Japan Limits Career Women Hierarchy and Gender Dictate Business Life

Article excerpt

YOU have to understand the culture if you are going to work here," says Kathleen Keith in a telephone interview. She is the only American in the advertising department of All Nippon Airways in Tokyo. "You have to know when to push and not to push. You have to be open-minded and flexible."

Shortly after her arrival in Japan, Ms. Keith realized that although she was a manager handling international ad campaigns for the airline, her boss also expected her to make his tea. She did it for about three months until she felt confident that she could express herself well enough in Japanese not to offend, but to get her point across, firmly. She told her superior that serving him upset her so much it was beginning to interfere with her work. He accepted the explanation and relieved Keith of the task.

Like many other American women working for Japanese companies in Japan, Keith has found herself in a situation filled with paradoxes. Attempts to modernize notwithstanding, Japan is a country where protocol and hierarchy continue to define social and career interactions. Men enter a company expecting to work hard and rise fast. Women are siphoned off into an "office lady" track and treated gingerly if they express long-term job goals.

Opportunities for women to rise into management exist in an ever-changing Japan, but they are still very limited. Nearly 40 percent of the work force is now female, but most are in lowly jobs and leave after a few years. So what happens when an outspoken, ambitious young American woman, recruited right out of college with promises of subsidized housing, a good salary, and sogo shoku - a tenured position usually offered only to male "lifetime" employees - arrives?

"I'm distinguished from the Japanese women as 'not cler- ical, Keith explains, "and I don't have to wear a uniform."

A uniform? Men are permitted to dress as they please, says Keith, but women are required to bedeck themselves in ugly navy blue jumpers. …