Japanese charged with reserving jobs

June 04, 1991|By Peter T. Kilborn | Peter T. Kilborn,New York Times News Service

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- As more and more Japanese companies open for business in the United States, Americans contend that there is a new kind of discrimination: They say Japanese employers are reserving the best jobs for Japanese managers.

There are no statistics to document the extent of the problem, and it clearly does not apply to every Japanese employer in the United States. Japanese companies employ less than 1 percent of the 118 million working Americans.

But some mighty names in Japanese industry -- Matsushita, Sumitomo, NEC Electronics -- have settled lawsuits charging discrimination against American managers during the past year.

Beyond specific complaints of discrimination, critics say Japanese companies in the United States are top-heavy with Japanese managers.

Japanese men hold more than half of the top 20 or so management jobs in many Japanese banks and trading companies in America, and sometimes all but one or two.

The proportions are smaller in most manufacturing companies, but they still far exceed the proportions of Europeans in the top ranks of European companies in America, or of Americans in U.S. companies abroad, corporate consultants say.

As Japanese companies continue to expand in the United States, these consultants say that the big ones are redoubling their efforts to avoid discrimination but that the arrival of smaller, less sophisticated newcomers presage more skirmishes with American employees.

A recent case put the issue in stark relief.

In a lawsuit against a Ricoh Corp. plant in San Jose, to be heard in September in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, Chet Mackentire, a former top marketing executive who was paid about $75,000 a year, says he was dismissed solely because he was American.

Mr. Mackentire asserts that after he paved the way for the company to reach U.S. customers with a new product -- optical disks used for storing information in computers --

his functions were assigned to a Japanese man.

"They keep us long enough to learn what we know," he said. "Americans are disposable commodities for them."

Investigators for the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found that Mr. Mackentire had "reasonable cause" to sue.

The commission investigators wrote that the Japanese man was less qualified for the job, in both experience and education, than Mr. Mackentire, and that the atmosphere at the company was "tainted with national origin bias." Americans, the finding said, would be excluded from meetings of their Japanese bosses and subordinates.

The Japanese do not deny that they rely heavily on Japanese managers, but they attribute that reliance to cultural considerations, not discrimination.

Because the Japanese share a common tradition and approach to doing business, they say, it is simply more efficient and comfortable for them to look to themselves for leadership, at least for now.

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