Choice has been a long time coming for Japan’s working women.

During the war, women were forced to take jobs out of dire necessity. But in recent times, they’ve been able to pursue careers as a choice.

Despite improvements in working conditions made over the past 60 years, however, many working women still face difficulty realizing their full potential due to the society’s fixed gender roles and new, less blatant, forms of discrimination that have emerged.

Of the many sacrifices its people made during the war, the one — and possibly only — positive result might have been that it helped widen opportunities for working women.

As men were drafted left and right, the government mobilized women to help make up for the national labor shortage, putting them to work at jobs usually done by men, including munitions makers and train conductors.

Shizuko Matsuda, a 77-year-old Yokohama resident, worked at the Finance Ministry’s tax bureau for a year from March 1944 as a member of the “joshi teishintai” (women’s volunteer corps), a group of single women organized to provide labor.

“The corps gave me the chance to start working in society,” Matsuda said, adding she was envied by her older sister, who did not have such a chance.

After Japan’s defeat, the Occupation powers carried out sweeping reforms to turn Japan into a democracy, including drafting a Constitution that stipulates gender equality.

The first policewomen emerged shortly after the war, and the first female prosecutors and assistant judges were appointed in 1949, according to the Center for the Advancement of Working Women in Tokyo.

From around the mid-1950s, when Japan set out on its drive for high economic growth, it became common for women fresh out of school to work in factories and offices. However, the notion that they be regarded as subordinates continued.

It was normal for women to quit their jobs when they married or had children, and those who challenged the custom and continued working were in the minority.

One such woman, Kazuko Oki, 64, worked at Nomura Securities Co. from 1960 to 2001, despite constant workplace harassment.

“A male colleague once said, ‘I’d like to see the face of your husband, who makes you work,’ ” Oki said.

Oki and other women who continued working also faced discrimination from their employers. While men who entered Nomura at the same time Oki did became assistant section managers in their 13th year, receiving roughly 3 million yen more in salary than regular rank-and-file employees, she never got promoted to that post, which is usually awarded according to time spent in the company.

At the time, scores of companies had rules that applied exclusively to women, including retirement upon marriage, largely because they viewed women only as supplemental labor.

In the 1960s and 1970s, women who claimed such rules were illegal took their cases to court, where their arguments were recognized.

But despite the legal victories, women still found themselves subject to bias, according to Ryoko Akamatsu, president of the Japanese Association of International Women’s Rights and a former education minister.

“To (fully) eliminate discrimination against female employees, we needed a law that stipulated equality of the sexes in the workplace,” she said.

The issue of equality for working women was also a pressing need on the international front.

In 1979, the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, and Japan had to draft legislation on equal opportunity and treatment of women in employment, Akamatsu said, explaining this was a precondition for ratifying the convention.

Akamatsu spearheaded efforts to draft the Equal Employment Opportunity Law upon becoming head in 1982 of the then Labor Ministry’s Women and Minors’ Bureau.

The law, which requires employers to ensure equal opportunity and treatment for both men and women, took effect in 1986 after much heated debate.

But the law lacked teeth because it was nonbinding, a result of stiff opposition from employers that argued that women tended not to work for a long period of time and thus did not fit in with their lifetime employment-based system.

Nevertheless, Akamatsu stressed that the legislation was a step forward.

“Employers were unaware that discrimination against women is wrong,” she said. “But the law stipulated that it is wrong and that employers should make efforts to abolish it. It was big difference.”

After the law came into force, many companies introduced dual-track employment systems — one for future managers and the other for clerical workers.

But while an increasing number of firms have opened the managerial track to women, more than a few seem to pick women for the clerical track, prompting criticism that the system is gender discrimination in disguise.

In 1999, the Equal Employment Opportunity Law was revised and became binding. But even at firms that put many women on the managerial track, equality is not necessarily a reality.

Kari Yokoyama, a 29-year-old employee of a mail-order company in Tokyo, was one of some 60 women hired to become managers at a Japanese financial institution in 1999, which Yokoyama did not want named.

While Yokoyama sold lease contracts and real estate loans, many of her female managerial-track colleagues were assigned rather easy and routine sales work that few men did, she said.

“The company is renowned for employing many women for the managerial track, but what is not known is that work is actually being divided between the sexes,” Yokoyama said.

Keiko Tani, founder of Women’s Trade Union Tokyo, an interindustry union for women, said many women still face a grim reality in the workplace.

While dismissal is the most popular issue on which the union is consulted, an increasing number of women seek advice on how to balance their jobs with child-rearing, she said.

Although the 1991 Child Care Leave Law gives both men and women the right to take time off work to raise children, many working mothers find it hard going, according to Tani.

“In many cases, employers tell female employees who return to work after taking the leave to become contract-based or part-time workers because they cannot work overtime,” she said.

Even with a legal framework in place to support them, the number of women who seek careers and continue working while raising children is not growing, according to Emiko Takeishi, a senior researcher at NLI Research Institute.

“Although the laws’ content is commendable, the systems for putting them into practice have yet to be fully established, both in the workplace and in society,” she observed, adding that employers and unions need deeper discussion on how to use the laws more effectively.

Last month, Nomura Securities appointed two women as its first female branch mangers, Oki said — something unthinkable a few decades ago.

In 1993, Oki and 12 other female colleagues launched a court battle to demand that Nomura reimburse them for paying them lower salaries than their male counterparts without reason and make them assistant section managers.

In 2004, Nomura and the women reached an out-of-court settlement at the Tokyo High Court under which the company agreed to promote the three plaintiffs, who were still working, and pay a lump sum settlement to each of the 13 plaintiffs.

Oki acknowledged that the reconciliation was an achievement. But at the same time, she noted that many firms have introduced a hiring category called “local course,” under which successful applicants will not be transferred. This is a new cover for hiring women mainly for clerical work, critics say.

Indirect discrimination based on hiring categories is one of the topics being debated at a Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry panel that has been discussing revision of the Equal Employment Opportunity Law since September.

The panel is expected to compile a final report by year’s end, and the ministry plans to submit a bill to amend the law based on the report to the Diet next year.

“If employers keep discriminating against women under the name of such a course, we must continue fighting it,” Oki said.

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