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Out of Japan: Good intentions hit the glass ceiling

TOKYO - It is not easy to be a woman in Japan. In offices, women are regarded as ashtray-cleaning, tea- making, photocopying morons, who must smile all day as if their trivial tasks represented the peak of self-fulfilment. Women are expected to hold open lift doors for men, never criticise a male colleague, and announce their resignation conveniently when they get married. For this they get paid half as much as men.

Conscious that it was widely out of step with the rest of the world, the government brought in an equal employment opportunity law in April 1986, designed to give women the chance to pursue professional careers in companies as well as men .

The framing of the law was controversial, since it divided females employees into ippanshoku, or general workers, who would continue smiling evermore while making the tea, and sogoshoku, or career-track workers, who could aspire to promotion. There was never any question that men would be regarded as ippanshoku, so the feminists criticised the law from the start as condescending and discriminatory.

But for many women throughout the country it was a welcome start and tens of thousands applied for the fast-track sogoshoku status. Seven years later, many of these women feel cruelly deceived, their careers blocked by invisible barriers of male prejudice and Japanese corporate tradition. Some have joined foreign companies in Tokyo, others have given up in disgust. And one has written a book about it all.

Fukiko Akiba's Why She Quit Sogoshoku is not as sweeping and controversial as Susan Faludi's Backlash in the US, but has none the less crystallised much of the disappointment and frustration felt by mid-career Japanese women. It is largely based on Ms Akiba's experience working for Saitama bank, but has a fictional gloss 'to avoid embarrassing some of my colleagues'.

Ms Akiba studied economics at a Tokyo university, and joined Saitama bank in 1981. She was placed in the personnel department, and because of her degree was given some non-trivial work to do - not reflected either in her job-description, or in the level of her salary. When the equal opportunity law was passed, Ms Akiba leapt at the chance of being taken seriously in her work. But the dice were loaded against her.

She applied for sogoshoku status, but her boss tried to dissuade her, using some not-so-subtle threats about the possibility of her being transferred to a distant branch. A meeting was held in her bank at which the male executives asked female employees not to apply for a career-track job. They argued that the balance of labour, in which men could work late at the office secure in the knowledge that their wives were looking after the home, would be destroyed. Ms Akiba persisted and after a year was given sogoshoku status. Her salary doubled, and she started to put in the long hours of so many office workers in Japan - 8am to 9 or 10pm. But after a while she realised that, apart from money, little had changed.

She was not included in the after- hours drinking sessions that her male colleagues went to - and where they often made business decisions she was never made party to. Her boss continually sniped at her, saying her real happiness would only come when she got married and stopped working. When clients called on the telephone they would automatically think she was a receptionist, and ask to speak to someone (male) in charge. And, worst of all, she was never considered for promotion.

In 1991, as the Japanese economy started to drop into recession, companies were looking for ways to cut costs, and one of the first targets was salaried women. Ms Akiba was transferred to client visits - a menial job involving house-to-house calls trying to drum up more depositors for the bank. In 1992 she resigned.

'Even sogoshoku women wear skirts,' she said. 'So men regard us as girls, inferiors. The law changed, but men's thinking never did. Even the level of sexual harassment (in offices) has not changed.' Women may have had some success in getting good jobs during the free-spending years of the bubble economy, but the fact that they are now being forced out again at the first sign of a recession is an indication of how little has in fact changed, said Ms Akiba.

'A researcher from Stanford University asked me why I had not sued my company, or got the union to take some protest action. I could only laugh at this US reaction - such a thing is not possible in Japan.'

Her book has sold well, and she has been on television chat shows and interviewed by many magazines. 'But unfortunately most of my readers are women,' she said. She is now planning another book - but this one will focus on salarymen, and the problem of karoshi, or death from overwork. 'Lately I have begun to feel sorry for men as well . . .'