Home Political science Capturing contemporary Japan: differentiation and uncertainty
As i consider the stories of the bubble generation women, some patterns begin to emerge. First and foremost, the mid-1980s were a major turning point in Japan's labor history, when the booming economy and legal changes coincided to open up the job market to women with a post-secondary education and gave them a realistic chance at developing a lifelong professional career in the corporate world. Seiko was obviously the most conscious of her “luck” in being a woman of this generation, but even yumiko, who did not see much of a tangible connection between macro-level changes and her own work experience, definitely benefited from them. A woman of her educational capital who was ten years older or younger than she would not have been able to find and switch jobs as she did in the late 1980s and early '90s.
Major Japanese corporations, including tteC and Quick news (which wooed seiko), were eager to recruit qualified female candidates, in part to maintain a positive public image in the advent of the eeOL, but also to secure high-quality workers in a seller's market. Moreover, since the late 1990s the Japanese government has been eager to recognize and reward “familyfriendly” companies (roberts 2004). By contrast, small and mid-sized companies—including yumiko's current employer—have less to gain from a progressive image, as their recruitment patterns were much less a public affair than those of the major corporations; they also lacked the financial resources to invest in female employees, whom they continued to perceive as high risk. Twenty-five years after the eeOL, it seems, equal employment opportunity is far from common in the Japanese corporate world.
Most significant, the bubble generation women's stories indicate that formal changes in employment policies are rarely supported by the informal workplace culture, even in the top-tier corporations. Seiko has experienced the duplicity between the tatemae (public behavior) toward gender tolerance and the widely shared honne (honest inner feelings) among male workers and managers, who believe that women can never measure up to the demands of a professional career. Not all men intentionally try to marginalize professional women, as is evident in seiko's narrative. Yet their well-meaning assistance has only reaffirmed that she is different—female—and cannot be treated the same way as a man. In takenobu's analysis (1994), too, such duplicity is identified as the root of professional women's discontent and the primary reason why many of them give up on their careers after a few years. Some women, including Maya and seiko, have persisted, but they may indeed be among a particularly resilient few (cf. Roberts 2011).
As we turn our attention from the macrostructural forces to the experiences of individual women, the single most striking difference in yumiko's, Maya's, and seiko's narratives is the notion of choice—or lack thereof. Yumiko Gave the distinct impression that she had no career direction and had drifted from one job to another to make her life easier; Maya often downplayed her individual agency, particularly in reference to the structural constraints of her workplace. Seiko, by contrast, emphasized her conscious decisions at every turn of her career path, from her job search process to her reluctance to do what it took to advance in the corporate organization. The women's discussion of family life shows exactly the same pattern. Yumiko and Maya explained their passivity and lack of opportunity as the reasons why they had remained single. Taking on the responsibility of caring for aging parents (as Maya has done) is also presented as a default move. Seiko, on the other hand, represents herself as a conscious agent in her choice to leave her boyfriend to take a longterm assignment in the Ussr, to later marry a man who was willing to share domestic responsibilities, and finally to have two children despite the negative effects of such a decision on her career.
Other aspects of the women's narratives suggest another, quite different reading of their stories, however. Yumiko's comments about female team leaders and the cliquishness of her female colleagues suggest a critical consciousness about the complexity of office dynamics, in which women are pitted against each other to take advantage of scarce opportunities (cf. Ogasawara 1998). Nor did Maya take it sitting down every time her superiors put her team in a seemingly impossible situation. She got angry and tried to negotiate, on behalf of her team, to improve working conditions. On the other hand, seiko admitted that she could have made different choices during her job search and at the key turning points in her career, but she just simply did not make enough of an effort. While presenting her marriage and motherhood as a choice, she also recognizes that she was lucky that her circumstances allowed her to have both a full-time job and a thriving family.
The women's self-construction is, then, at once agential and relational, the dual aspects of being a woman who is able to recognize and act upon her needs and desires but is also mindful of her interdependence with others, her corporate affiliation and its consequences, and the contextual nature of decisions she may make at various junctures in her life. Their varied emphasis on agency and relationality is also a reflection of their respective positions in the highly stratified social reality of corporate Japan. As Japanese women attain more education and advance into the professional world of work, they are exposed to the same structural constraints as men; one of these is the central significance of gakureki, or educational pedigree, in career development. For women, the effects of this positioning are not limited to the professional sphere but extend Into their personal choices as well. Seiko gets to hold down a full-time job while being the mother of two at least in part because she was able to convert her educational capital into a good job with a major corporation that has the resources to support its employees' personal choices.
The last important point to take away from the stories of yumiko, Maya, and seiko, then, is that a widening disparity is emerging among working women, or jojo kakusa (female-female disparity), as opposed to the traditional danjo kakusa (male-female disparity) of previous eras (tachibanaki 2009). In theory, educational pedigree allows those who accumulate greater educational capital to advance beyond their class origins, and it thus acts as a sort of equalizer. In reality, however, the emphasis on educational capital often encourages class reproduction, particularly for women. Japanese families have tended to prioritize education for male children over female children, and while parents are often willing to invest significant financial resources to provide the best education possible for their sons, they are less likely to do so for their daughters. Thus girls who are given equal educational opportunities as boys are primarily from families with considerable financial means, where they do not have to compete against male siblings for family support. Once women were largely dependent on their fathers and husbands for their cultural and social capital; now a new form of differentiation is emerging among girls and women in contemporary Japan based on the availability of familial educational support (tachibanaki 2009, chapter 3).
Furthermore, the stratification among female workers has created a new source of stress. Once every woman in a corporate workplace was an “office lady,” making photocopies and serving tea; now professional women and clerical women work side by side, not as equals, but as managers and managerial candidates, on one hand, and support staff on the other. While clerical women accept their supportive role vis-à-vis male professional workers, they often resent having to serve female professional workers. In turn, many professional women hesitate to “give orders” to clerical women, as their male counterparts would. A similar conflict is suggested in yumiko's story, in which she characterizes some of the more ambitious female workers in negative terms. Such a characterization suggests that the deeply entrenched gender division of labor remains not only in the minds of male workers and managers, but also in the worldview of female workers themselves.
Japanese women's work experience today is diverse and complex. While some of the earlier disparities between men and women have been remedied to an extent, new forms of difference are emerging. In the ever-changing social Environment of contemporary Japan, individual women respond to the effects of macrostructural forces the best way they can within the range of choices available to them. While the power of habitus is undeniable in the stories of the three women in this chapter, it is also important to recognize how they formulate and find meaning in their work and lives, no matter how trivial or unremarkable they may be from an outsider's point of view.
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