Slump hits women in Japan hard Job gains made in 1980s erode


Tokyo. -- Writing articles morning, noon and evening about gold, silver and platinum prices was drudgery, and a promotion to a more challenging beat seemed distant. So the young Japanese woman -- call her Michie -- followed her boyfriend to London for a couple of years when he was transferred.

Today, the 31-year-old graduate of a prestigious university in Tokyo is back in Japan, trying to break into the business community again. But the nation's prolonged economic slump has stymied her.

"Some of them are very direct," she said of the bureau chiefs who have interviewed her. "They say two or three years ago they would have had to hire me even after my London excursion. But these days they can find qualified men who are willing to do the same work, so they don't have to take me." Meanwhile, she insisted that her real name not be used, "because I'm already having enough trouble finding a job."

Michie is one of thousands of young professional women finding that Japan's slowdown has hit them hard -- even harder than men. And that's a bitter realization following the go-go 1980s, when Japan's prosperity promised an entree into huge, male-dominated companies.

One recent survey of Japan's top 2,100 employers found that LTC they were planning to cut their positions for women by 21,000 -- about 23.7 percent -- in next spring's hiring season. Hiring of men will be cut back by about 5.1 percent, Recruit Research Company, the employment-data firm that did the study, reported.

And economic equality is an important issue in Japan, where about 49 percent of Japanese women have jobs -- compared with about 57 percent of U.S. women.

As the Japanese economy flourished in the late 1980s, Japanese companies boosted their hiring for management and professional trainees by about 10 percent annually. And as those boom years opened, the Diet, Japan's parliament, enacted the country's first Equal Employment Opportunity Law in 1986.

That law was the first product of more than a decade of agitation by Japan's small feminist movement. It mandated an end to a century of tradition that restricted most women to the role of "tea ladies," workers used for general clerical tasks and to serve visitors tea.

With the job market rapidly expanding in those heady years, and with population growth radically slowing, Japanese companies faced one of the world's deepest labor shortages. In some years, even household-name companies averaged two or more job offers for every hire.

In that environment, the new equal opportunity law seemed to make steady progress. More and more corporations found that, law or no law, they couldn't fill their career openings without hiring some women.

But the "bubble economy" of the late 1980s burst in 1990. By late last year, Japan's economic growth rate was plummeting and the unfamiliar word "recession" was heard. By that time, Michie already had a new respect for the job she had left behind in Japan.

"After my first attempt to get back to work here," she said, "I went back to London. I had an offer at a Japanese news bureau there, and when I didn't find something here, I thought maybe the job in London was my future."

Instead, she found that the Japanese news bureau still bound her in long-held business traditions -- even in England. "I was a reporter," she said, "but when a man reporter had guests to interview, it was a woman reporter who had to make the tea. And when there were promotions, it was a man reporter who had a chance to get them."

Today, she has broadened her horizons, trying to use her financial reporting background to get work with banks and brokerage houses.

"But they are cutting back even more than most businesses, because there's been nothing but bear markets and scandals for two and a half years," she said. "Like everyone, they're cutting back positions for women most of all."

By U.S. or European standards, Japan still has virtually no unemployment -- a bit over 2 percent for most of this year. And even with a slower economy, Japanese employers still average well over 1.3 offers for every hire.

Meanwhile, the equal opportunity law remains in effect, and women are making some gains. In some areas, especially public employment, there are almost daily reports of "the first woman" hired or promoted into one job or another.

Examples from recent weeks: The first women police officers trained to carry revolvers on night patrols; the first woman chef at Tokyo's prestigious Hotel Okura; the first woman director of Japan's most popular zoo, the Ueno in a district of Tokyo.

Still, Japan's megacorporations, where some of the country's most sought-after jobs are, have made no bones about the fact they are cutting back harder on new hires of women. Some also have said that positions eliminated during the slowdown will affect women more than men.

The companies are not shy about the reason.

Management and professional training programs are regarded here as long-term investments. Companies hire with the intention of losing no more than a handful of the people they train.

But Japanese women don't stay with their careers in the proportions men do. Fewer than 25 percent of the women hired for professional and management track jobs in the first three years after the equal opportunity law went into effect stayed more than three years, industry associations report. A substantial majority got married and quit then -- or upon the birth of a first child.

Many social commentators say the problem could be corrected, or at least alleviated, by combining generous maternity leaves with company-sponsored day-care plans.

"I don't plan to get married, or to have a baby," Michie said. "But going off to London with no job prospect makes it look like I'm still an example of what they always say, that women leave just when they begin to pay back the training investment."

"I'm sure I'd have a new job by now if the economy were still booming the way it was when I first left Tokyo," she added. "Do you think jobs will ever be that easy to get again?"

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