Is sexism an Asian value?

The Japanese corporate success story hides an old-fashioned attitude to women in the workplace, writes Peter Popham

Just as we were poised to discard the Victorian values thrust on us by Mrs Thatcher and embrace instead the "Asian values" expounded by Chris Patten, David Howell, and at times it seems Tony Blair, a timely note of warning has been sounded. From the promisingly named town of Normal, Illinois, comes news that some 700 women employees at Mitsubishi Motor Company's plant there are to sue the giant Japanese company for sexual harassment - or seku-hara as it is called in Japanese.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says that the women were subjected to a "hostile and abusive work environment", involving groping and fondling, lewd graffiti and obscene remarks. The vice-chairman of the Commission, Paul Igasaki, said, "This case should send the strongest message that sexual harassment ... will not be tolerated."

While those accused of the harassment were apparently Americans working on the assembly line, the commission noted the activity could not have gone on "without the knowledge and consent ... of the management."

The events in Normal may be entirely abnormal, a freak consequence of loss of management control. But taken in tandem with the case of the City trader Helen Bamber, who a fortnight ago won pounds 100,000 from her former employer Fuji International, for sexually discriminating against her, they raise the question: if Asian values are so great, why do companies that embody them treat their female employees this way?

Helen Bamber joined Fuji International in 1986, and her tale of woe began the following year, when during a business trip to Scandinavia, her boss made sexual advances to her . On the plane back to London he suggested that she resign; she declined, but although subsequently she made huge profits for Fuji - more than pounds 330,000 in 1988, for example - she was given derisory bonuses and "treated less favourably on the ground of her sex", as the tribunal put it, in numerous other ways.

Resigning in 1994 she sued for sexual discrimination and won last November. Fuji then compounded the offence by refusing to negotiate compensation instead accusing her of trying to extort money from the company. In their ruling, the tribunal panel declared that the bank had been guilty of "malevolence, spite, malice, insolence, arrogance", and of actions intended to "humiliate, intimidate and cause distress to the applicant".

The former Tory cabinet minister David Howell (for years also a columnist with the Japan Times) has said that "these countries [of East and South- east Asia] are not just richer but also more stable and in many ways more moral than we are." Are Mitsubishi and Fuji - two mammoths at the heart of Japan's industrial machine - grotesque exceptions to Howell's rule?

The difference between Victorian and Asian values is that with the former we can do no more than read Trollope and George Eliot and Dickens and screw up our eyes and do our best to imagine what it must have been like. With Asian values, however, we can, like Helen Bamber, opt for total immersion. And when we do, we can, like her, get a nasty shock.

Ideas unthinkable in a normal British company are freely expressed. A female colleague of Helen Bamber was told that her relatively low pay was justified because "she was a girl". Another woman asked for time off to take some exams: her boss refused, saying he didn't understand why she wanted these qualifications, and that she would be better off staying at home like a housewife, washing dishes.

Sources in the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union, which has been the most successful in winning agreements with Japanese companies, concede that managers can take some time in adjusting to the "equality culture" of Western Europe.

According to the official one newly-arrived Japanese personnel specialist at a plant based in south Wales wanted to stop female production workers taking sick leave because of period pains. Welsh managers persuaded him that it was not a good idea to devise individual absence charts, to be posted publicly in the factory, which might reveal a monthly cycle.

The AEEU and other unions however are not keen to make an issue of any lack of commitment to equal opportunites for fear of alienating Japanese business.

Neanderthal as such attitudes seem, they would probably have received a nod of understanding if not not frank endorsement from the vast majority of Japanese "sararimen" (salaried employees). As Bonnie Williams, born and raised in Japan and a consultant to Japanese businesses explains, "Most Japanese men have trouble understanding why women should want to leave the kids at home and go out to work. In Japan it still doesn't happen: women don't need to go out to work to support their families - in the boom years of the late Eighties it began to happen, but since the recession it has stopped again.

"Women are excluded from the core of the workforce: Japanese men do not expect Japanese women to have career aspirations and 80 per cent of women don't seem to care a fig about careers. "

Others dispute that the numbers of women content with their lot is quite that high: the passion Japanese mothers direct at getting their children to shine in exams suggests that for many of them this is the only outlet they can find for energies frustrated professionally. When foreign companies opened Tokyo offices in the early Eighties, there was a rush of highly qualified young Japanese women to work in environments where their talents would be rewarded.

Banks and car companies are bastions of male exclusivity - but firms in areas such as media offer more opportunities for women to do well. But here, too, the pay may be worse and the status part-time, even if they work around the clock.

And whatever the company, the foreigner is perennially on the outside. A British woman who has worked for several years for a Japanese TV company in London says, "There are three genders in our office: Japanese men, Japanese women, and foreigners." She used to combat this by smoking and drinking at the same furious rate as her Japanese male colleagues in their after-hours sessions, and as a result found herself to some extent inside the loop. She says : "If you want to know what's going on in the company, you simply have to hang around with them after hours. It's a form of cultural fascism."

In a lecture given on Wednesday, Chris Patten declared that the "principal components" of Asian success were "ambition, economic liberty and free trade". Not much controversy there. But Mr Patten knows that what is also meant by "Asian values" are the less palpable, more emotional attributes: strong families, social cohesion, harmony, the superior morality cited by David Howell.

As Helen Bamber and other female employees of Japanese companies have discovered, however, to the extent that these attributes are real at all, they are highly culture-specific. They are not there for the picking. And foreigners - female foreigners in particular - need not apply.

Additional reporting by Barrie Clement and Anna Davies.

Profile: Noriko Watanabe

Age: 26.

Occupation: office lady (OL)

Background: Born in Urawa, a commuter city. Father, Taro, 54, has worked for 30 years at an engineering company: now middle manager. Her parents met through an arranged marriage. Mother, Setsuko, retired as an OL when she became engaged.

Education: High school followed by a European history course at a local college. Spent three years partying and shopping in Tokyo.

Job: Works for Nandemo Corporation in Tokyo, a prestigious posting for an OL.

Attire: Like nearly all the women in her company, wears the OL uniform all year.

Duties: Makes coffee and tea and empties ashtrays as well as typing, filing and photocopying. When guests arrive Noriko meets them, bowing deeply with words of welcome in a high pitched voice. Her boss is an old fool, but she knows how to manipulate him. The younger deputy section manager calls her stupid and squeezes past her when she's at the photocopier.

Leisure: Lives in Urawa with her parents. Has lots of disposable income.

Prospects: None, in her career. Chances of earning as much as her male contemporaries are practically nil. On getting married she will probably stop work and will certainly do so when she has children. She may never, after then, return to the workforce. Her mother is encouraging her to marry a salary man working with a large company.

Profile: Alison Bell

Age: 25

Background: Born in Woking, Surrey. Her parents divorced when she was five. Her 56-year-old father, remarried with a second family, has been self-employed since being made redundant in the early Eighties. Alison's mother, Elaine, 50, works part-time in a local school.

Education: After getting nine GCSEs and three A-levels, she took a year out before university, where she studied hard for her business and finance degree.

Job: Finding work was hard. After an intensive secretarial course she secured a job temping at a London advertising agency. She eventually moved to a junior executive position in another company.

Attire: Wears a suit to meet clients, but most of the time dresses casually.

Duties: Responsible for liaising with clients. Does most of her own paperwork and would never do paperwork for a male colleague. Frequently works more than 10 hours a day but is ambitious and wants to move on. Gets fed up with the low-level sexism of the middle-aged youths in the office.

Leisure: Alison lives with friends in a shared flat, likes trekking holidays and is a regular at the gym.

Prospects: Good. By her thirties she wants her own flat and car. Has a boyfriend but enjoys her independence and wouldn't consider marriage and children until she is past 30, and would return to work thereafter.

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