Yuri Konno graduated from university in 1959 but found her four-year course was all but irrelevant when prospective employers denied her entry to the corporate world.
“At that time, the type of woman sought by Japanese companies was an in-house waitress or maid,” recalls Konno. “I heard many times people saying that women should respond with a smile no matter what they are told.”
Konno had a dream of working up until retirement and hoped for promotion. She had interviews with several companies but failed each time.
“At every interview, I was asked what I would do if I got married,” says Konno, a 79-year-old entrepreneur. “I had no plans to quit even after marriage. I don’t think I was the kind of worker that companies wanted.”
Konno bounced back from the rejections. In 1969 she started Dial Service Co., a provider of telephone-based services.
The nation’s division of labor between the genders was credited with producing Japan’s swift recovery after the devastation of World War II. Men would work night and day, and women would manage the household.
The female workforce was polarized between young single women and middle-aged and senior part-timers who had finished the busiest part of child-rearing. Most companies did not offer career prospects for women.
“Many talented women found jobs ahead of me,” Konno says. “But all of them quit in their 20s.”
In the 1960s, the women’s movement started to gain momentum across the globe. During the following decade, the United Nations played a leading role in encouraging nations to create a better environment for women to participate in society.
Backed by international campaigns, Japan began to pave the way for more active involvement by women, and the revised equal employment opportunity law came into force in 1986.
Junko Aoyama joined Nissan Motor Co. in 1984, before the equal employment opportunity law took effect. She was the first woman to take maternity leave after the automaker introduced it in 1990.
Thanks to her proficiency in a foreign language, Aoyama was assigned to a research institute, where she collected, translated and wrote reports on cutting-edge research and development overseas.
Aoyama gave birth to a boy in February 1990 and returned to work when her son was 4 months old. Her colleagues were surprised at her decision, which was unprecedented at the company.
“I lacked the courage to take maternity leave for a year at that time,” says Aoyama, now in her 50s. “A senior male worker told me he felt sorry for my kid.”
After returning to work, Aoyama purchased a condominium in front of her parents’ house. They helped raise the boy, who had a weak constitution.
“I found it difficult to ask my husband for help,” Aoyama says. She took care of housework by sometimes getting assistance from helpers.
Aoyama faced the toughest time in her career when she was transferred from the nearby research institute to the head office as her son reached elementary school age. The round-trip commute to the head office took three hours.
There was an additional strain when Aoyama’s mother fell ill.
“I thought about quitting my job,” she recalls.
It seems the dilemma was shared: Of some 30 women who joined Nissan in the year Aoyama did, only a few remain. Many left for family reasons, such as becoming a parent.
Since the 1990s, legal frameworks have been introduced to help women balance work and motherhood. These include the establishment of the law for child care leave.
The low birthrate was an increasingly apparent problem and companies set about building a working environment that gives more consideration to family life.
Nissan has been selected by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry and the Tokyo Stock Exchange as a so-called Nadeshiko Brand firm, or one that promotes the use of the female workforce. Nadeshiko is a delicate pink frilled carnation found in Japan. The flower is commonly cited as a symbol of the beauty and grace of Japanese women.
Aoyama feels significant changes have occurred in her workplace over the past three decades or so.
“Now, it’s natural for women to continue working even if they have two or three children,” she says.
“It has become much easier for women to keep working thanks to corporate systems including short-term working hours and working from home.”
The attitudes of men have also started to change.
At collaborative software developer Cybozu Inc., established in 1997, President Yoshihisa Aono is known as an iku-men, or a man actively engaged in child-rearing. Iku-men is a newly coined word derived from ikuji, or child care.
The company has a system that allows employees, men and women alike, to work flexibly depending on their situation.
Some workers there welcome the opportunities offered.
“Employees raising children are working naturally at my company, so I think I can continue working comfortably if I find myself in the same situation,” says Jessica Yamakawa, who joined Cybozu in 2014.
“I want to give birth in my early 30s. I hope to find a husband who is a good cook.”