Office Ladies and Salaried Men: Power, Gender and Work in Japanese Companies. – Review

Office Ladies and Salaried Men: Power, Gender and Work in Japanese Companies. – Review – book review

Sharon Chalmers

Ogasawara Yuko. Office Ladies and Salaried Men: Power, Gender and Work in Japanese Companies. Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press. 1998. xiii, 280pp., illustrs., tables, bibliog., glossary, index. US$45.00 (Bc.), ISBN 0-520-21043-3; US$15.95; (Pb.), ISBN 0-520-21044-1.

Office Ladies and Salaried Men makes a contribution to the increasing English ethnographic literature that has emerged about Japanese women in the paid workforce. The term ‘Office Lady’ (OL) is a commonly used phrase in Japan which refers to young (fulltime) and middle-aged (part-time) women who carry out receptionist and clerical work in Japanese white-collar companies. This work is usually considered unskilled and repetitive. It may include making and serving tea to male employees and their clients, filling in orders, filing, answering the phone and typing.

Ogasawara’s main argument is that ‘Office Ladies’ occupy low-level subordinate positions in the Japanese company hierarchy and have little chance of promotion, longterm job security, training, responsibility or wage equity with men. She asserts that because they lack a permanent status and associated career opportunities, they are able to reverse this disempowerment into resistance precisely because they have nothing to lose. These strategies are usually implemented through means of non-compliance. For example, female office workers decide which men they will provide efficient support to, but more importantly, which men will be the object of their scorn, ridicule, office gossip and from whom they will withhold their support. These devices, the author suggests, can have substantial negative repercussions for salaried men as the smooth-running of company sections and human relationships (ningen kankei) are supposed to reside in, and be the responsibility of, in particular, male sections heads. Their goal being to keep ‘the girls’ happy (p.175; pp.125-26).

Since the implementation of the 1986 Equal Employment Opportunity Law (EFOL) the Japanese employment system has operated on a two-tiered track system. The first, ippanshoku (general stream) is where the overwhelming majority of women are located and there is little opportunity for upward mobility. The second stream is the sogoshoku (integrated/managerial stream) which is primarily constituted by male workers who have access to upward mobility based on gender, age and the number of years they have worked for a particular company. Even in large corporations, such as the one in which Ogasawara worked, there was only one woman who was placed in the sogoshoku stream. Yet, it should probably be kept in mind that the banking fraternity is one of the most entrenched bastions of male chauvinism and conservatism in Japanese society. Moreover, in contrast to other post-industrial capitalist societies where there is a strong correlation between increased level of education for women and access to upward employment mobil ity, more often than not this correlation does not hold true in Japan.

Ogasawara entered the main branch of the Tozai Bank in Tokyo by registering with a temporary employment agency. However, she did not reveal to the employment agency, to the bank employers, nor to her work colleagues that her purpose in taking up the position was to carry out research for her PhD. In addition, the reader does not find this out until reading Appendix A at the back of the book. I found this extremely problematic, if for no other reason, and there are many, that she fails to analyse or justify this secrecy in any detailed manner other than to argue no company would have let her do the research if they had known. I, for one, assumed the responses were given with full knowledge and informed consent, and as a reader, I would have preferred to have been aware of the context in which the research took place from the beginning. Nevertheless, Ogasawara worked as a part-timer, four days a week for a period of six months. She supplemented her observations and conversations in the work place with a furthe r 60 interviews made up of both salaried men and OLs from a variety of other large white-collar companies.

In Chapter One Ogasawara argues that because of structural inequalities in the Japanese employment system, OLs find themselves in a position in which they are set up in competition with other women in terms of different educational qualifications and salary increments. Furthermore, the company considers that expending energy, time and resources on their training and evaluating their performance is unnecessary because they will inevitably leave when they get married.

There are a number of major problems throughout the text which can be summed up as a lack of contextualisation. For example, despite Ogasawara’s contention that ‘… by accounting for the structural nature of women’s ability to resist men’s authority, I represent cultural forms of local life as not only autonomous from the broader social order but also constituted by it’ (p.165), this is precisely what she fails to do. Rather, she limits her analysis to the company workplace and attempts to explain the gendered division of labour within a socio-political vacuum, except for repeated references to the EEOL. Likewise, though she spends at least three chapters explaining how OLs use the custom of gift-giving on Valentine’s Day (where OLs give chocolates to male colleagues) and White Day (where men return the compliment by giving a gift to OLs), it is not until Chapter Six that the reader is told that gift-giving in Japan is an integral part of Japanese social practice. When this is finally mentioned, however, Og asawara states, ‘Although there is no space in this book for a complete discussion of Japanese gift-giving customs, I should point out that gift-giving is frequent, highly conventionalized, and symbolically rich in Japan’, and she subsequently advises readers to look at other sources for further explanations (p.139).

The above criticism is indicative of many other examples where a lack of cultural-historical context gives the impression that, on the one hand, OLs are extremely petty, while on the other hand, salaried men are characterised as powerless victims of women’s manipulative efforts to keep them dependent, thereby abrogating responsibility for the sexist and paternal attitudes generally in place within the Japanese employment system. While Ogasawara does constantly point out that OLs can make life unpleasant for particular men in their sections, she fails to contextualise the complex power relations in play outside of, what I found to be, a trivialisation of what were in fact mainly justified complaints described by many of the OLs. Moreover, Ogasawara’s use of language to describe the forms of resistance that OLs employ, for example, not giving a chocolate to a particular male employee on Valentine’s Day, undermines the very resistance she is trying to explore. That is, she draws on an emotive ‘feminised’ langua ge, such as ‘manipulative’ (p.69, p.159), ‘gossip’ (Chapter Three), ‘revenge’ (p.113), ‘prey’ (p.158), ‘poison’ (p.105) and at one point refers to OLs as ‘irresponsible onlookers’ (p.85).

I came to this book anticipating a multifaceted and non-stereotypical reading of the kinds of power relations that are operative among and between salaried men and office ladies in a particular Japanese workplace. As with most ethnographic research what makes this kind of work interesting is when we hear directly from the primary narrators, and in this sense Office Ladies and Salaried Men has a lot to contribute. It is at these moments that we find out that even in the early to mid-1990s the gendered division of labour is still firmly entrenched in large corporations in Japan, and that when there is an opening for resistance, women will take and create a space in any form they can.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Australian Anthropological Society

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