The Wasted Asset

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Yuka Tanimoto knows how to serve tea. She can do far more than that, of course, but the 33-year-old newscaster says her Japanese male bosses—and they were all male—weren't overly interested in her non-tea-pouring skills. At the Yamaichi Securities firm, which Tanimoto joined in 1997 as an in-house newscaster, she was chided for daring to voice her opinions on news content—and for cropping her uniform skirt from mid-calf to a scandalous length just below the knee. "The company was looking for cute, non-ambitious girls," says Tanimoto. "We were supposed to make copies quietly, not think." In 2000, Tanimoto moved to the electronics giant Matsushita, but things weren't much different. Only 2% of the women she worked with were on a career track; the rest were so-called office ladies who rarely graduated from tea and copy duty, even after years of service. After getting her M.B.A. in the U.S. last year, Tanimoto couldn't face working for another Japanese company. So in March, she took a job with CNBC as their Tokyo markets reporter. "As a woman, I can rise much higher at a foreign company than at a Japanese one," says Tanimoto. "The Japanese business culture is not changing quickly enough for people like me."

As Japan prepares for an election widely thought likely to define its future, it might contemplate why half of its population is still preserved in the amber of a tradition-bound past. During the country's bubble years, when jobs were plentiful and hopes were high, women began to expect both a greater role in the workplace and a lesser role in the home. In 1985, Japan's parliament passed a law ensuring gender equality at work, and men's magazines ran serious articles on the joys of cleaning a toilet. But then the golden apple was snatched away. Once the bubble economy burst in 1992, women were the first to be laid off. Although more women work now than a decade ago, they are still the last to be rehired to full-time jobs and must often eke out a living on part-time work. In May, a gender-gap survey by the World Economic Forum found that, in terms of economic opportunity and political empowerment, Japanese women ranked 52nd and 54th respectively out of 58 developed and emerging economies. And even though women were named as heads of two major Japanese companies earlier this year—at supermarket chain Daiei and electronics maker Sanyo—only 7.7% of departmental and section managers in the world's second-largest economy are female. Of those women who do manage to cultivate careers, just 30% continue working after childbirth because the rest cannot juggle both home and a job, according to the Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare. "This is a critical period in Japanese history," says Hiroko Hara, a member of the Advisory Committee for the Prime Minister's Office on Gender Equality. "We have to figure out whether to keep fighting for our dream of equality or just give up on having it all."

In one way, there's nothing special about Japan. Women in the developed world have played out variations on the work vs. home theme for decades. But the stark career-or-kids choice in Japan has created a demographic nightmare. Because Japanese women are expected to quit their jobs when they have children, a record number are foregoing marriage altogether. Today, one in four Japanese women in their early 30s is single, up from 14% a decade ago. As a consequence, Japan's fertility rate fell to a record low of 1.29 in 2004 compared to 2.13 in the U.S., giving it one of the lowest birth rates in the world. Demographers predict that the country's population will actually start declining in 2007. If present trends continue, Japan will shrink from a nation of 127 million today to 64 million by the end of this century—and from 2010 onward, the declining population will adversely affect the economy. Yet compared to other developed economies, Japan, under the leadership of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has been notoriously slow in implementing policies like flexible hours for working mothers, enhanced day-care options and financial incentives for bearing more children.

That means that Japan is not getting anything like the most out of its workforce. Indeed, even though Japan will soon face a shortage of workers, a Cabinet Office survey released in July found that 63% of Japanese companies had no plans to try to hire more women. Tomoyo Nonaka, who took over as chairman of Sanyo in June, remembers her first attempts to get a job as a photojournalist. Nonaka had an advanced degree in the field but was told she was unqualified because she wasn't male. "That was my start in Japan," she says. "A very clear 'No thank you.'" And those who get "Yes" for an answer know they are fortunate. Yukari Yamashita-Yui, who develops satellites for the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, works for an open-minded government agency, so her hours are regular. "I'm very lucky, because I couldn't do this at a private company," she says. "Half of my female friends from university have quit their jobs as astronomers. They wanted to continue working, but they had no choice. The working environment is almost impossible for mothers." Only 11.6% of Japan's scientific researchers are women, compared to one-third in the U.S.

You'd think the government might want to do something about that. On the contrary, allege critics: "There is no sense of crisis within the LDP, and no interest either," says former House of Representatives member Seiko Noda, who is often mentioned as a future leader of the party. "Why? Because the main opinion is that [the falling birthrate] is the women's fault and the men do not need to do anything." If anything, many LDP politicians would prefer to see women return to the role of okusan—which means "person in the back of the house"—as wives are commonly called in Japan. Last year, an LDP panel on constitutional reform issued a report recommending that Article 24 of the constitution, which guarantees equality between the sexes, should be revised because it has promoted "egoism in postwar Japan, leading to the collapse of family and community." Similarly, former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori has argued that childless women should not receive pension benefits: "It is truly strange to say that we have to use tax money to take care of women who don't even give birth once, who grow old living their lives selfishly."

In the run-up to next month's lower house elections, Japan's tabloids have sensationalized the fact that Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has approached several prominent women to stand for office against the 37 LDP party members who voted against his postal reform bill. So far, however, only four women have committed to run as so-called LDP "assassins." While postal reform is the election's key issue, the party has included a few family-friendly planks in its latest manifesto, including tax breaks for households with kids and proposals to improve childcare at smaller companies. But critics like Noda have charged that the party leadership panders to women only in times of crisis. And, according to the latest tally, the LDP still has the lowest number of female election candidates—just 17, compared to 23 for the Democratic Party of Japan and 68 for the Japanese Communist Party.

Certainly, less-than-progressive attitudes remain surprisingly common among the LDP Úlite. This summer, a faction of ruling-party members, including acting LDP secretary-general Shinzo Abe, often tipped as a likely future Prime Minister, publicly criticized a governmental draft report on how to achieve gender equality. "A [gender-free] concept which ignores the value of marriage and the family is linked to the destruction of culture," said Abe during a party conference. Minoru Nakamura, a popular assemblyman from the Tokyo suburb of Funabashi, was even more blunt about those who advocate equality between the sexes. "Pitiable women who direct their dissatisfaction at being ignored by men toward society ... are truly laughable," Nakamura said. He then added: "It's also strange how these women, compared to their peers, are uglier. "In theory, younger Japanese men are far more open to equality than their fathers. They have to be: two incomes are often the only way that a family can maintain a comfortable lifestyle in Japan's big cities. Still, the pressures of a workaholic culture dissuade men from cutting out early and doing a little dusting. Work in Japan can extend to late-night drinking sessions with the bosses, and men who don't guzzle beer with their peers may find career prospects stunted. Only 0.4% of men take paternity leave, while 73% of women take maternity leave. Wives also shoulder most of the burden of caring for the country's rapidly aging population. "Women must work twice as hard as men to advance their careers because of prejudices within Japanese companies," says women's rights activist Hara. "And then they have to go home and work three times as hard there." Hara's housework estimate, in fact, may be too low: a survey by the Japanese Broadcasting Corporation found that women spend a daily average of 3 hours and 49 minutes on household duties. Men? They spent just 32 minutes a day on the chores.

It was all supposed to be so different. in 1988, when the Japanese economy—remember?—was the wonder of the world, the Nikkei publishing group launched a magazine called Nikkei Woman. "We thought the age of the career woman was about to start, and we wanted to be at the forefront of the trend," says editor-in-chief Hiroko Nomura. It was a false dawn. By the mid-1990s, Japan was deep in a recession and many women had scaled back their career expectations. "We knew that men's attitudes would be slow to change," says Nomura. "But we found that women's own expectations of what they could do were changing, too. They were putting the brakes on their own careers." So Nikkei Woman rebranded itself as a handbook for office ladies and part-timers. (One-third of Japanese women work largely dead-end "women-only" jobs.) Recent articles have focused on such topics as "Summer skincare—protecting yourself from office air and the sun." Nomura is philosophical about the shift in content. "We were too far ahead of the times," she says. "If the bubble had continued, then progress for women would have been much faster." A recent poll by Nikkei Woman found that 61% of its readership wanted a job that guaranteed no work after 5 p.m. and weekends off—conditions hardly suited to climbing the career ladder.

To be sure, not everyone has given up. Indeed, the changing fortunes of Japanese professional women over the last two decades have produced sharp divisions in the way that women look at work. Some have bailed out, depressed because they think they will never crack the bamboo ceiling—full-time female workers earn just 69% of what Japanese men make—or because they are unwilling to commit to the rigors of working in Japan. But for women who have managed to secure a career, life can be good. Many thirty-something women in Japan who began their lives at work during the final years of the bubble economy now revel in their ability to live like the stars of Sex in the City, buying their own apartments, traveling the world, trading cramped kitchens for bistro outings—sans husbands, of course. (See sidebar.) Junko Sakai, 38, is single, buys chic clothes and laments dating men who are "like toilet paper when what you really want is tissue paper." Last year, she published a collection of essays entitled Howl of the Loser Dogs, which has sold more than 340,000 copies. Japanese society, she says, venerates the winner dog, the housewife who waits at home with a vat of miso soup for her husband and kids. Sakai, a childless single, champions a very different lifestyle. "Society may call us loser dogs," she says, "but we are happy and independent."

Yet Sakai admits that Japanese women in their 20s seem skeptical of the way that those like her have focused on their careers. "We are seen as selfish," Sakai says. "The lesson younger people take from us is that if you do as you please and have a job and buy things, then you end up alone." As if to make that point, the poster child for the new Japanese woman is a demure, doe-eyed model named Yuri Ebihara. Through her appearances in popular youth fashion magazine CanCam, Ebihara is spawning clothing lines, TV shows, calendars and manga that all extol the virtues of the office lady. "In the '90s, the trend [in fashion magazines] was 'New York career women,'" says CanCam's editor-in-chief Yutaka Onishi. "The concept was cool, sharp. Independence was a trend. Ten years later you look around and realize that it was just an illusion ... Women in their 20s perhaps see people in their 30s and decide that they don't want to end up like them. You give everything to your company, your career, but you're still getting laid off." Says newscaster Tanimoto, who is also single: "I thought our exciting careers would show younger women that there is a path to success. But I think they actually feel sorry for us."

The answer, perhaps, is to define an exciting career in a new way. Since so many of Japan's conglomerates have proven themselves wary of placing women on the career track, females are becoming entrepreneurs themselves. Today, 65,000 companies in Japan are owned by women. Most are mom-and-only-mom operations that allow working mothers flexible hours. To avoid client meetings in which female bosses are often mistaken for secretaries, many rely on direct sales through the mail or the Internet.

Mika Noguchi, a mother of four, runs a company larger than most. Although she never went to college, Noguchi at age 21 knew one very important thing: what lingerie women liked to wear. Eschewing the sexy styles of male designers, Noguchi in 1987 began designing frilly, flowery creations that she calls "I love me" underwear. Her company, Peach John, started out as a catalogue company, and is now Japan's answer to Victoria's Secret, with $8 million in sales last year. At Peach John's Tokyo headquarters, all but one of the 42 employees are women. (The lone man is in charge of office management.) The company structure is unorthodox: to avoid the pressures of a hierarchy, Noguchi has divided her staff not by job type but by flower names. The head of public relations, for instance, is in the peach-blossom category, while Noguchi is in the chrysanthemum division. And unlike the pattern at most other Japanese companies, Noguchi encourages anyone to speak up during meetings. "In Japan, business rules are all made by men," says Noguchi, now 40. "Instead of forcing myself into that system, I wanted to create a different environment through which I could compete with all those men."

If it can't find places for women like Noguchi, Japan Inc. will lose out. Just as in the bubble years, those women who don't want to start their own businesses are flocking to foreign firms, which have a long history of being less prejudiced. The president of Merrill Lynch Japan Securities, Izumi Kobayashi, spent four years preparing tea for male colleagues at Mitsubishi before switching to a foreign firm in 1985. Fumiko Hayashi, 59, made headlines in June when she took over as head of struggling supermarket chain Daiei, which made her one of the most powerful women in Japan. But she got her first big break from Volkswagen in 1999, when the German automaker recruited her to head a division of its Japan operation. Before that, says Hayashi, she had to lobby firms like Honda, writing letters explaining why she would be a good salesperson despite the fact that she was a woman. "I started working at 18 years old," says Hayashi, who like many women her age never attended college. "And no one came after me until I was 53 years old"—when VW hired her.

Yet for all those who appear to be harbingers of a new Japan, many more have watched the retrenchment of opportunities after the bubble, and left the labor market. Hitomi Asano, once the owner of her own casting agency in Tokyo, now lives on the outskirts of Sendai, in a placid, rice-growing patch of northern Japan. In 1995, aged 35, Asano married a doctor she had known from childhood. The pair moved first to a small mountainous town where he worked at a local hospital—wives in Japan follow their husbands' jobs, not vice-versa. One day, she wore her fur coat out, and an elderly man scooted away in terror. "He thought I was a bear," recalls Asano. "I didn't fit in very well." Two years later, the couple moved to Sendai, also a place that had no need for casting agencies.

So Asano did what middle-class housewives in rural Japan do. She joined the choir, planted orchids, learned traditional calligraphy. But she still feels that something is missing. "In Tokyo, I had a passion, and in Sendai I don't," she says. "Sometimes when I'm at home alone, I put on my fancy clothes from Tokyo and just walk around pretending I'm back at work." Asano knows she's a winner dog by Japanese standards; she is married to a doctor, no less. But so long as Japan—aging, shrinking, Japan—can't find a way to lure skilled women like her back into the workplace, the whole nation will lose.