious University of Tokyo, a school that produces many government bureaucrats. Despite her excellent background, however, she was told by several government ministries, before she found a position in the Ministry of Labor, that they did not want a woman.

Social pressures against married women working, particularly apart from their spouses, persist for Ms. Uehara. She was surprised by the number of men who thought that she should quit her job when she married. She commented later: "The reason was that if women continue their jobs, men can't have a chance to get a job. And my husband must feel alone at home."

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Women have legal equality guaranteed by the Constitution, and under the impetus of International Women's Year in 1975, the prime minister's office set up a number of guidelines to encourage the promotion of equal employment opportunities. Yet such aids as day-care facilities or flexible working hours are extremely limited, if they exist at all.

Women are still hampered by regulations such as the Labor Standards Law, which prevents them from working late at night or more than six hours of overtime per week.In a working world that regularly demands late hours from employees, these constraints severely limit women.

These laws also support companies that say they will not hire women because of the job demands might conflict with such restraints. This is so in such a field as news reporting, which demands great flexibility and often a significant amount of overtime work. In the past 20 years, Sankei News, one of the eight largest Japanese newspaper companies, hired 25 women. Nikei News, another major newspaper company, hired only 4.

Social and legal obstacles together have maintained women's low profile in professional and managerial positions. In 1978, women constituted only 5.5 percent of such posts. At present, 2.5 percent of lawyers and judges are women; women make up 5.1 percent of scientific researchers.

Women's work opportunities are beginning to expand, however. As economic pressures increase, more young women and wives are beginning to work to maintain a high standard of living. And the need for good English translators and interpreters is helping women to enter the work force. As one free-lance translator remarked, opportunity was good, as "work using English does not invade men's territories. Besides, the demand for English speakers is growing rapidly."

Traditional attitudes still relegate women to "appropriate" jobs. Keiko Chino, an international news reporter in Tokyo, concluded: "It will be a long time before women can compete on an equal level with men for business and executive positions in private companies.

"But in the long term I am optimistic about the expanding role of women. Because this is the worldwide trend, sooner or later even the Japanese must recognize such a trend.This year is said to be an era of women in Japan. Recently, a first woman ambassador was appointed. Maybe we will have such 'firsts' for the time being. But it is a positive step."

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