For Japanese women, success in the rat race of entering top universities, graduating with good grades and getting hired by a prestigious firm can sometimes lead to no more than spending the day at the photocopier or making cups of tea for seniors and male colleagues.

Fed up with male-dominated Japanese companies bound by the seniority system, an increasing number of women believe working abroad, especially in China and elsewhere in Asia, could be the solution.

Seminars for such women hosted in the last few months by the Yokohama Women’s Association for Communication and Networking, a foundation affiliated with the Yokohama Municipal Government, attracted some 260 women, mainly in their 20s and 30s.

The attendance was more than double that expected by the organizers.

“We did not expect so many people to come for the seminars and were surprised to see the enthusiasm expressed by the participants,” said Kaoru Kuwajima, an official in charge of the meetings.

A 24-year-old buyer in the software purchasing department of a foreign-affiliated Tokyo computer firm who attended one of the seminars said that while she does not face outright sexism in her workplace, her company is still very much “Japanese,” as it operates under a seniority system and has a consensus-based business mentality.

“My company actually has several female senior officials, but such women who can make their way up the corporate ladder are very few. They are special people,” she said.

“I really want to work at a place without such discrimination against women,” she said, adding she hopes to work in the field of international cooperation.

Tomoko Hata, Tokyo branch manager of PaHuma Asia Co., a personnel placement company specializing in Asia, said, “More and more Japanese women are registering with our company for job placement in the Asian market, and job openings in the region, especially in China and Singapore, are increasing.”

According to Hata, 41, who lectured at a recent seminar, there were 14,000 Japanese registered with her company — 60 percent of them female — looking for jobs at Asian companies as of the end of last January. PaHuma Asia consistently posts about 400 job vacancies for Japanese.

The number of openings in other parts of Asia is increasing as more Japanese firms cut the number of employees dispatched from Japan to branches abroad amid the deteriorating economy at home, Hata said. The companies are trying to recruit Japanese as local hires so they can cut labor costs, including salaries and transfer fees.

“There is a good chance women can get a job abroad because barriers for professional skills are lower if you have high-level foreign-language ability, and women tend to have better language skills than men,” Hata said. “Besides, there isn’t such a strong male society in the business world there.”

Mitsuko Ito, 52, chief of Recruitment Center for International Organizations at the Foreign Ministry, echoed Hata’s observation and said more Japanese women are applying for and being hired by international organizations, including the United Nations. Among 103 Japanese officials at the U.N. headquarters in 2001, 59 were women, she said.

The outstanding performance of Sadako Ogata, former U.N. high commissioner for refugees and current cochairwoman of the New York-based Commission on Human Security, has sparked the hopes of Japanese women and spurred them to apply for jobs at the U.N. and other international organizations, Ito said.

Applicants for jobs overseas should have a high level of language ability and expertise above all, but also enthusiasm, an independent mind and the ability to stay the course during bad times, qualities Japanese often lack, according to speakers at one seminar.

“There is a world out there where the law of the jungle prevails and fierce individualism rules,” said Yumi Shuto, 31, sales manager of the Tokyo office of Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts, who lectured at the seminar.

“You are allowed to act freely but strictly under the principle of self-responsibility, and you have to accept the consequences, whether it is success or failure.”

On top of such independence, creativity may be the key to success while working abroad, said Yoko Asakawa, 32, deputy secretary general of JEN, a humanitarian aid group cooperating with the U.N., the Japanese government and other organizations.

“Nobody will tell you what to do, and you are often expected to create work from scratch in the field of international cooperation if you work at nonprofit organizations.

“The reward is the smiles of those children at refugee camps. You just cannot put a price tag on such a reward,” said Asakawa, who worked at refugee camps in Croatia and the former Yugoslavia from 1994 to 1999.

Ito said women are suited to work at international bodies like the U.N. partly because they care less about salary and put priority on whether the work is worthwhile, while Japanese men tend to prefer domestic companies for job security and high wages.

Hata, who started working at PaHuma’s Shanghai branch in 1997 after working some 12 years as a Japan Airlines flight attendant, said, “Despite the low salary, which may be some 60 percent of what you earn in Japan or less, the best part of working abroad is, after all, that you can be an independent individual, whereas in Japanese firms, you are just one of many nameless employees.”

But Shuto said workers are able to maintain a decent living standard abroad as the cost of living can be low, especially in other parts of Asia. She worked as a sales executive at Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts in Malaysia from 1997 to 2002.

“Considering you are able to have experiences in business you may never be allowed to have in a Japanese company in your 20s, I think the deal is not bad at all,” Shuto said.

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