JAPAN DISCOVERS WOMAN POWER Faced with a labor shortage, Japanese companies are looking to make managers of young college graduates once condemned to be mere ''office ladies.''
By Sally Solo REPORTER ASSOCIATE Cindy Mikami

(FORTUNE Magazine) – REMEMBER that young woman who slipped into the room, deposited cups of green tea in front of everyone, then quietly backed out? Remember her, because on your next trip to Japan she may be sitting on the other side of the negotiating table. Gently, women are making their way into the otoko no shakai, the man's world, of corporate Japan. For 13 straight years women have entered the Japanese labor market at a faster rate than men. In 1988 they made up more than 40% of the entire labor force. About half of all Japanese women hold jobs. Nor are these just singles waiting for the right man: Almost two-thirds of working women are married. Though they still are most visible as bank tellers and department store clerks, they are starting to appear in more than a token way in the paneled conference rooms where decisions are made. The number of women with managerial titles increased 50% between 1982 and + 1987. And there are many more coming up behind them. For years Japanese companies put new employees on two tracks, regardless of education. One led to management and was largely reserved for men. The other pretty much started and finished with clerical work and tea serving, and guess who ended up there. Now for the first time large numbers of college-educated women are being set on the management track. Since seniority still rules at most big Japanese companies, growing numbers of women managers are virtually guaranteed in the 1990s and beyond. This is a revolution without marches or manifestoes. There is little confrontation, because of the nature of the change and the nature of those who are changing. For one thing, it is a revolution based on economic necessity, not ideology. For a year now, demand for labor in the booming Japanese economy has outstripped supply. According to Hajimu Hori, a senior official in the economic planning ministry, the shortage runs through the whole economy but is especially acute in the rapidly growing high-tech sector. Says he: ''How to train and utilize woman power is one of the biggest issues for companies.'' Some 95% of Japanese women are high school graduates, and 36% have junior college or four-year college degrees.

Until recently most women did not want careers, and companies generally overlooked the few who did. Says Noriko Nakamura, president of the 300-strong (and growing) Japan Association for Female Executives, or JAFE: ''In the past, companies lumped together the 80% of women who wanted to rush out at quitting time and the 20% who wanted to do the same work as men.'' As a result, she says, they shied away from putting any women on the managerial track. Now personnel managers are realizing that a short interview can help them identify which women want to work like men. The rest will go the clerical route of the office lady, or OL for short. OLs come in a variety of outfits -- black and white checkered uniforms at fibermaker Toray, jade green at Sanwa Bank. But most are of the same mind: Work ends at 5 P.M., and life begins at marriage. While men are trained in marketing and operations, OLs are trained in phone manner (soft and high voices preferred) and salutations (a 30-degree forward bow for most people; a 45-degree bow for special guests and executives). For their part, the new fast-track women are treading softly. Says JAFE's Nakamura: ''There are still a lot of conservative men out there. They haven't . changed, even though the women have. These women must try to be easy for the men to accept.'' Nakamura quit a job as a television announcer in 1976 when she started her family. Three years later she was recruited by a group of politicians and businessmen to lead a series of seminars on political and economic issues. The job, which she has continued to do, brought her into contact with hundreds of people, mainly men. The experience made her realize that working women needed a network too. In 1985 she established JAFE, modeled after a similar American organization. Nakamura's advice to young Japanese women would make Gloria Steinem and other U.S. feminists blanch: First, stick it out at an organization for at least ten years, no matter how routine your work is, because women must prove their loyalty. Second, when asked to serve tea, do it brilliantly, to show you can do anything. It used to be that a career-minded woman had the choice of going into the government bureaucracy, joining a foreign firm, or establishing a business. Working for a big Japanese company was rarely an option. When Mariko Fujiwara returned from Stanford ten years ago with a degree in anthropology, employment agencies advised her to take a secretarial course. She ignored the advice, and with an act bold by Japanese standards -- she presented her resume -- won a job at the Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living, a research branch of the advertising agency Hakuhodo. Fujiwara looks back on that period without anger. She points out that Japanese companies tended to hire employees fresh out of college, then train them for a lifetime career with the organization. Women who married and quit after a few years were not good investments. She adds, ''We had a very bad track record, and men were not at all convinced by the exceptions.'' When the rare woman did slip through, she ran into heavy prejudice. Miwako Doi pounded a lot of pavement ten years ago trying to find a company willing to hire her as an engineer, despite her master's degree from Tokyo University. She finally landed at Toshiba, but getting the job wasn't the only hard part. She recalls, ''When I began, people said, 'What's this -- a woman here?' '' She stuck with it and eventually became a manager. WITH COMPANIES now eager to hire them, women graduates can be choosy. The most popular employers among the management-minded are those known to treat men and women equally. The top five, according to a recent survey, are IBM < Japan, NEC, Fujitsu, Nippon Telegraph & Telephone, and Suntory. By contrast, C. Itoh, the giant trading company, ranked 102. It failed to attract a single 1988 graduate from the prestigious Ochanomizu Women's College. Explains Eiichi Shimakura, who runs employment search efforts at the college: ''There are lots of clerical women workers at C. Itoh, and one regular track female employee wouldn't have a chance.'' Some women find themselves stuck in the middle between the men who have traditionally taken care of business and the office ladies who have taken care of the men. Yukari Yamaguchi, 25, who works in mergers and acquisitions at Nikko Securities, one of Japan's top four securities firms, feels as if she is balancing on a high wire. ''I must be careful toward my supervisors,'' she says, ''and I must be careful toward the assistant ladies.'' With supervisors, Yamaguchi brims -- but does not overwhelm -- with confidence. ''Probably I will be a director of Nikko,'' she says casually. With the OLs, however, she is more cautious, to deflect any jealousy they might feel. For Yamaguchi, nothing seems impossible. But her aspirations are shot full of realism: ''Women are vulnerable. They must have qualifications or titles. A Tokyo University degree is very good protection.'' Now she will add another title. In September she will be Nikko's first woman to attend the Harvard business school. ''An MBA,'' she says, ''will also protect me well.'' Yamaguchi has had her share of luck. Hideo Karino, the supervisor who supported her application to Harvard, finds nothing odd about encouraging a young woman to excel. Says Karino, who went to Vanderbilt University in Tennessee: ''I have been educated in a foreign culture, not only in a business sense.'' Yamaguchi doesn't feel isolated: ''I'm in the second generation. The true pioneers had to fight alone, but since the equal employment opportunity law ((passed in 1986)), we are hired in groups.'' UNLIKE American women in the 1970s, Japanese women are not flocking to the banner of equal employment. One reason is that they don't see much to envy in the life of Japanese men. The average male white-collar worker regularly works well into the evening. From his office in Tokyo, he commutes 1 1/2 hours to get home. He takes just one week's vacation a year. His wife is respected -- no one apologizes for being ''just a housewife.'' Better for her to hold a part-time job, if she works at all, so she can be home to fix dinner for her husband's eventual return in the evening. A third of working women have settled for temporary jobs. Says Eiko Shinotsuka, an assistant professor of economics at Ochanomizu: ''Women don't want to work the same way that men do. They want work that will not interrupt their marriage or raising their children. They can't give half of the 24-hour day to a company, which is what companies demand.'' An equal opportunity clause was built into Japan's post-World War II constitution. No legislation backed it up, however, and the concept did not take hold during the country's rebuilding effort. The United Nations Decade of Women, observed from 1975 to 1985, was one impetus for change. Japan participated in a perfunctory way in the early years, sending delegations to various conventions. In 1985 representatives from countries around the world were to sign a treaty pledging elimination of discrimination against women. Politically, Japan had to sign. Practically, Japan couldn't do so without writing some kind of domestic law to back up the pledge. Corporations lobbied vigorously against it, but a statute finally took effect in April 1986, though without provisions for penalties. It was a breakthrough of sorts. Says Ryoko Akamatsu, then director general of the women and young worker's bureau at the ministry of labor and chief architect of the law: ''Companies stopped saying they wouldn't hire women.'' To implement the law, the ministry distributes a questionnaire, asking, for example, if companies give women the same training as men, or if they hire women older than 33. Answers are purely voluntary. ''This is soft guidance,'' says Mari Watanobe, a planning manager in the women's bureau. ''It helps companies establish goals.'' STILL, without the labor shortage the law might have gone the way of the constitutional provision. Says Akamatsu: ''It's working. Of course, we cannot separate effects of the law and of the healthy economic climate. If the economic situation were very bad, the new law wouldn't work as well as it does.'' After the law's enactment, she was packed off to Uruguay with fanfare as Japan's second female ambassador. Now some Japanese companies are slowly discovering that women workers can be more than a substitute for men. They can provide a new perspective. Dentsu, Japan's largest advertising firm, formed a mostly women subsidiary in 1984 with a mandate to do a better job of selling to female shoppers. Consider: ! Young OLs, whose income is 100% disposable because they live at home and pay no rent, are Japan's most conspicuous consumers. The post-school, pre-marriage set does so much shopping and traveling that no fewer than ten magazines aimed at this crowd began publication last year. After women marry, their spending ways continue since Japanese men hand over their entire salaries to their wives, who run the family budget. Says Naoe Wakita, president of the subsidiary: ''To understand what the wife wants is to increase sales. How can a man know what she wants?'' The subsidiary's offices are in the middle of Tokyo's old and rich Ginza shopping district, where the 28 staffers can watch consumer trends from the windows. Thus the name, Dentsu Eye. Because it was sensitive to new lifestyles, Dentsu Eye had a hit with a campaign for a Hitachi washing machine last year. The machine had several new features, but the group decided to develop a campaign focusing on how quietly the machine went through the wash cycle. Explains Wakita: ''Most working women have to do the laundry at night. In Tokyo, most of them live very close to their neighbors.'' The idea of a machine that wouldn't wake the folks next door appealed to women. Hitachi is closing in on No. 1 washer maker Matsushita. Wakita, from some angles a dead ringer for Cher, looks much younger than her 52 years. She is deadpan but speaks to the point. ''Women are very straight. They are bold,'' she says, displaying a condom advertisement with six men in dresses who appear pregnant. The caption: ''It would be nice if men got pregnant too.'' Says Wakita: ''Men would never write this.'' She notes that men are even made fun of in ads today. In one, for a Japanese credit card, two OLs are off on vacation and the men back in the office are trying to figure out how to type and do other clerical chores. An OL lying on a beach says, ''Maybe our work is too hard for the boss.'' Quite a change from a bank advertisement in the mid-1970s with the catch phrase: ''You had a son. You did well.'' Nissan Motor Co. has had two recent successes with offbeat ideas from its team of women designers. Fumi Handa, aiming to create something more exciting than the usual dull commercial vehicle, designed the S-cargo, an $11,500 minivan that resembles a snail. (Get it? Escargot.) Shopowners ordered 8,000 the first four months the minivan was on the market. Kazuko Watanabe, another Nissan designer, decided on a lime-green paint job for the Sylvia, a sporty - model similar to the 240SX sold in the U.S. White was the preferred shade of the Japanese automobile buyer until recently, but consumers are daring to be more colorful lately. Nissan credits Watanabe for being on top of the trend. AN INFLUX of working women may even help soften the blue-suited Japanese worker-bee stereotype. Japanese managers at every level cringe at the phrase ''economic animal,'' a cliche used by critics to describe them. ''We have no face, that's the problem,'' says an insurance company executive, in a heated discussion of what's wrong with Japan's international relations. Concurs Mariko Sugahara Bando, a counselor at the Prime Minister's office and author of books about women and the elderly: ''Japanese businessmen are faces without names. They're organization men. Women tend to be more human. And more of them working can create a new image for Japan.'' As they hire more women managers, Japanese companies face some of the same issues their counterparts confront in the West. Seibu Department Store, which employs 20,000 women, holds jobs open for mothers who take off a few years to raise children. The company also runs a small nursery for those who continue to work. Last November IBM Japan inaugurated a babysitter hotline for working mothers who need child care in an emergency situation. The service was modeled after one the company began in New York City. Toshiba is experimenting with flextime in its offices. The electronics maker has even organized seminars where women have told male colleagues to stop holding back their thoughts and start talking straight to them. JAPANESE businessmen aren't about to throw their last geisha party, or stop making deals over a dozen bottles of cold beer and hot sake. But there could be less of that and more predusk negotiations as more women enter the work force. Wakita, for example, wants to get out of the office and back to her family in the evening. Says she: ''Women do all their business in the daytime. It is said that Japanese businessmen have two tongues -- one for the office and one for the pub afterward. Not women, because they don't have the time. They say what they mean at the office, and at night they go home.'' If Japanese business truly wants to present a more human face, that could be the most important trend yet.