Japan's 'office ladies' won't file and forget

For every thrusting corporate salaryman there was a compliant flower of the office. Not any more, writes Richard Lloyd Parry in Tokyo

EVERY weekday lunchtime, in the shops and restaurants of big Japanese cities, you see them: groups of women, most of them under 30, identically dressed in cream blouses, blue waistcoats, knee-length skirts and, even in the clammiest months of the summer, sheer black tights.

If the corporate salarymen are the infantry of the Japanese economic miracle, these are its Florence Nightingales. They are the "OLs" - as familiar in Japan as a species of bird.

OL stands for the English expression "Office Lady", but it is pronounced "Or-Eru" and, like many imported loan words, it has taken on a meaning and significance uniquely Japanese. Like their male contemporaries, Office Ladies are recruited after graduation by the big corporations and government ministries. While the salaryman learns the corporate ropes, sitting in on meetings and staying loyally at his desk until his section chief leaves, the archetypal OL performs a range of simpler and more mundane tasks: filing, typing, photocopying, greeting visitors, providing tea and coffee, emptying ashtrays, and bitching about her boss. Another expression used of OLs more plainly captures their role: shokuba no hana, or "flowers of the office".

After a few years, it was understood, the office flower would be gently picked by one of her co-workers and, at the age of 27, say, embark on a "happy wedding retirement", dedicated to nurturing the next generation of OLs and salarymen.

This, at least, was the theory, formulated during the 1980s when spending and earnings were at their height. But in the four years since the end of the boom, the corporate gears have been grinding to adjust to far rougher conditions. Among those most rattled by the transition have been the OLs.

Next week, the Osaka District Court will hear a case which five years ago would have been unthinkable. Katsumi Nishimura, a 47-year clerical track worker, (the official term for OL) will sue her employer of 29 years, Sumitomo Chemical Co, for sexual discrimination. Ms Nishimura is one of nine women working for Sumitomo companies who claim that they have been denied promotion and career opportunities routinely made available to male contemporaries. She is claiming 20 million yen (pounds 120,000) in lost earnings, and 20 million yen compensation. Last September, she attended the UN Conference on Women in Peking, with her fellow Sumitomo plaintiffs, where flyers were distributed denouncing the sexism of the Japanese corporations.

Ms Nishimura is what, to her employers, must seem a monstrous contradiction in terms: a militant OL. Sumitomo spokesmen replace the receiver rather quickly when asked about the case but, in the plaintiffs' eyes, it is very simple. "I am 47 years old," says Ms Nishimura. "During my time at this company, every single one of my male contemporaries has been promoted to a higher position. During the same time, not one single woman has been moved from the clerical to the career track."

The standard promotion procedure at Sumitomo Chemical is for a clerical worker to be invited by his or her boss to take a written test. "No woman has even been given the opportunity to take such a test," says Ms Nishimura. "Clearly, undeniably, this is sexual discrimination."

By international criteria, Japan is one of the most conservative of all the industrialised democracies. Three centuries of feudal rule, which came to an end only 125 years ago, have left their mark on most of the country's institutions. On the UN's scale of gender equality, Japan ranks 27th, below China, Cuba and Hungary. In 1994, fewer than 7 per cent of parliamentary seats were held by women; a mere 3.9 per cent of administrators and managers were female.

But, against the country's ingrained conservatism, Japanese women have several weapons. Until graduation, opportunities - while not equal - are far more even. Japanese workers of both sexes are among the best educated in the world and companies are gradually beginning to grasp that the best man for the job is often a woman. These days, one in 26 managers is a woman; a decade ago it was one in 40.

But ironically the advance has been at the expense of younger women. Constitutionally incapable of breaking the unwritten guarantee of a job for life, Japanese companies have coped with the end of the boom by freezing recruitment. And the recruits frozen out have overwhelmingly been female - OLs in waiting. Fewer than a quarter of last year's male graduates lack jobs; almost half of women still do.

In central Tokyo last year, there was a demonstration by 80 jobless young women in self-imposed OL uniform of waistcoats, knee-length skirts and tights. They marched to the Labour Ministry complaining that they were flowers of the office whom nobody had picked. The group solemnly called itself The Society of Female Graduates Who Won't Bear The Difficulties of Finding Employment Silently.

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