Nowadays the term “OL (office lady)” is seen as semiderogatory (about time, too), and some companies have trashed it completely and started using simply jyosei shain (women employees). This is to differentiate them from sogoshoku (general worker), which is not gender-specific but is used to describe women who take on the same responsibilities as their male colleagues.

What a heap of distinctions for working women, compared to men who can just say, “Oh, I’m a salaryman,” and be done with it. It seems as though the Japanese corporate world is still uncertain about how to treat the women in its midst. Some of the older generation of bucho (section managers) say that OLs are just koshikake (seat-warmers), meaning they’re occupying a seat in the company until it’s time to quit and get married, so why treat them seriously at all?

The roots of discrimination date back to immediately after World War II when female office workers were called “BG” (business girl). Apparently, the term went out of style in the ’60s after someone pointed out that it implied prostitution. But whether they were called BGs or OLs, their work remains the same. Besides taking on the bulk of secretarial duties, the twin pillars of their job description are ochakumi (making and serving tea) and kopii-tori (making copies). In recent years, deita nyuryoku (data input) has been added, spawning the No. 1 OL shokugyobyo (occupational hazard) of katakori (shoulder cramps).

When they’re not hard at work, OLs are expected to be shokuba no hana (flowers of the workplace), providing spiritual comfort and visual pleasure to the soldiers of Japan Inc. “It’s teichingin jyurodo (heavy labor for low pay)” is how one OL working for a major trading company describes it. She also says that after three years, the flower is replaced by the term furukabu (old tree root), causing her superiors to start dropping painful hints, such as “When are you getting married?” (read: “When are you going to quit so we can hire a new flower?”)

Interestingly, OLs rarely form a united front to demand better treatment, perhaps because they’re too busy navigating the elaborate power structure of their own world. Every OL corps has several otsubone (godmother figures). They’re usually in their mid-30s, know all the company secrets and can tell you at a glance that the new flower in keiribu (accounts department) will wind up marrying the cute guy in daiichi eigyobu (first division sales department). The otsubone’s word is law, and even bucho will give them a wide berth.

In the ladies room, their particular set of makeup and toilet articles will be stashed in designer bags and occupy prime shelf-space in front of the mirror. You can measure an otsubone’s true power by where she keeps her cosmetic bag — removal to a less favorable spot may mean her days are numbered. Siding with the wrong otsubone can spell disaster for a young OL — she must become practiced in the OL art of kazamuki o yomu (reading which way the wind is blowing).

Of course, she could just give it all up for a whopping kotobuki taisha (congratulatory retreat from the workplace). A good marriage is considered the ultimate OL seiko monogatari (success story) and this, too, seems to happen more to OLs than other sections of the female populace. No wonder Morning Musume, the all-girl pop group, sing: “OL ni nareba yokatta! (I should have been an OL).”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.