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FOCUS June 1998 Volume 12

The Voice of Japan's Working Women

Laura Lewellyn - Wittenberg University--Kansai Gaikokugo Daigaku

The 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women was historic as the first gathering of its size and scope focusing on women with participants gathering to address a range of issues, including working conditions, on an international level. Japan, with its 5,000 member delegation by far being the largest of any other country, attracted attention in the NGO Forum "Working Women in Japan Workshop" by calling Japan "an underdeveloped country in terms of women's issues" and presenting evidence of gender discrimination in pay scales and promotions and testimonies of harassing treatment in the major companies.

Today, twelve years after the enactment of the 1986 Equal Opportunity Law (EEOL), the reality has changed little for Japanese working women. Although initially viewed as a triumph, both the EEOL and its implementation have proven faulty and therefore the law has not been the agent of equal employment its name promises.

However, regardless of to what extent the EEOL has been ineffective, women's activist and professor at the City University of New York Joyce Gelb observes correctly that a positive result of the EEOL shortcomings is "increased awareness and continued fighting back." Indeed, Japanese women participants of the 1995 Beijing Conference reasoned that their labor unions, the much anticipated EEOL and the Japanese government had failed them so now it was time to form their own group. And with a membership base of various smaller groups totalling about 200 people, Working Women's International Network was founded.

Although WWIN is a relatively new NGO, activism is not new to these working women as exemplified by the Association of Women Working for Trading Companies whose group has been meeting monthly since 1983 to collect data, support, and encourage each other. Similarly, the Equality Network offered legal support to the plaintiffs of sexual discrimination lawsuits against their companies and the Japanese government as WWIN. Even with strengthening women's advocacy structures such as these, when asked if the majority of working women are involved or interested, WWIN member Shizuko Koedo replied that "most women feel there is nothing they can do and so ignore that they are discriminated against because of their sex," adding that those who do choose to fight against discrimination tend to do so later in their careers.

Still, since 1995 WWIN has continued to grow to 670 members, of which an estimated 600 are in the Osaka area and do include younger members. The group's main activities include regular meetings to encourage members, collecting data and publishing findings in a series of pamphlets and brochures aimed at increasing awareness of the extent and severity of sex discrimination, as well as the progress WWIN has already made. Periodic lectures on working women's issues are especially popular and of course serve to increase understanding and dialogue. As a vocal advocacy group, WWIN makes effective use of mass media a priority as it communicates its message to Japan and the world.

Koedo smiles as she talks about the success of WWIN, attributing it to the group's "positive attitude" which took them to the ILO and the United Nations in September to present their counterreport to misleading information released earlier by the Japanese government. To these international bodies, WWIN explained that the average 45 year old male makes as much as 50% more than the same age female worker. Although Japanese corporations and the Japanese government justifies this difference by a two track hiring system, WWIN argues that this is a form of indirect discrimination as the managerial track remains overwhelmingly male and the clerical track predominantly female. Indeed, less than 2% of managerial positions are held by women. Further, potential promotion relies upon a subjective evaluation system and an ability test that often requires the special tutoring of superiors that is withheld from women. WWIN advocates, among other things, abolishment of the two-track system and an objective system of job evaluation.

When faced with the list of obstacles facing these women, one WWIN member jokes that "not in three generations" will Japanese society be likely to change. In reality, however, members are beginning to see improvements as promotions and salaries increase for some of the vocal. As long as the voice of Japan's working women continues to be strong, equal employment conditions are attainable.