Lagging economy pinches Japanese women

August 23, 1994|By Thomas Easton | Thomas Easton,Tokyo Bureau of The Sun

TOKYO -- "Wow, you have fat legs. Well, I guess you can't do anything about it," one female job-seeker was told. Another was asked, "Are you a virgin?"

In America, such comments would land the personnel manager and his company in court. In Japan, it's a different story, particularly this year as women suffer through the worst hiring season in memory.

A survey of 112 students provided many examples of what female job-hunters have been experiencing.

For many, jobs disappear as soon as inquiries are made, information is withheld, and interviews are denied, canceled or made unbearable.

The survey was conducted by a small women's group recently founded at Tokyo University, traditional breeding ground for Japan's next generation of ideas and leaders.

It was published as a "black paper," a mocking reference to the stilted, heavily sanitized, "white papers" the government regularly issues describing the life of the nation.

Since World War II, a key part of that life has been lots of jobs for new graduates. This year, however, prospects for women are "as bad as could be," said Hisao Teramoto, head of the placement office at Meiji University, another prestigious school.

Some companies, such as Nippon Life Insurance Co., announced that they would not be hiring women this year. Usually companies are more subtle. Nothing is made clear but the final result: no job.

Recruit Research Co. said it surveyed almost 7,000 firms and found 83 percent apply different standards for women and men.

Newspaper classified advertising is commonly separated by gender with companies explicitly stating which it wants.

Only a few years ago, the Western press tended to focus on a Japan beginning a new era for women.

Statistically, the percentage of females has been increasing in almost every sector of the economy, although the trend was often faulted for not capturing the limitations women felt once they were hired.

In retrospect, job gains appear to be less the result of shifting attitudes than of a labor-strapped country in need of workers -- a need that is waning because of the recession and structural changes in the economy, said Yumiko Miganagi, an assistant professor at International Christian University in Tokyo.

"The generation that leads companies still believes women are expendable or less competent," she added. "Right now, they are more concerned with the survival of the company, with surviving the recession. Because of that, they don't see the reason to hire women."

This would not be just a temporary setback or delay in beginning a high-track career for the overlooked women. Most Japanese companies hire almost exclusively from college, and workers stay for life. Major companies that might take a look at a candidate at age 22 have no interest in an outsider at age 23.

The benefits of being hired by major companies, and the opportunities lost in being excluded, are vast. In Japan's rigid corporate system, those with the most prestigious firms receive higher direct compensation, better living arrangements in corporate dorms and far more respect -- extending to the deference received in many routine social situations.

Furthermore, the large companies are less likely to get squeezed during the tough times -- like now.

Instead, small and mid-sized supplier networks tend to be the primary buffer when the economy contracts and they are the ones that endure the brunt of cost-cutting and austerity. As a result, the competition for a "good" job in a major company is remarkably intense.

There is little sympathy or attraction for a career in a little firm.

Behind the travails of getting a plum offer is the reality that Japan is sweating through a tough economic period. Major electronic companies have long been among the largest employers in Japan but they have been battered by the high yen and sluggish consumer demand.

NEC Corp. hired 1,400 college graduates in 1992, including 260 women. This year, it hired 100 women among its 850 new employees.

Ricoh Co. Ltd., a major producer of office machines and cameras, hired just 83 professionals last year, eight of them women.

The company says it hasn't decided on this year's numbers but an employee says it is understood that there will be no women.

The details differ in other industries but the results are the same.

At Tsudajyuku Women's College, on the outskirts of Tokyo, 80 percent of the graduating class has found jobs. But Kyoko Nishiyama, head of the recruiting office, fears company requests may be drying up.

For the first time in a career that began in the 1970s, she said, "I've had students coming into my office saying they won't be hired."

At less prestigious schools, like Aoyama Gaikun University, a third of the women want career-type jobs, but, said Toshio Namai, head of the placement office, only about 5 percent have gotten them.

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