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Home arrow Political science arrow Capturing contemporary Japan: differentiation and uncertainty

Seiko: The EEOL's Poster Child

Seiko came running to the front entrance of the Mitsukoshi Department store in the Ginza, a few minutes past our meeting time. “sorry, sorry. I got held up at work!” Once we settled at a corner table in a small sushi place, she began to talk. She first asked about my work, then started talking about her own. We spent nearly four hours together that afternoon, and i had to provide only a few prompts to keep her going.

Seiko was born in Hokkaido in 1963. Her family moved to yokohama, the largest city in Kanagawa Prefecture, when she was in the first grade, as her father, who worked for a well-known logistics company, was transferred to its main office in tokyo. She graduated from a top-ranked high school in the district and entered one of the most prestigious private universities in Japan to study russian, a choice she attributed to her family's origins in Hokkaido. “in Hokkaido, russia seemed much closer. Also, i wanted to do something different, [a field] not too many other people went into.”

In her senior year of college, seiko began to look into jobs. It was 1985, when the economy was very strong and the job market favorable for soon-tobe graduates. The eeOL was also coming into effect in the following year, and corporate employers were trying to recruit female graduates with bells and whistles. She quickly received naitei (preliminary offers) from two top-level corporations (both presented here in pseudonyms): tteC, an electronics firm, and Quick news, a media conglomerate. The tteC recruiters told her that they needed russian-speaking personnel, as they were expanding their business into the Ussr. Seiko had a favorable impression of the company but hesitated because she might be transferred to the Ussr for a long time.

With Quick news, her primary interest was in the cultural projects division, where a wide range of cultural and educational programs were being planned for a lay audience. However, during the recruitment process she was told to change her area of interest to news reporting. “they really wanted female recruits [as reporters],” seiko explains. “the eeOL was just kicking in, and big companies were eager to show that they were actively hiring women. It was as though we were kyakuyose panda [panda bears featured to gather a crowd]. Naturally, some female hires were selected primarily based on their appearance, to be used in the company's Pr. But they also wanted to hire some tough ones who would stay on the job. I always tell people that i was a typical case of the former!” She laughs heartily and continues. “it's super maledominant [chō meeru dominanto] in the world of news reporting. At that time, there were very, very few women working in any of those hard-core fields, like the economy, politics, and international affairs.”

In the end, seiko chose Quick news, despite the fact she was never interested in the news business. “i didn't think they would hire me unless i agreed to change my application. I figured it'd be all right [to work as a reporter] for the time being.” Once on the job, she discovered that her male colleagues and supervisors were not ready for a female reporter among them. “[Male] reporters work day and night. They follow important politicians around, hang out at the police precinct, and so on, so they won't miss a scoop. But they wouldn't let me work overnight, so male colleagues would have to take over [after certain hours].” She felt that she was treated as not quite a full adult (hanninmae). “i was like some sort of exotic animal. I was stationed in a small town up north for a while, and they [local reporters] would come to interview me as the 'first woman reporter from tokyo'! I hated it so much! It was a major Source of stress for me for years.” After seiko had spent several years at a desk job (as opposed to a field job)—an unusually long period compared to her male counterparts—her supervisor approached her and asked her where she intended to take her career. “i was appalled. It wasn't up to me to choose my job; it was he who put me on the desk and kept me there.”

Seiko was eventually sent on a couple of long-term assignments abroad, and she carved out a niche as a reporter in her own right. She also married in her late thirties and became a mother of two. How has she juggled all that? For one thing, her husband was open to sharing domestic responsibility; his work schedule was more flexible than hers. Nonetheless, she gave up opportunities for career advancement that would have sent her far away from tokyo. When she had her second child, it was clear that the lack of mobility would keep her off the fast track for the rest of her professional career: “with just one child, i thought maybe i would still have a chance [to take an assignment away from home and advance in her career]. But after the second one, i knew that was it; i couldn't do it anymore.”

Seiko also blamed her own stubbornness for not doing all the “right things” to advance in the corporate organization. “some people—good people who cared about my future in the company—told me that i needed to develop better relationships with my superiors. One of them said, 'it's not a big deal. If someone pushes you for a position that can benefit your career, go to him and pay your respects [aisatsu]. That's all.' But i just couldn't bring myself to do those things.” What does it mean to “pay respects” in this context? “Oh, just pay a visit and say something like, 'thank you for recommending me for the position. I appreciate your trust in me, and i'll do my best not to disappoint you.' i know a lot of people [colleagues] who are very good about doing such things, and i suppose it really works. But i was never into doing that.” She thinks that she inherited this stubborn streak from her father, who worked in a large company but never took part in the customary paying of respects or tsuketodoke (giving of gifts to curry favor of those in power).

When i asked her what work meant for her, seiko replied that it was the foundation of her adult life, and she could not imagine herself not working. In fact, she confided, she once considered marrying a man who would have liked her to quit her job and become a stay-at-home wife. She was thirty years old and was about to go on a long-term training program in the Ussr. “we never officially got engaged, but it was in the air. I sensed that he didn't want me to go to the Ussr but didn't want to say anything, fearing that he might appear too old-fashioned and controlling.” In the end, they broke up and she went To the Ussr. In retrospect, she characterized men of her generation as being caught between the old and the new: “they had to meet the expectations of their families, to marry a nice girl, have children, and carry on the family name. Yet women of their own age group were more career-oriented and not content with domestic life.”

Seiko spoke about her career choices with a strong sense of control. While she downplayed it throughout the interview, she had had the ambition to go into a profession that had previously been male-dominated, and she was willing to endure everyday gender-based discrimination and even occasional sexual harassment to establish herself in the field. She was highly conscious of her historical positioning in the first generation of women with equal opportunity, and she articulated the effects of macrostructural forces that worked in her favor. To her corporate employer, she was a rare find too, with her excellent and unique academic background, outgoing and energetic personality, and the toughness that was essential to survive in a male-dominant workplace. Seiko has stuck with her job for over twenty-five years and now works as a reporter out of Quick news' tokyo office, using her foreign language skills. In many ways, she has met the expectations of her company as a poster child of its progressive response to the eeOL.

At the same time, seiko's work experience suggests many effects of an enduring male-centered workplace culture. While the eeOL officially made the equal treatment of male and female workers possible, her male colleagues and supervisors were not prepared to accept women as their equals. On one hand, they continued to treat women as a burden, co-workers who would never have the same commitment to the profession as they themselves. One senior colleague even told her (when he was drunk) that he disliked having to work with women, period. On the other hand, some men got “overly excited” (in seiko's words) about their responsibility to help women make it in the professional world, and such a response often led to excessive paternalism toward female employees and misguided interference in their personal lives. Her superiors also had a difficult time placing her on the prescribed career track because she was a woman, yet, the customary nenkō joretsu, or seniority-based advancement system, required that they keep her on the same advancement schedule as her cohort. They would have to send her on field assignments—a key to advancement for those in the news business—yet they could not send a woman just anywhere, so they dragged their feet and kept her around doing a desk job for much longer than they ought to have. It seems as though her Superiors, working under the corporate mandate to train female reporters, did not really know what to do with her because she was not just a support worker but was not exactly one of the guys either.

Seiko's decisions about marriage and motherhood tell us a great deal about her perceptions of her professional self. At age thirty, she had to choose between her first major assignment away from home and an engagement to a man with traditional expectations. She chose the former, a necessary step for her professional development as a reporter. Yet the glass ceiling was everpresent in her career path. Even if she was willing, she would never be allowed to do what male reporters did, and thus her career would never go as far as those of her male counterparts. Seiko did not explicitly comment on the connection among her career, marriage, and children, yet i have a sense that the timing was not purely coincidental. Once she started having children, it simply became less and less likely that she was going to advance in her career as a reporter.

Seiko seemed reasonably happy with her current job. It would perhaps be considered a dead-end job by an ambitious mid-career reporter, yet there were many things about her current position to be thankful for: the office location in central tokyo, which is convenient for commuting; decent pay and benefits; a stable work schedule; and a relatively relaxed atmosphere. Seiko was clearly a very involved mother to her two young children and became visibly animated as she told me some funny stories about them. She did not say much about her husband, but i detected genuine affection every time she referred to him. In seiko's case we find how cultural capital (born and raised in a household of a white-collar salaryman) and educational capital (a graduate of a prestigious university with strong foreign language skills) converge to mold a sōgōshoku career in one of Japan's premier corporations. Her story is, however, fraught with the tension between her privileged professional position and her gender at every turn, and her career success is conditional—“for a woman”— at best. Here, gender appears to transcend both her class origin and educational capital, and steer her career trajectory away from what is considered ideal in the Japanese corporate world of work whose dominant ideology remains

Masculinist deep down.

 
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