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Women Redefine Japan’s Work Culture

TOKYO, Sep 20 2012 (IPS) - Unhappy with her employer of five years, Chikako Harada, 34, quit three months ago and has just started on a new job with a large Internet sales company. 

“My English language capabilities give me an advantage in Japan’s difficult job market,” she explained. 

Harada may not represent the norm among female workers, but experts say she reflects the new determination of young Japanese women to make their way in a difficult job market through flexibility. 

“Women in their twenties and thirties are redefining the old labour model that worshipped lifetime employment in the male-dominated corporate world,” says Midori Ito, head of Action Centre for Working Women, an organisation that supports females in the labour market. 

“By being able to handle different jobs women are ushering fresh ideas into a bleak job market,” says Ito. 

As Japan grapples with growing unemployment, with companies preferring  part-time hiring to beat the economic recession, women are emerging as important role models, say labour experts. 

Prof. Fumio Ohtake, researcher on labour issues at the prestigious Osaka University, explained to IPS that the employment crunch has turned attention on conventional female work profiles marked by the sort of flexibility that can beat shrinking job opportunities. 

“In the male-dominated corporate world, female workers have commonly been relegated to the sidelines. It’s time to review the old image and take a lesson from the way women juggle their careers to survive,” Ohtake said. 

Japan’s 1985 equal opportunity law is rarely invoked and companies have  continued discriminatory practices with impunity. As a result, Japan has consistently ranked as the most unequal of the world’s rich countries, according to the United Nations Development Programme’s “gender empowerment measure.” 

Japan’s lifelong employment system, viewed as the lynchpin in Japan’s postwar economic miracle, favoured men based on their traditional role as family breadwinners. 

But, as companies cut back against a long economic recession the traditional job market is steadily being replaced by part-time or contract jobs, where women may stand a better chance. 

Indeed, new job opportunities over the past few years have mostly been part-time, and contract jobs now account for almost 34 percent of Japan’s 63 million labour force, including unemployed people. 

Women now comprise 70 percent of part-time employees, working mostly in the welfare and service sectors as homecare providers and in the restaurant business where salaries are on an hourly basis with few benefits. 

Aware of rising public anxiety over jobs, the government in August pledged to examine the status of part-timers and non-regular workers with a view to getting companies to offer full-time employment status for employees on the rolls for more than five years. 

In October, Japan will also raise the minimum wage to seven dollars per hour in a bid to raise the income of part-time workers. 

But experts are critical of the new measures as being piecemeal and not supporting long-term changes in the job market. 

Ito has long campaigned for ‘decent work’, an international concept that calls for employment that respects the rights of workers. Ito beleives that the job crisis can become a catalyst for both male and female workers to lead stable and content lives. 

“Younger women such as Harada, with her determination to find new jobs, reflect the desire among single women – and now an increasing number of younger men – to cope with the risk of joblessness by developing new work ethics and standards,” she told IPS. 

Yoshiko Otsu, head of the Society of Working Women, an established organisation that provides support for female part-time workers, acknowledged to IPS the need for such changes to cope with the increasing hardships. 

“The current situation is difficult for women workers whose status makes them vulnerable. The government must support women who want to break free of traditional shackles, but the new laws that promise to force companies to give them full-time jobs are unreal,” she said. 

Otsu’s organisation fields hundreds of inquiries each day from female contract employees who complain of unpaid salaries and sexual and power harassment from their male bosses. 

She is critical of new regulations by the government, saying that companies could easily resort to terminating the services of their female workers before they complete five years – making women even more insecure in the job market. 

While concrete statistics for new opportunities for women have not been recorded, existing data by researchers indicate that females are becoming leaders in the niche for opportunities in community work. 

Miki Hara, owner of ‘Drop’, a non-profit company based in Yokohama that offers services to mothers with young children, agrees. “My own experience has shown that it is possible to be financially independent by being innovative,” she explained to IPS. 

“The idea of starting a company that provides space for new mothers and their children to do things together came to me after rising public debt led to new official policies that recognised that bureaucrats alone cannot solve community issues,” she said. “We have to learn to support ourselves.”   

Drop now employs five fulltime workers and more than 30 part-timers. The going is not easy but Hara says her company has a pioneering role in community work.

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