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Japan Reading: Office Ladies and Salaried Men
  Office Ladies and Salaried Men
by Yuko Ogasawara
University of California Press
1998, 221 pages

"Power, Gender, and Work in Japanese Companies"

Many of the young ladies I meet in urban Tokyo work as "Office Ladies." I could never figure out what that meant. Secretary? Clerk? Telemarketer? Data-entry? Hostess?

This book provides great insight into this "Office Lady" work by way of exploring the gender and power relations involved.

Essentially, Ogasawara carves out a place of power for office ladies in the (Confucian?) structure of Japanese offices. Since their jobs are short-lived affairs, Japanese Office Ladies are able to regard the power structure from a distance and in fact they strongly influence the system of male promotion and the resulting hierarchy with their ability to disregard its consequences.

This book is invaluable as a survey of the petty and mighty power exerted by Office Ladies. From gossip to work stoppage, Ogasawara explores the way these women affect modern Japanese companies. It's is reminiscent of reading about slaves in American in the 1800s; while they were required to work, they often found ways to confound the system that oppressed them: breaking tools, falling ill, working slow.

Here what Ogasawara strives to demonstrate is that these ladies to a surprising degree control the careers of the salary men. These men have opportunities to rise within Japanese companies unavailable to women, but if they antagonize the women in the office they will find their reports being misfiled, their typing unfinished, and malicious remarks made about their habits and hygiene around the office.

While this might be an inspiring example of ways that women can assert themselves against some oppressors, it's not a case where women are able to make positive contributions and receive credit. There are no examples in this book of women passionately committed to their work as office ladies, and being accordingly celebrated by the company as a leading teammember. Any woman who works that hard is considered a spinster, or viewed as failing in her marriage.

...the irony for defiant OLs is that their acts often serve to reinforce traditional gender relations. An OL's acts of resistance often involve making demands that a man pay attention to her, give her things, and cater to her and her feelings in general. She in turn will demonstrate her admiration and caring for the man, assist him various ways, and support him. In making claims on men, OLs act out the traditional gender roles. - page 162

This system of making claims on men is thoroughly enshrined in office present giving. For Valentine's Day, Office Ladies purchase chocolate for men and give it in a demonstrative way. So men's popularity with women can be measured by the number and size of chocolate boxes on this desk. Then men are expected to reciprocate a month later for White Day, purchasing presents for Office Ladies. Often their wives purchase these gifts for them. What gifts are given, to whom, when, where - all these factors play in a complicated ceremony designed to demonstrate pecking order and preference within the company. Women are portrayed here as the instigators and while the system allows them a voice for expressing their enjoyment or distaste of their male coworkers, it might in fact channel these tensions in a forum that has little useful professional potential.

Ogasawara's perspective comes from research, interviews with both men and women, and a few months working as an office lady for six months. Her stories from the cubicles and coffee rooms of a large financial institution give this book much of its color. There's a good balance here of statistics, literature survey (both academic and popular), and vignettes.

To come to Japan and see legions of ladies boarding the trains in the night and morning is wonder what part they are playing in the economy. To read this book is to understand what roles are projected onto women in the workplace, much the same roles that are expected of women in Japanese society at large. As Ogasawara puts it, "Sex and position in the workplace are so conflated in Japanese companies that what is distinctive to certain occupational roles is regarded as sexually determined." page 165. Women are considered fit only for rote memorization and filing because that's all they have ever been seen doing.

Ultimately, what most of the women in this system seem to want is to leave their jobs, mostly through marriage. Ogasawara describes how women in the company who manage to marry and leave work are envied by their coworkers. Women who devote themselves to their jobs instead of marriage and child-rearing can never rise as high as men, and they are often looked on as sad lonely characters.

Ogasawara cites a Japanese Survey of the Labor Force study showing a distinct M-curve shape to the participation of women in the work force. Peaking at around age 20, it declines until around age 30, when it starts to climb peaking again at 45 years of age. Women work before they marry, drop out of the work force to have kids, and then re-enter later, usually in part-time work that pays less. While this may not be unique to Japan, the implicit understanding that a woman's job is secondary to marriage and family seems remarkably pronounced in Japan.

Women are respected primarily as wives and mothers, it would seem. And Ogasawara sees a positive side to this women's sphere, the rigid gender split in the workplace provides women a safe space from which to express themselves. This differs from the workplace in America where it is expressed that anyone can do anything. Citing a 1977, study of American secretaries by Rosabeth Kanter,

"Kanter reports that it is possible, although rare, for a secretary in America to be promoted to manager. Yet the possibility of advancement in America can cause secretaries to hesitate to make demands on their bosses. Furthermore, when exclusion of women from management is not as systematic and across the board as in Japan, one is never quite certain whether the low-level job of an individual American woman is the result of her gender or of her capability. This ambiguity may give company management leeway to discriminate against women without releasing them from responsibilities comparable to men's." - page 166.

Change may be coming; Ogasawara mentions a few examples of increased instances of performance reviews for women workers, and companies hit by the prolonged recession in Japan realizing that they could make better use of their female employees. For all the capable, provocative ladies I've met filing papers and pouring tea in Japanese companies, I hope the system finds a way to challenge them. Else they're likely to leave, one way or another.

Links (February 2001)

index.html A loaner from Mizuko Ito
One manifold view of women in the workplace:
manpower! "Manpower" Temp. Agency Advertisement
Tammeike-Sanno Station, Chiyoda Line, Tokyo
December 2001
Last Book: Donald Richie's Tokyo Next Book: ?

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