The Tokyo District Court rejected a damages suit Wednesday against Kanematsu Corp. by six women who said they suffered gender-based wage discrimination at the trading house.

In their lawsuit, the women, three of whom still work for the company, had sought a combined 319 million yen in damages. They said the firm’s policy of paying men and women different wages is not only illegal but also irrational and discriminatory.

The plaintiffs said they performed the same jobs as their male colleagues.

The damages they were seeking included compensation, the lump-sum difference between the wages of men and women, and the wages between April 1992 and last July, when the trial ended.

Presiding Judge Yukio Yamaguchi acknowledged that setting different hiring courses and wage systems violates the Constitution’s ban on gender discrimination and its stipulation that all are equal before the law.

However, “such actions only become illegal and void when the discrimination is irrational and runs counter to public order,” he said.

Given that as of 1985, the Equal Employment Law only obliged firms to “make efforts” to stop discriminatory hiring and treatment, Kanematsu’s actions at the time could not be deemed illegal, the judge ruled.

The six joined Kanematsu between 1957 and 1982, and are aged between 42 and 66. They filed the lawsuit in 1995.

According to the court, Kanematsu had a policy of paying men and women differently until 1985, when it launched a wage system in which all workers were paid according to their jobs. Men thereafter were paid for providing general services and women for their clerical services.

The company argued that men worked in its core positions dealing with corporate services, while women engaged in support services and were hired based on their duties.

It said the gender wage gap was the result of hiring procedures appropriate for the time.

The Equal Employment Law was amended in June 1997 to ban discriminatory treatment against women, and Kanematsu introduced a new personnel system in April that year that made it easier for female employees to change career tracks and move to higher-paying jobs.

The court ruled that this new system was rational and that the firm’s wage system in the end did not go against public order. The plaintiffs said they will appeal the ruling.

Trading house Kanematsu focuses on food and information technology and has about 600 employees. Its sales figures in the business year ending in March amounted to 412.4 billion yen.

In February 2002, Judge Yamaguchi ordered Nomura Securities Co. to pay 56 million yen in damages to 12 female employees who were denied promotions because it discriminated against female workers.

The court said Nomura’s actions were illegal and discriminatory since the policy was still maintained even after the revised law on equal job opportunities for men and women took effect in 1999.

Later Wednesday, the six women held a news conference and expressed their anger at the ruling.

“(The ruling) not only trampled on our feelings, but also on the feelings of all women who are striving to do away with discrimination so they can have pride in their work,” said Yuko Oda, 42. “I deeply feel that the judiciary is also very harsh toward women.”

Setsuko Honma, 56, vowed to bring the suit to the high court, saying that gender equality will not move forward in Japan if Wednesday’s ruling stands.

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