TOKYO -- Japan's 74 million women, long regarded as oppressed victims of one of the world's most male-dominated societies, are gaining power over their lives faster than women anywhere else, some social scientists say.
"The position of the woman in the Japanese family has come 180 degrees in the last 15 years," says Sumiko Iwao, a Keio University social psychologist. "And yet nobody's taken a serious look at how radically it's changing the society."
Indeed, what emerges is a picture that stands on its ear everything most foreigners -- and many Japanese -- think they know about Japanese women.
For one thing, young working women are among the freest spenders in the world's richest society. They carry and spend more pocket money every month than any other large demographic group, surveys show, and from Singapore to Paris they are Japan's biggest category of overseas tourists.
Take a simple matter: lunch.
On a typical workday in Tokyo's Ginza, young working women can be found eating above the Tiffany jewelry store in a dining room with marble-topped tea tables, gold-edged china, potted Christmas trees and a picture-window view of the world's highest-priced intersection. They linger over a $17 lunches and $6.50 glasses of iced tea.
Meanwhile, middle-aged businessmen -- often the bosses of the lingering women -- wolf down their noonday meals in a restaurant next to an underground subway gate with a through-the-grillwork view of the subway turnstiles.
They eat at a plastic-topped counter with plastic spoons and throwaway chopsticks. They stand to rush through $6 bowls of noodles and gulp coffee from paper cups.
"Young Japanese women are living in a golden age of freedom," Ms. Iwao says. "It never existed before, it can't last long, and it can never be repeated.
"When men catch on to what's been happening, they'll get over feeling guilty for the way women were treated for all those centuries and start demanding that women accept some of the responsibility."
The change is not yet visible in politics, where women are only beginning to establish a modest beachhead, mainly in local elections. Their political prospects may have been severely set back by the spectacular failure of Socialist Takako Doi as the first female head of a major political party here.
And the "invisible revolution" is only beginning to affect entrenched corporations and bureaucracies, which are just starting to deal with a 5-year-old law that requires them to hire women for career-track jobs.
The real measure of the new standing of women is their new-found power in family and personal relationships.
"In the conversations of courtship, you can hear that it's the man who's feeling the pressure to get married," says Yoshiko Sakurai, a television anchorwoman. "It's the man who needs to show his corporation he has a stable home life, and it's the man who needs to start a family to carry on his father's name."
Young women, by contrast, "have jobs and incomes and live well in their parents' suburban homes and sometimes have their own small apartments in town as well," she says. "They know they can't have a home as big or as comfortable after they marry."
Now, women set the terms of marriage far more often than men do.
For centuries, most Japanese women married men of their parents' choice, served the in-laws, thought little or never about a career and had as many babies as their husbands said were needed to carry on the family surname. A typical couple in the 1950s had three, four or five children.
Today, a Japanese man often has to promise to let his wife keep her career. Frequently, the couple needs the second income to try to save for a house in this country of sky-high prices.
More often than not, an urban husband also has to agree to limit his family to one child, even if it's a girl who won't carry on the father's name.
One revolutionary result of Japanese women's new power, therefore, is that couples marry later in life and have fewer children, or none.
Those decisions are radically changing home lives and redrawing the country's population curve.
The dramatic drop in the birthrate scares Japan's powerful business leadership, which is concerned whether the country will have enough savers, workers and consumers to keep its "economic miracle" functioning.
Women's new power "isn't anything we're doing on purpose," says Mari Takaba, 28, the first woman hired on the management-training track at Mitsui & Co., a giant trading house. "It's just the way we are now."
Miss Takaba, who was hired in April 1988, expects to be joined by a second management-track woman at Mitsui in the spring.
"Often, men even have to promise they'll do an equal share of the housework," she says. "Of course, how those promises are kept is another question, but for couples even to discuss that issue before marriage is remarkable in our society."
Ms. Iwao says the generation that pioneered change was not Miss Takaba's but her own, which came of age two decades ago.
"With all the Western movies and novels and feminist visitors," she says, "women who grew up after World War II and the American Occupation felt it was natural for a woman to go to college and have a career. No generation of Japanese women had ever grown up feeling that way.
"We made the beginnings, and young working women today are enjoying them to the very fullest. That, of course, means they are creating still further changes, on purpose or otherwise."
But young women's "golden age of freedom" is possible for the moment only because the society sees them as still escaping from centuries of what amounted to slavery, Ms. Iwao says.
After slavery comes freedom, she says, but close on the heels of freedom will come the burdens of responsibility, and with them the end of the golden age.