Battling Ingrained Sexism in The Japanese Workplace

How Foreign Women Can Help Change Japan’s Patriarchal Business World

By Chiara Terzuolo
March 23, 2017
Careers, Women's Issues

Climbing the corporate ladder while dealing with a sexist office culture is, unfortunately, all in a day’s work for ladies in Japan. We show you some tactics to effect change at your workplace — even if it’s only baby steps.

It was 10 p.m. and my boss and I had just walked out of our last meeting for the day. I was lightheaded with hunger, tired and fantasizing about the moment I could take off my high heels. As we walked to the closest station together, out of the blue he turned to me and asked: “So, do you make dinner for your husband every night?”

My eyes narrowed and my neocortex went on red alert. What I really wanted to say was: “How could I possibly do that? It’s 10 p.m. and I’m here. With you. Working. For the third time this week — and it’s only Thursday!” Instead, I scrounged around for a comment biting enough to (hopefully) make him think and said: “My partner works for a gaishikei (foreign company). He leaves work on time and cooks for me.’

Ingrained Sexism at the Office

Deeply entrenched beliefs and assumptions like this flourish in Japan’s traditionally-minded office culture. This goes for office environments across the country, where due to the cultural focus on wa (harmony) and gaman (basically, “grin and bear it”), many women go along with uncomfortable situations and remain silent, since fighting back would paradoxically make them “a troublemaker.”

Most instances of outlandish behavior come from older managerial types, such as those who summon their female coworkers by calling out, “Ne! (Hey!)” or who refuse to see women as anything other than “OL” (office ladies) who take care of the workspace and perform menial tasks. Although the younger generation is not usually so blatantly sexist, it’s easy for men in the Japanese workplace to remain blissfully unaware of how the nature of their comments can affect us.

A few years ago during an important meeting with a client, my boss decided to introduce me as kono onee-chan (“this girl,” also a term used to refer to hostesses).

While the patriarchal old guard is slowly dying out, we still have to deal with more subtle instances of ingrained sexism. There are many examples of conditions that need to change, but one of the big problems we need to work on immediately is language: how women are spoken to and about. Referring to female colleagues as “girls,” being labeled with –chan (a diminutive, often used for children) by a superior or having –san (the most basic and polite suffix for Ms. or Mr.) left off your name completely are all common examples. For the most part, however, such situations are usually laughed off as being used affectionately.

The Importance of Being Vocal

Piercing that bubble of ignorance is the first step in setting things in motion. For instance, not changing my name after marriage came as a shock to most of my coworkers. My directness about my opinion and explanation of the very old-school laws that require Japanese women to change their names after marriage, was the first time any of my male colleagues even realized how skewed the whole issue is. Once the space for discussion opened up, several of my female colleagues became quite vocal about how they hated having to change their names.

Standing up to micro-aggressions and assumptions is essential. As the only non-Japanese woman in that company at the time, I had a superpower that could be used for good. While many of my colleagues hated being the focus of sexist comments, talked down to and underpaid, they feared speaking up and being labeled uncooperative troublemakers even more. But I could be much more vocal — my very foreignness acting as a shield, I became a rallying point for the rest of the justly exasperated ladies.

Persistent corrections and a firm but low-drama stance make a bigger statement than they would in lower-context societies.

In a bid to help, I was swift to correct comments and outdated usages — particularly from managers, who have the most influence on company culture. Like a tennis match, use of the dreaded –chan was consistently rebuffed with the more appropriate –san. Discussion of a coworker’s weight or looks was met with a cold stare or a light question about how that had anything at all to do with her work. Assumptions about someone leaving to get married get batted back with. “Oh. Did she tell you that herself?”

While these actions may seem too minor to make a difference, it’s important to keep in mind that in Japan making a scene is not likely to help one’s argument. Persistent corrections and a firm but low-drama stance make a bigger statement than they would in lower-context societies.

Initiate Quiet but Powerful Storms

Having worked my way up the ladder and experienced various companies, I do feel there has been some improvement, but things pop up regularly that remind me there is still lots of work to do and we still have to be proactive catalysts of change.

A few years ago during an important meeting with a client, my boss decided to introduce me as “kono onee-chan” — in no way a proper term for someone looking after a major account. I was furious, especially as this was not the first time he had done something similar to myself or my colleagues. After debating about what to do — Am I overreacting? Is this worth a fight? — I decided that seeking allies with more experience than myself would be the best solution.

Persistent corrections and a firm but low-drama stance make a bigger statement than they would in lower-context societies.

I found them in a pair of no-nonsense senior managers. Ladies who knew far too well what I was talking about and were open to using their clout. Not long after, a company-wide training course was started despite the grumbling of certain members who snarked that “Saying hello would now be considered sexual harassment.” Though the course did not initiate any major changes, it opted for a quiet and deliberate shift of control over the kuuki (literally “air,” but often referring to the atmosphere of a place or gathering).

Yes. It was a baby step — but at least it was a step forward.

Have you found a way to make a difference in the attitudes toward women at your company? Share your experiences and culture hacks with us in the comments!