May 24, 2010

Sayonara Friend

It's a sad day today. One of my co-workers returned to Japan. Reiko is an awesome HR manager, very funny and sweet but tough when she has to be. She is the first woman from our huge, parent company in Japan to take an overseas assignment. A trailblazer, if you will. You may pshaw me assigning her the title of trailblazer but you would only be demonstrating that you don’t know much about Japanese culture. They are about 30 years behind us when it comes to women in the workplace. Though, if my friend is any indication, Japan has seen some progress since I was there.

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.

Graphics courtesy of dryicons


  1. Good friends are a treasure.
    Reiko sounds like a treasure to her company and to her country.

  2. What a great tribute to your friend. I'm sure she will miss you, too :-)

  3. My mother spent her career bumping her head against the "glass ceiling." I consider myself lucky that I had her to influence me, as well as having great female bosses. If you're not masculine enough to respect a boss of any gender, well, to me, that's not too masculine.

  4. I did not know that about women in Japan, I'm really shocked.
    And sorry you had to say goodbye to your friend.

  5. very nice post to reiko. it will be interesting to see how things will change in the next fifteen years.

  6. Oh, I'm so sorry about your friend leaving....but what you said here about Japan is interesting--and sad. I hope the Japanese perception of women's role in society changes quickly!

  7. My youngest son is married to a Japanese woman....first generation born here. She is a teacher and an incredibly smart, strong woman....her mother....the exact opposite and her father sad to say is a bully. In one stand of astounding defiance (when her mother found out about the extent of his "extracurricular activities") she returned to Japan for two years and only came back when he made promises that he never kept. Your friend Reiko is absolutely a trail blazer. Good luck to her.

  8. No doubt,she'll be taking back some enlightened influnce with her.
    You were a good example right?..Right?

  9. Mom - She is a very special person.

    Dawn - She is coming back in August to attend a co-rworker's wedding. She made so many friends here.

    Johnny - These days a working woman is usually offered the same respect as her male counterparts. (Some bigoted dinosaurs still exist out there though.) But respect hasn't necessarily translated into upward movement. We have our own gains to make when it comes to equality.

    Foxy - Japan is so modern that their old fashioned values are a surprise to many. The younger generation is changing things though.

    mi - Probably will be a very different place. Who knows, maybe Reiko will make VP over there.

    MHP - I think it will change. The Japanese women who come to school here and then return take a whole new outlook on equality with them. American independence and ideals are like a disease... very contagious.

    Rosemary - Sounds like a few Japanese bosses I have had. Grunting was their main form of communication. Luckily, at six feet tall, I towered over most of them. Don't think I didn't use that to my advantage. Sometimes I feel like Godzilla terrorizing the sleepy little Japanese village.

    Sling - Oh, I think so, a little. She learned a lot about the way we do things. One thing I always admired her for was insisting the Japanese assignees 1) speak English in the presence of an English speaker, 2) Accept that they are in America and must do things our way and 3) Addressing issues head on.