Barely two months have passed since the govern
ment enacted the Gender Equality Law. While defenders of the new law insist that is hardly enough time for its effectiveness to be tested, many women’s groups, and their male supporters, disagree. The reason, they say, should be obvious: Like the Equal Employment Opportunity Law of 1986, the new legislation is woefully lacking in specific compliance-enforcement measures.

The Gender Equality Law is an overdue, if tentative, step in the right direction. It is true it has been in force so briefly that many people are not even aware of its existence. But any hope that, given more time, it will prove its worth may be misplaced until more concrete provisions are added to it, including coverage for non-Japanese women living in this country and guidelines for the setting up of government entities to tackle gender discrimination issues head-on. It was not until this year that the Equal Employment Opportunity Law was revised to include steps such as publicizing the names of companies that violate its provisions and disclosing the nature of their offenses.

Earlier this month, Mazda Motor Corp. announced plans to promote some 500 of its women workers, but this step is as rare as it is welcome and may reflect the influence of the company’s U.S. partner more than any profound change of heart in Japanese executive suites. Most large companies here separate their job slots into two categories, “fast-track” career opportunities for those with anticipated managerial abilities and noncareer openings for all the rest. The majority of working Japanese women are hired for the second category. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government found two years ago that while women made up 39.9 percent of the workforce in the capital region, they accounted for only 14.1 percent of managerial posts.

Now, under Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, widely considered a social conservative, that may be about to change. The Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly reportedly will adopt an ordinance early next year that actively promotes sexual equality in the workplace, filling in the gaps left by the new Gender Equality Law. This month, a special advisory body to Mr. Ishihara, the Council on Women’s Issues, submitted a report to him recommending that the ordinance require companies in the metropolitan region to publish the percentage of women employees on their payrolls, as well as details of their promotion records — if any.

By seeking to have companies of a certain size report to the metropolitan government on the number of women employees in their workforces and their status in the company, and to be subject to “guidance” where deemed necessary, the council is providing the Tokyo assembly with an opportunity to do more than make temporary headlines.

The need could hardly be more apparent than in the bleak employment situation currently facing women university graduates. An unofficial annual report called the “1999 Employment Black Paper” just released by a group of job-seeking women students and their supporters contains numerous examples of continuing blatant discrimination in employment opportunities, even by leading corporations that pay lip service to more enlightened policies. This year, the report takes the bold step of naming companies that refused to allow women to apply for certain positions or told them that places at company recruitment seminars were no longer available when in fact men could still apply.

Voluntary compliance with provisions of the gender equality laws now in place cannot be expected at a time of continuing economic slowdown, except by the most advanced corporations or those few with women already in senior positions. Nor does there seem much likelihood of any early strengthening of the laws to include provisions for penalties by the members of a conservative political establishment, many of whom see the increasing presence of women in the workplace as a contributing factor to the declining national birthrate and the growing number of women who are delaying marriage or avoiding it altogether.

The national government is certainly aware of the situation, regardless of how some individual politicians and bureaucrats may feel. In April the government submitted to the United Nations a 61-page report on the status of women here, in compliance with steps called for at the 1995 World Conference on Women held in Beijing. At the same time it released an official white paper showing that between 1995 and 1998 Japan registered the least improvement among 10 industrialized nations in terms of women’s participation in government and corporate decision-making processes. It now appears that any hopes for genuine improvement in this situation must rest with the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly.

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