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'The Hidden Law'

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Twenty-seven-year-old Yukiko Kunishige is a bright, free-thinking woman who excelled in school until a high-school experience she describes as "closed and narrow" ended her desire for formal education. She skipped college, opting instead for what she calls "the reality of the world."

Today, Yukiko lives at home in Kudamatsu with her parents, a single working woman, happy with her job as a draftsman in a local construction firm and determined to continue learning on her own.

In the United States, Yukiko might be considered an ideal employee--eager, stable, committed, and young. But "the reality of the world" she will find in Japan's seniority-based lifetime employment system is far less simple.

The possibility that she will marry and have children makes her an employment risk to Japanese industry. And that risk factor, coupled with her lack of college-conferred status, determined almost before she was hired how far she could advance on the job.

Even if Yukiko remains single and work-oriented, her career is likely to follow the standard path for Japanese working women, one that will likely lead to dwindling pay increases, forced "early retirement" at 50 (or perhaps even 45), and fewer retirement benefits than her male contemporaries.

For 17-year-old Masami Maruyama, the future has looked equally compromised since her parents decided they could not afford to send her to college. The ambitious Kyoto high-school junior had set her sights on a four-year university, and she planned to work hard at school and study long hours at night to master the material for the entrance exams. But now she will have to lower her goals and rethink her life.

Masami's parents want her to take a full-time job when she finishes school. "If I had been a boy," says the disappointed teen-ager, "the situation would be different."

Not far away, in a quiet residential neighborhood near the Shimogamo shrine in northeast Kyoto, Etsuko Kumagai plays with her 1-year-old son Takehumi. A university graduate with postgraduate training at Paris's Sorbonne, Etsuko left an excellent job at the Bank of France in Osaka to have her child. Though she is happy being a full-time mother for now, she, too, wonders about her future. "I don't know what I'll do in a few years," she says.

Etsuko's banking job will not be waiting for her when she is ready to return to work. And because she is a young mother, finding a job of comparable status and pay will be close to impossible. "Corporations don't perceive that women with children can focus their attention completely on their work," says Etsuko.

The 'Hidden Law'

Technically, the equality of women is guaranteed by Japanese law. But in reality, a social agenda forged by custom and tradition exerts a far more powerful influence on the day-to-day lives of women like Yukiko, Masami, and Etsuko.

These social forces make tacit discrimination an accepted group norm. And Japan's industrial system--a system one scholarly work calls "paternalistic in spirit and motivation"--relies on that acceptability in pursuing such employment practices as differentiated pay scales for women, earlier retirement for women, and forced retirement after childbirth.

Education, too, though open and equal in spirit, may reinforce these gender-based conventions by bowing to the subtle influences of tradition, offering to female students only challenge enough to meet limited and preordained social roles.

"There is a hidden law in society that the man has to work and support his family and that women, for the most part, should take care of their children," explains Kazoyuki Shindo, the director of the Osaka division of the Toyo Sheet Metal Company. "That's why our unemployment rate is about 2 percent and our kids are generally well provided for at home."

Women who want to become professionals can and do, Mr. Shindo adds. ''But parents, teachers, and public attitudes do not encourage further attainments in careers."

Equal Chance, Unequal Incentive

All that may be changing--slowly. The combination of increasing numbers of women in the workforce, proposed new employment laws in the Japanese Diet, and important discrimination suits in the courts, may signal a loosening of the nation's traditionally strict role stereotyping.

And though the change may not immediately affect the lives of Yukiko, Masami, and Estuko, observers predict that it will force long-term adjustments in an education system that, until now, has provided equal opportunity but unequal incentive to women.

Coeducation has been a fact of school life in Japan since the island introduced compulsory education more than a century ago. The democratic-minded restructuring of the system after World War II put even greater stress on equal access, guaranteeing a single-track educational experience through high school for men and women of all classes.

Within this egalitarian framework, however, cultural values and social traditions have colluded to perpetuate what many educators and women's rights activists agree is a de facto tracking mechanism that separates the education of the sexes by quality, if not quantity.

Focus Is on Boys

Through the nine years of compulsory education, the achievement levels for men and women are roughly comparable, most Japanese educators say. But as the competitive aspects of high school begin to take hold, preparing students for the social sorting that will occur by way of university-entrance examinations, the female students' interest in school often wanes and their academic parity begins to slip.

This could be a function of the unequal levels of parental support and encouragement given to sons and daughters, say some educators. Like Masami Maruyama, many female students find that their family's interest in school achievement is greater for male siblings.

A 1980 survey of 13,000 students in the education-conscious city of Osaka, for example, found that, in the 2nd grade, two-thirds of the boys received parental help with their homework, but less than half of the girls did.

This uneven parental involvement continued through schooling, the study showed, widening in junior and senior high school. By the second year of high school, almost three-quarters of the boys were getting some kind of extra study help from their parents, but only about one-third of the girls were.

Edward R. Beauchamp, professor of comparative education at the University of Hawaii, says that Japan's well-known "education mamas" tend to be "much more ardently involved in the quality of their son's education than in that of their daughters." It is a continuation, he says, of the tradition in which "sons become successors to the family name and property while daughters are married off into other families."

'Good Wives, Wise Mothers'

A further educational disincentive for bright young women, some scholars say, is the unwritten social code that equates marriageability with lessened academic attainment.

"It is considered unseemly for a male to marry a woman who attended a 'better' university than he attended," notes Mr. Beauchamp. "Many girls, despite high ability levels, are likely to attend a women's college offering lower-quality education but known to cultivate 'good wives and wise mothers."'

College enrollment figures lend graphic support to this contention:

  • Japan's most elite colleges--the so-called "national" universities and the several prestigious private universities from which most of the country's business and government leaders graduate--are more than 90-percent male. (This is true even though women have a higher success rate on the rigorous entrance examinations.) The few women enrolled at these institutions tend to major in only two departments--literature and education.
  • The overall enrollment of women in four-year universities is barely 20 percent--up from the dismal 8-percent rate of attendance two decades ago, but still less than half of the comparable enrollment at U.S. universities.
  • Two out of every three Japanese women bound for college go to the acknowledged weak link in the higher-education system--the relatively new and academically limited junior colleges. Here, 90 percent of the enrollments are female.

Junior colleges have become "the women's track in higher education,'' says the women's-rights activist Kumiko Fujimura-Fanselow, now a part-time teacher at Columbia University's Teachers' College. About 80 percent of the women enrolled in junior colleges, she adds, are majoring in one of only three fields of study--literature, home economics, and education. Even at universities, she says, 60 percent of the women study these fields.

"Women are vastly underrepresented in such fields as science, engineering, law, economics, and political science," says Ms. Fujimura-Fanselow.

Few Role Models in Teaching

But even in the field of education, women are vastly underrepresented in the higher professional ranks, a fact that other scholars say contributes further to the poor university-attendance record of female students. There are few role models in the junior and senior high schools to encourage girls to try for the top-line institutions, these scholars note.

In contrast to American elementary and secondary education, where women have been the backbone of the teaching corps for more than a century, the Japanese teaching profession is dominated by men.

Today, only 18 percent of the teachers in Japanese high schools are women, a percentage that has remained remarkably stable over the last 30 years. Nearly half of America's high-school teachers are women.

Better progress has been made at Japan's junior-high-school level, where women constitute 32 percent of the teaching ranks today--up from 4 percent in 1955.

But only at the elementary-school level do women hold a majority of teaching posts--55 percent, compared with America's some 82 percent--and that majority was gained only in recent years.

Opportunities for women are even more scarce at the administrative level. Says Akio Nakajima, the former head of the Ministry of Education's high-school programs: "Five years ago, the Association of Women Principals had 444 members. Now there are 500. That's not very many when you consider that there are 25,000 elementary schools and 10,000 junior high schools."

The Circular Problem of Status

Female teachers are hampered, some say, by the fact that they enter the system without the professional status male teachers have usually acquired by attending well-known colleges.

Such status, the noted Japanese anthropologist Chie Nakane writes in her book Japanese Society, is the real key to the country's social classifications. That "Japanese women are nearly always ranked as inferiors," Ms. Nakane says, is "not because their sex is considered inferior, but because women seldom hold higher social status."

Thus, the circular process that keeps society's expectations for women at a low ebb may begin and perpetuate itself in school: Status is largely a function of education; custom reduces educational opportunities for women; women enter the workforce in low-status positions where social bias molds their experience; they pass on this bias to their children by favoring their sons' education.

A 'Different' Employment Tier

But women's-rights activists like Ms. Fujimura-Fanselow argue that the underrepresentation of women in prestigious colleges and universities also grows out of the nation's two-tiered employment system. Corporations provide different opportunities for men and women, they say, even if they have the same educational background.

Women have "different expectations of the rewards that come from pursuing higher education," says Ms. Fujimura-Fanselow, and that naturally lowers their educational aspirations.

Japan's Ministry of Education says virtually the same thing. Women do not advance to the highest levels of learning, ministry officials argue, because job opportunities are limited by discrimination, not because of any discrimination within the education system.

Kazuaki Hikida, the Mitsubishi Corporation's manager for recruitment and development, admits that women are hired "for a different tier" in the larger corporations. They are also routinely denied the "comprehensive and sophisticated training" that would enable them to advance through the ranks, he says, because of a general belief that women are less committed to work--that they will reject company transfers, leave at 5 P.M., and quit after childbirth.

Off the Management Track

In fact, few women ever enter the management track in Japanese industry. A recent study by the Prime Minister's Office found, for example, that, although the proportion of women managers increased by some 450 percent between 1960 and 1980, the total number is still minuscule. Only two women out of every 10,000 Japanese people were management-level workers in 1960; by 1980, there were 11 women managers per 10,000 people.

At the 450,000-worker Japan National Railway, one of the nation's largest employers, only four of the 4,000 managers are women. Even so, one official there says the company has "no immediate interest" in increasing that percentage.

Helping to "legitimize" this separate labor tier for women, says Ms. Fujimura-Fanselow, are several discriminatory labor statutes, such as one prohibiting women from working past midnight. And, she adds, equal-rights legislation currently being debated by the national Diet, such as a new law requiring employers to "make an effort" to eliminate discrimination in recruitment and hiring, contains enforcement language that is weak at best.

And Yet They Work

Still, more than 22 million Japanese women--almost half of the female population over the age of 15--work. Together, they make up almost 39 percent of the nation's labor force. And, according to the authors of Working Women in Japan, a book published as part of the Cornell University series of International Industrial and Labor Relations Reports, they have begun to fight discrimination.

"The increasing number of cases brought by working women to the courts is an index of women's growing self-consciousness and of their determination to achieve the equality that Japan's constitution and statutory law state is theirs," write Alice H. Cook, a Cornell University professor of industrial and labor relations, and Hiroko Hayashi, a Kumamoto University professor of law.

But changes may not come swiftly, say the authors, because "the Japanese employment system probably exploits women more extensively than is the case in any other industrialized country."

Day Care for the 'Guilty'

Changes that may be in the offing, however, will compound the school- and childcare-related problems already beginning to surface because of increases in the number of working mothers and one-parent families.

Some 2 million Japanese children already are enrolled in the nation's approximately 22,000 day-care facilities--a figure that equals the estimated number of centers in this country. Mothers who are able to place their children in the publicly sponsored programs pay the bargain rate of about $40 a month.

Precautions are also being taken to forestall the development of a Japanese version of America's "latchkey" problem. Most communities have instituted after-school programs in schools or community centers to supervise the children of working parents. In Osaka, for example, 35 percent of the elementary schools have special annexes to house such after-school programs.

According to Mitsuko Okamoto, who supervises an after-school program at Osaka's Suita Daini Elementary School, only students whose mothers work can attend, at a monthly charge of $10.

But Ms. Okamoto notes that the parental pressure for school achievement that is so prevalent in Osaka prevents many students from attending her relaxed, play-oriented program. Their parents send them to juku, instead.

And despite the child-care support system, says Emiko Kaya, a Tokyo high-school English teacher who is a mother with two elementary-school-age sons, for many women the old traditions that govern family responsibilities die hard. "Women are made to feel guilty if they work," she says, "even if their babies are well cared for."

Divorce and Work Linked

Working women are also made--however obliquely--to feel guilty about domestic trends that alarm the Japanese public.

The country, for example, has a rising divorce rate, which, though still less than one-fifth that of the United States, has nearly doubled since 1961, swelling the public day-care system and contributing to increased school violence. No less a source than the nation's Economic Planning Agency says this about its causes: "The tendency to pursue a higher level of education and increasing employment of women are contributing factors behind a more permissive attitude toward divorce."

Yet a recent public-opinion survey conducted by the Prime Minister's Office reveals how moralistically the average Japanese woman views her responsibilities in marriage.

When asked if divorce is a viable route for a woman to take if she is unable to find satisfaction with her spouse, only about one of every four Japanese women said yes. By contrast, more than two-thirds of the American women said yes, along with 79 percent of the British respondents and 80 percent of the West German women.

Clearly, such rigid and deeply ingrained perceptions of the rights and responsibilities of women will give way only gradually. After all, fewer than 30 years have elapsed since more than half of all Japanese women could look forward to "arranged marriages." Even today, 26 percent of all marriages are arranged.

What is lacking, say Ms. Cook and Mr. Hayashi, is a "propulsive force" that will mobilize women around the few who protest and will push forward the government initiatives to protect women. For now, they say of those few: "The amazing thing is that they keep at it."

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