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Be aware of Japanese workplace no-nos

by

Special To The Japan Times

日本の職場 (Nihon no shokuba, the Japanese workplace) has never been known for congeniality, but these days, the verdict among many 女性社員 (joseishain, female employees) is: 昔に比べて働きやすくなった (Mukashi ni kurabete hatarakiyasukunatta, “Working conditions are more comfortable than in the old days”).

The reason? Most 会社 (kaisha, companies) now enforce コンプライアンス (konpu- raiansu, compliance) to raise awareness among 男性社員 (danseishain, male employees) in regard to the 三ハラ (sanhara, three major harassments) of セクハラ (sekuhara, sexual harassment), マタハラ (matahara, maternity harassment) and パワハラ (pawahara, power harassment).

Men are no longer allowed to say things like 君も年だし (Kimi mo toshidashi, “You’re getting old”) and ask questions like 結婚の 予定はあるの (Kekkon no yotei wa aru no, “Do you have plans to get married?”) to women over 28 — at least not publicly. These two phrases used to be standard statements uttered in Japanese offices up until the late ’90s, but any man who says such things now is considered a 無能者 (munōsha, clueless person) or just plain ばか (baka, stupid). Josei-shain now work well past their 40s and can make their way up the corporate ladder just like their male colleagues!

OK, that all comes with a big fat 表向きは (omotemuki wa, “publicly” or “theoretically”), but when you consider that the 男女雇用 機会均等法 (Danjo Koyō Kikai Kintōhō, Equal Employment Opportunity Law) only kicked in in 1986, it’s safe to say that women in Japan have covered a pretty long distance in a nation that has always been a strictly 父権 社会 (fukenshakai, patriarchal society).

The distance is so far, in fact, that women are not just victims anymore. The aforementioned sanhara apply to women as much as men. 若い男性社員 (wakai danseishain, young male employees) can accuse their 女性上司 (joseijōshi, female bosses) of sekuhara for ボディータッチ (bodii tacchi, body touching), though this may involve nothing more drastic than a pat on the back to show encouragement.

Inviting younger men out for coffee during office hours for no pressing work reason is also considered a form of sekuhara, and an increasing number of female bosses have been ratted out for アルハラ (aruhara, alcohol harassment) practices, since many younger male employees are turned off by work-related 飲み会 (nomikai, drinking parties) and to insist on their participation is a huge no-no.

My friend Keiko, who is a 課長 (kachō, mid-level manager) at a major electronics manufacturer, said that at her last コン プライアンス会議 (konpuraiansu kaigi, compliance meeting), female bosses were told to think of the workplace as upscale hotel lobbies. This means no slouching, loud talking, unseemly conduct or cheap shoes. And while we’re on the subject, all conversations with male underlings must be limited to the work at hand. Better yet, just stick to email.

Keiko says all that is elementary and 男は簡単よ (Otoko wa kantan yo, “Men are easy”). The real difficulty comes when she must deal with other women — underlings and colleagues alike, particularly in the twin 女の二大人生問題 (onna no nidai jinseimondai, the twin life problems of women) of 結婚 (kekkon, marriage) and 出産 (shussan, childbirth).

Keiko herself has jumped through one of those hoops: She now describes herself as a 幸せなバツイチ (shiawasena batsuichi, a happy first-time divorcee). But in regards to female colleagues struggling to achieve a ワークライフバランス (wāku raifu baransu, work-life balance), or younger female underlings about to tie the knot or who have just announced their pregnancy, Keiko says she faces a lot of 落とし穴 (otoshiana, traps).

Asking questions about how a woman’s marriage is doing can be taken as a sign of pawahara — even if the asking is done out of genuine concern. The query 子どもは いつ (Kodomo wa itsu? “When are you having children?”) is a dangerous question that even mothers-in-law know to steer clear of.

Supposed acts of kindness toward pregnant female employees are also discouraged, like offering to take on their workload before they leave for 産休(sankyū, maternity leave). This can be interpreted as マタハラ (matahara, maternity harassment) and Keiko says she has been strongly cautioned about it. She added that she has forgotten how to have a casual conversation unless she’s had a couple of beers at her favorite 居酒屋 (izakaya, Japanese pub) with friends who have nothing at all to do with work.

Female bosses have to be even more careful after a male former secretary of then Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker Mayuko Toyota went to the press with a recording of her abusive rants against him in late June.

The whole thing was a textbook case of モラハラ (morahara, moral harassment), with gasp-inducing, vicious attacks on the man’s personality, work habits and even choice of wardrobe. The press immediately dubbed Toyota ピンクモンスター (Pinku Monsutā, Pink Monster) but refrained from saying much about the historically abusive environment of Japan’s political world, and how Diet sessions frequently turn into rage-fueled rant-fests that make you want to cover your ears and run out of the room. Obviously, the compliance thing hasn’t yet reached the place that needs it the most.