IN Japan, as in much of Asia, most women give up working once they marry and have children. Yoko Sato is a rare exception. She married, bore a son, and has continued her career as a newspaper reporter for 32 years. As a writer for the liberal Asahi newspaper, Mrs. Sato writes about women's issues and has tracked the entry of women into low-level corporate jobs over the past decade.
In Japan, female corporate leaders are even more rare than women in positions similar to hers, Sato says. The few women who hold leadership posts in Japan often have been appointed by male chieftains, primarily to present an image or to deal with women-related affairs, she says: ``Behind female leaders are always men.''
While many women in the United States have reached a stage where they are learning how to lead, Japanese women are just trying to be treated equally, Sato says. ``I think we are in a time of initial change.''
The little progress that has been made has resulted from the equal education policy instated during the US occupation of postwar Japan and the Equal Employment Opportunity Law of 1985. With the law and college degrees on their side, women are creeping into the corporate ranks. ``The bottom of the pyramid is becoming thick,'' she says.
Before the employment law went into effect, few Japanese companies hired women - even if they were highly educated. Of those hired, most were assigned simple tasks. Those who acquired better jobs have reached only middle-management positions today.
``We have not come to the [American] stage, yet,'' Sato says. ``Japan is a society where the consciousness of gender role is still strong. Once a woman gets married, she is expected to stay home, do housework, and raise children.'' Men, on the other hand, are expected to work long hours. Their spouses must take on twice as much housework as when they were single.
But a silent protest is under way. ``Though Japanese women don't yell at men, they are nonetheless using a sort of force,'' Sato says.
Many of today's young career women are caught between wanting to work and wanting marriage and children, says Sato. Women in their late 20s are delaying marriage or, if married, having fewer children. Japan now has one of the world's lowest birth rates, a demographic fact that worries the government.
Sato says she faced this dilemma in her 30s. She resolved it by marrying a man who understood her desire to continue working - and who does housework.
``While the number of women who try to continue their work is increasing,'' she says, ``Japanese ways of thinking about gender roles must be broken so that women can enjoy life without giving up their femininity.''
JAPAN'S worsening labor shortage has provided new opportunities for house-bound wives. Many are seeking volunteer or part-time jobs. As economic independence has increased among these former housewives, so has divorce among Japanese women in their 40s.
``Through several outside activities, they have come to realize the contradictions in Japanese society,'' says Sato. ``Then, they often clash with their husbands.''
Sex discrimination is still the norm in Japanese society, Sato says. In roll calls at schools, for example, teachers still put boys before girls. Women who protest beauty contests are viewed as hysterical. Some men still don't understand that fondling a female worker at the office constitutes sexual harassment. Moreover, ``some women may not even notice discrimination unless another point of view is put forward,'' Sato says.
``Even if women want to quickly change the traditional practices of men, it will take 10, 20, or even 50 years,'' she says. The only way change can take place here is to ``increase the number of women workers in several fields.''