Japanese women in losing equality battle

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 July, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 July, 1996, 12:00am

IS sexual intimidation all too common in Japan? American civil rights leader the Reverend Jesse Jackson has been visiting the country to argue just that.

After accusations of widespread sexual harassment of women at Mitsubishi Motors' US plant, Mr Jackson was in Japan as a first step in what he labels a crusade to promote human and civil rights in the Asia-Pacific region.

He noted that whenever anyone visited a Japanese company the people in authority were all greying men.

Successful women are rare in Japan's corporate world. Most women are expected to work for a few years, snare a husband - preferably from the same company - and then raise the next generation.

Male and female roles are strictly determined, which can lead to all kinds of intimidation and harassment, argues Mieko Matsumoto, a Japanese woman attempting to build a career and raise a family.

'It's like some kind of oppressive blanket, smothering your every action,' she says, trying to explain how she feels sexual bias influences her life as a woman in Japan.

'Japanese society sees men and women as two distinct types, with women as the lesser equal. Any woman breaking that mould invites trouble. The whole structure of Japanese society works to keep these stereotypes in place.' From job advertisements for 'office flowers' to staff reception desks to women being expected to serve male staff members coffee and tea during the day, any career-minded woman faces huge stumbling blocks if her goal is to be treated as a corporate equal.

During Japan's recent recession, there have been increasing reports of new male graduates being favoured over their female counterparts as well as stories of women being asked their breast size or marital status during job interviews.

Foreign women in Japan frequently express amazement at the prevalence of soft and hard porn openly read on crowded trains. Afternoon papers run pages of advertisements for prostitutes.

So it is no surprise that Japanese women, and foreign women working for Japanese firms, face intimidation and harassment.

Career success for a woman in Japan is now being likened to cracking a cement ceiling, rather than the glass ceiling spoken of in the West.

Sexual harassment takes the same form as everywhere else in the world - unwanted fondling, invitations from superiors that are difficult to refuse, and sexual innuendoes and propositions. But how do Japanese women fight back? Japan's equal opportunity law, passed in 1986, has no teeth. It contains no punitive measures for companies that break the law. Indeed, the few Japanese women who have been willing to take the matter to court have been forced to pursue civil suits for defamation.

Sexual harassment itself is not illegal.