IN 1965, Kiyoko Kitagawa did something unusual for a woman employee at a Japanese corporation: She got married and stayed in her job.
Her boss at Sumitomo Metal Industries Ltd., one of Japan's biggest steelmakers and a member of the venerable Sumitomo group, did not admire this expression of corporate loyalty. He gave her a desk next to his and nothing to do - for 18 months. Thus began her struggle with discrimination against women, a struggle that now seems destined to change relations between the sexes in the Japanese workplace.
Ms. Kitagawa passed the time by reading. A soft-voiced woman whose face can look worried and calm at the same time, she remembers appreciating the suffering-enhanced characters created by Chekhov and Dostoyevsky. ''They faced up to hardships,'' she explains.
In 1968, Kitagawa again tested the boundaries permissible in the Japanese workplace. This time she had a baby and insisted that she would continue working.
Her boss calmly told her, she says, that ''even with dogs and cats, children are raised at their mothers' hands, but you leave your child at a day-care center. You're lower than a dog.''
In spite of the unpleasant early years, Kitagawa has stayed with Sumitomo Metal. She reports that other superiors have been supportive of her independence and given her fulfilling assignments.
But a few years ago, a personnel manager said something that disturbed her so deeply that it has become the basis of what promises to be a landmark legal case.
Kitagawa says she was incensed to hear a personnel director tell her that managers routinely give women employees mediocre job evaluations in order to justify lack of promotion and lower wages.
At about the same time, she says, she learned that a younger male colleague serving as her assistant was making $20,000 more per year. All around her, she asserts, she had watched men with similar educational backgrounds rise faster and get paid more.
On Aug. 8, she and eight other women employees of three Sumitomo companies filed a suit charging their employers with sex discrimination in pay and promotion, and demanding millions of dollars in back pay they say they would have received if they were men.
Officials at Sumitomo Metal deny any discrimination, although they declined requests to be interviewed for this story.
The lawsuit is symbolic of a growing determination on the part of Japanese women to fight for better treatment in the workplace.
But the issue is not just equal pay for equal work - the women are also attacking the way Japan's postwar economy is structured. Their struggle is as much on behalf of men as it is against inequities that favor men in the workplace.
''We want to remove discrimination against women, but also we have to correct the traditional employment system,'' says Mitsuko Miyaji, an Osaka lawyer representing the women.
Ms. Miyaji shares her clients' goal, and at times can sound like a revolutionary: ''I want to destroy this system.''
The 'M' curve
What these women are up against is illustrated by a newsletter put out this summer by the union at Sumitomo Metal's Osaka headquarters. A section on ''June brides'' suggests how early to order invitations and when to book a reception hall - and reminds women workers to submit their resignation a month before their wedding.
The union newsletter is evidence that working women in Japan remain bound by expectations that do not apply to men.
The tradition is this: After graduation from high school, junior college, or university, women join a company, preferably a prestigious one likely to draw good potential husbands.
Usually the women do clerical jobs. After several years of work, they resign before marriage, or at the latest, when they have a child. Often they return to the workforce as part-time or temporary workers once their children have grown.
This pattern produces the oft-noted ''M'' curve on charts showing women's workforce participation in Japan. Women in their late 20s and 30s leave the workforce in vast numbers, causing the dip in the ''M.'' (See chart, far right.)
The pattern also produces two notable effects for working women. They don't rise into the ranks of management, nor do they earn as much as men.
According to the International Labor Organization, Japanese women are paid 59 percent of what their male counterparts make (see chart, left).
Women, says Mariko Bando, the former director of the Prime Minister's Office for Gender Equality, ''do not participate in public life, and they do not hold high management positions in their workplaces.''
Labor Ministry statistics for 1993 show that only 8.5 percent of Japan's management jobs were held by women.
For the younger generation, this state of affairs means a paucity of role models. Recently a young woman graduate of Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo, one of the nation's finest colleges, sat in a trim yellow suit and talked about her new job at Hitachi Corporation.
At a role playing session, even though she is part of a group destined to become executives, her mostly male colleagues picked her to be the secretary. ''I have never seen a woman in management at Hitachi,'' she says.
Laws favor companies
Partly because women had been agitating for some legal support, and partly because Japan needed to fulfill the terms of a United Nations convention it had signed, the government approved an Equal Employment Opportunity Law (EEOL) in 1986. The measure was not designed to erase inequities, but to lay the foundation for greater equality in the future.
Almost 10 years later, the results are mixed. Some women say the law has provided psychological reassurance. It has also encouraged companies to make sure that a few young women are included in their so-called general tracks - career paths that lead to management - as distinguished from clerical tracks.
But critics assert that the law is virtually unenforceable. In recruiting, hiring, assigning, and promoting workers, the EEOL states, ''employers shall endeavor to give women equal opportunity with men.''
These provisions, says Osaka lawyer Miyaji, are ''so vague, so loose - they're pro-company.''
When employees submit a claim of discrimination, the law's enforcement mechanism requires the Labor Ministry and the company in question to agree to a mediation procedure.
There is no way, as Labor Ministry officials concede, to force a company to change its practices.
In the case of companies that do not agree to mediation, notes Masako Owaki, a member of Japan's upper house of parliament who is working to revise the law, ''the Labor Ministry issues decrees asking companies not to discriminate; but that hasn't had any effect because they are not legally binding.''
The only recourse is the courts, where complex civil litigation can take decades. ''If you file a case at the age of 40,'' says Ms. Owaki, who is also a lawyer, ''you'll be past working age by the time it's resolved.''
There are other complaints. ''To address the requirements of the law,'' writes Chizuko Ueno, a professor of sociology at Tokyo University, ''companies immediately introduced two-track personnel advancement systems consisting of a career track and a non-career track, changing gender discrimination into 'personal choice.' But less than 1 percent of newly hired women graduates enter the career track.''
Japan's four-year-old recession has complicated the situation for younger women. Despite constant pressure to cut costs, big companies continue to hire men for their general tracks, but female college graduates report they can barely get interviews, much less job offers.
Meanwhile, it has become increasingly difficult to obtain clerical-track positions, since older women are staying on the job longer. They have successfully used the law, as well as Japan's constitutional protections for women, to stay at work after marriage and childbirth.
Only one company has ever agreed to have the Labor Ministry mediate a discrimination dispute under the EEOL - Sumitomo Metal, in a case filed by Kitagawa.
Kitagawa and other women from Sumitomo companies put together a pay and promotion discrimination case. Sumitomo Metal agreed to mediation, and a panel of three academics chosen by the ministry held hearings late last year.
In February, the panel urged the company to educate its managers to make full use of women workers and to give both sexes equal opportunity in training programs. It also urged Sumitomo Metal to make it easier for clerical workers to rise into the general track.
But the panel did not address any of the individual claims for redress advanced by Kitagawa and six other Sumitomo Metal employees. The women rejected the panel's decision.
Instead they are trying the courts, teaming up with women from two other Sumitomo companies.
''It's a new type of case,'' says Reiko Shoji, a publisher and activist who has been involved in women's issues in Osaka since 1975. ''In the old days, a lot of women gave up in their offices. They didn't get angry, and they didn't have enough power to fight the companies.''
Opposing the social system
But as Kitagawa's lawyer, Miyaji, argues, the opponent in this case is not merely the companies. It is the very structure of Japan's employment system.
''[M]ost Japanese men,'' writes William K. Tabb in a new book on ''The Postwar Japanese System,'' ''spend nearly all of their waking hours commuting and working for their companies. They have little time to be fathers, or to think of doing much housework. Japan was built on the six-day week and the longest work year in the industrialized world.''
In return they are all but guaranteed lifetime employment and at least a livable income.
Women cannot participate in this equation as full-fledged, ''general track'' employees unless they make sacrifices; Professor Tabb notes that most women who rise into senior management levels are unmarried.
The Japanese emphasis on family as the basic unit of society effectively demands that women be home to raise children, oversee their education, and nurture the workaholism of their husbands. The tax system, for instance, is structured to discourage a significant second income.
Women fill in the interstices in the labor market as low-cost, expendable temporary and part-time workers.
''In Japan there is a belief that even though women's wages are lower than those of men,'' says Ms. Bando, the former government adviser on gender equality, ''that's the way it is because men are the breadwinners.''
At the end of a long interview, Kitagawa and Yasuko Yatani, a Sumitomo co-worker who is also involved in the lawsuit, do not make strident statements about women's equality or the evil that men do. The problem, for them, is not so much between the sexes but within the economic system.
Despite all the talk of Japanese prosperity and egalitarianism, Kitagawa says, ''workers here don't really enjoy their lives. They work too hard - sometimes to death - sacrificing their private lives. This is the problem in our society.''
''Men have no time for leisure,'' she adds. ''Mothers are the only ones who take care of children. There's no good communication between husbands and wives.''
Even children, Ms. Yatani says, must work too hard and attend after-school study classes to succeed. ''Men have no time to go to the movies or talk to their families.''
'Workers here don't really enjoy their lives. They work too hard - sometimes to death - sacrificing their private lives. This is the problem in our society.'