May 24, 2010
I visited Japan in 1997 as part of a big 100 year anniversary for my former employer, Sumitomo Electric. I attended factory & office tours, dinners, luncheons and presentations during my ten days there. I was shocked at how the company women were on the periphery everywhere I went. I mean it literally, the women would stand up against the back wall waiting for somebody to need something. In an office setting they are called “wallflowers”. None of them occupied any desks, at least not in any of the areas I visited. Just wall to wall "salary men" toiling away everywhere I looked.
After hours, in a bar in Tokyo, I had the chance to talk to one of the Japanese women employees. She was responsible for preparing assignees before they were transferred to the US. She spoke very good English. She explained that she enjoyed her job very much but understood that if she were to marry and have children she would be expected to quit her job. I was outraged on her behalf and shocked at how accepting she was of this sexist norm. Then I reminded myself I was in their country and acting like the typical egocentric American, measuring everybody by the way we do things.
The law is slowly changing in Japan. Big Japanese employers (Sumitomo included) are being taken to court by their women employees on charges of discrimination and they are losing. They are being forced to give women the same opportunites as men. They also have to be careful about shaming a woman into quitting once she's married. It still happens though, culture is slow to change. They, men and women both, just don't find it acceptable for women with young children to be working. Japanese women are postponing marriage longer and longer, knowing that they will have to give up their careers. I think this change, along with the more indpendent and progressive minded youth will open the door for working mothers in Japan. It’s just going to take some time.
For my friend to be sent to a strange country as an unmarried woman is rare indeed. Her mindset is the tide that will turn Japan. She is confiedent in her ability, she knows she faces bias from her male counerparts. She doesn't care. She just does her job and ignores their shock, hesitancy and wonder at having to deal with a woman in a senior manager position. Having worked for a Japanese company for so many years I’m used to having to say goodbye. Assignees come and go in three year intervals. This one is hard though. I will miss Reiko a lot. Not for all she's accomplished for equal rights in our company but because she's my friend.
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