TOKYO — Yuko drops wearily into a booth at a tiny izakaya pub wedged beneath the train tracks in the Kanda district of Tokyo. She’s a 25-year-old accountant for one of Japan’s biggest trading houses, and she comes here with colleagues several nights a week.

Behind her, a steady stream of “salarymen” file into the bar, one of many along this lantern-lit stretch of the city known for being home to some of Japan’s most legendary business firms. These companies offer employees high salaries, lifetime employment and generous benefits — in exchange for clocking brutally long hours, capped by obligatory drinks late into the night.

Yuko in the Kanda district in Tokyo, where many “salarymen” socialize after work. (Shiho Fukada for The Lily)
Yuko in the Kanda district in Tokyo, where many “salarymen” socialize after work. (Shiho Fukada for The Lily)

Increasingly, women like Yuko are standing out among the groups of dark-suited men. They’re young “salarywoman” strivers who hope their generation will be the first to have it all — big careers and also fulfilling home lives. More women in Japan now work — about 70 percent, up several percentage points since 2000 — as a result of changing norms, a greater need for dual incomes and government efforts to increase female participation in the workforce. Still, gender roles remain deeply ingrained.

Yuko, who has asked to be identified by only her first name to protect her job, starts her day at 6:30 a.m. in a corporate dorm where single women from her company live. “We all have our own apartments, which are beautiful and very cheap, so it’s a good perk,” she says. The women eat breakfast in the communal dining room, then make the hour-long train commute to the office.

She works until about 8 p.m., and on nights she’s out with colleagues, she might not get to sleep until midnight. Yuko doesn’t complain, though. She’s young and energetic, and because some male managers view women as weaker, she says, she tries to put up a strong front.

Salarymen make their way through the Kanda district after work. (Shiho Fukada for The Lily)
Salarymen make their way through the Kanda district after work. (Shiho Fukada for The Lily)

The making of a salarywoman

Salaryman culture took off after World War II, when Japan pulled itself out of postwar poverty to become the world’s second largest economy. In the system that persists today, men from elite universities join top-tier companies, where they’re essentially guaranteed a job for life and significant pay increases the longer they stay.

Economist Naohiro Yashiro writes that the system creates an “entrapment effect” that gives companies “wide discretion over working hours.” Eighty-hour workweeks are common, and so is “karoshi,” which is a term used to describe death from overwork. In 2017, the latest year for which the Labor Ministry has figures, 190 people died from overwork, or attempted or died by suicide, because of grueling work hours.

Japan’s commitment to rebuilding after the war, coupled with the country’s ethos of putting the good of the group above oneself, helped create a unique culture in which Japanese workers sleep less, spend more time at the office and die more frequently from overwork than workers in almost any other country.

Now, as more women join the workforce, Yashiro observes, “they are being forced into the difficult position of having to choose between their careers outside the home or their children.”

Salarymen make their way through the Kanda district. (Shiho Fukada for The Lily)
Salarymen make their way through the Kanda district. (Shiho Fukada for The Lily)

There’s only one other woman on Yuko’s team, and she’s about 15 years older. From Yuko’s experience, that older generation of women was expected to act like men: “workhorses” who sacrificed personal lives to ascend the professional ladder.

She wants something different: a management-track job and two kids.

But that would be groundbreaking; she hasn’t seen a single woman in her entire division do it.

In fact, three-quarters of single women in management positions think their career success will make it harder to find a husband, according to a survey released last year by the Japan Association for Financial Planners.

Yuko does have a boyfriend. She’d want him to be her husband, but he’s overseas on a two-year rotation. He works for the same company as Yuko; she’ll be required to do a similar rotation abroad in a few years, exactly the time she’d like to start a family.

For now, they’re waiting until he’s back to get married, so she can keep her corporate housing.

“I’m not a little worried, I’m very worried. No one has a solution for it,” she says. The company used to have a policy that allowed couples to go overseas together, but it was designed for administrative assistants married to male executives. Yuko says she has lobbied her manager to bring the policy back and expand it to include female managers, arguing that otherwise the company risks losing qualified full-time employees like her. But so far, nothing has changed, Yuko says.

Other companies have been known to pressure women to leave when they get pregnant. A recent New York Times article revealed that even day care workers, who are in short supply in Japan, are often forced out as soon as they become mothers.

“The older generation doesn’t really understand what’s changed and what young women want, and it’s really pissing me off,” Yuko says, quickly adding a wry laugh to lighten the mood.

Salarymen drink in a bar in the Kanda district. (Shiho Fukada for The Lily)
Salarymen drink in a bar in the Kanda district. (Shiho Fukada for The Lily)

Taking a different track

Many women solve the problem by never getting on the full-time, management track. Instead, they take “part-time” administrative positions that typically don’t come with the same job security, benefits or pay, but usually give them more time with their families. More than half of all working women are “part-timers,” according to Japan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs.

Shiori Yoshino, 32, works at a large Japanese financial firm; her job falls somewhere between full- and part-time. When her son was born, she took 1 ½ years for maternity leave — it started six weeks before his due date, and she received her full salary until he was 8 weeks old. After that, she received two-thirds of her salary, which was covered by public insurance. Yoshino’s son is 4 now and in a government subsidized nursery school, which costs around $300 dollars a month, Yoshino says. She leaves the office at 3:30 p.m. to pick him up from school.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has pushed policies to increase the availability of child care and parental leave to encourage women to stay in the workforce. And it seems to be helping: Two-thirds of young working women now say they want to continue their careers after having children, up 11 percent since 2014.

Yoshino also credits trailblazing women for the shift. “It’s gotten easier, but that’s because women now in their late 30s and 40s built this culture. Young women still need to speak up and ask for what they want,” she says.

Many of them are: This month, over 25,000 women signed a petition to ban requirements that women wear high heels to work. The campaign gained traction online with the hashtag #KuToo — a reference to the #MeToo movement and a pun on the Japanese words “kutsu,” shoe, and “kutsuu,” pain. But Health Minister Takumi Nemoto shot down the idea, calling dress codes that include high heels “culturally necessary and appropriate.”

Salarymen make their way through the Kanda district. (Shiho Fukada for The Lily)
Salarymen make their way through the Kanda district. (Shiho Fukada for The Lily)

Women bear the pain not only at work, but also at home: Even as more of them join the workforce, they continue to shoulder the overwhelming bulk of domestic duties. In families in which both spouses work, Japanese women do about 6.5 times as much housework.

The issue has recently garnered international attention. A February article in the New York Times, titled “Japan’s Working Mothers: Record Responsibilities, Little Help From Dads,” provided an in-depth look into the phenomenon.

Chisa Uhira of Hakuhodo Working Woman Lab, a research group that studies women in their 20s and 30s without children, says many young women want more equality at home, but don’t have a clear idea of what that would look like. That’s because most were raised by housewives and feel pressure to live up to those standards. “Our parents’ generation liked to wash dishes by hand and not depend on dishwashers, for example, so that has an effect on us,” she says.

Hakuhodo’s research found that over 70 percent of mothers ages 25 to 34 do housework because “they believe it’s the woman’s job.”

Still, there are signs that younger women are open to change: Some of the most popular articles in women’s magazines encourage readers to reject society’s onerous expectations, with titles like, “It’s OK, you don’t have to cook traditional 5-dish meals.” And the January edition of Very magazine advised women to raise sons who would never tell their wives that “they can only have a job if they finish the housecleaning.”

There’s also a growing movement to outsource domestic work. Companies such as Yoshino’s will even subsidize babysitters. Still, fewer than 5 percent of Japanese mothers have ever hired a babysitter, according to a 2017 survey by Kidsline. “That’s partly because it’s expensive — about $100 for three hours — but also because many women think outsourcing child care is a bad thing,” Ushira says.

Some fathers are also trying to do more. There’s even a new term for young men who want to help raise children: “ikumen,” a play on the word “ikemen,” or handsome.

Salarymen who want change

Hiroki Tachibana, 28, works for a large public institution and says he hopes to share parenting duties when he has children. But he acknowledges that challenging the salaryman culture won’t be easy.

Male managers seem to prefer having male employees because they don’t leave early to take care of children, Tachibana says.

If a man did ask to leave to see his kids, he’d probably be thought of as “hard to work with,” he adds.

Still, it never really comes up: Tachibana’s salaryman colleagues don’t complain about lack of time with their children, only that they have to do their female colleagues’ work when the women leave early.

Strict gender roles affect men in other ways, too. Tachibana says he has been bullied by managers for having “female” hobbies, such as cooking, and displaying high “joshiryoku,” or femininity. They’ve also mockingly asked him whether he was gay.

The problem is widespread: A recent government survey found that a third of Japanese workers have experienced so-called “power harassment” by a supervisor who “used their power to demoralize or cause employees physical or emotional pain.”

The definition of power harassment includes “infringing on employees’ privacy.” But that can be hard to avoid when the line between work and private life is so blurred; Tachibana goes out with colleagues almost every night, in part because his corporate dorm doesn’t have a dining hall. He says he doesn’t mind late nights at the pub, but he does have a problem with the widespread practice of staying late at the office just to seem busy.

He’s hopeful things will change, though:

“Our generation is more open to the idea of making time for family, and in 10 years, we’ll be the managers,” he says.

New companies, new ways

Something else that could force salaryman culture to change? Competition for top talent from newer companies with better work-life balance.

In Amazon Japan’s sundrenched, Silicon Valley-styled cafeteria, Norie Konishi, 30, a brand consultant, walks past the plentiful organic food options and takes a seat under a colorful “diversity” mural.

“They really promote the idea of gender and ethnic diversity and hold events to bring people together,” she says of Amazon, whose founder and chief executive, Jeff Bezos, also owns The Washington Post. “The next one is a cherry blossom picnic.”

Her previous job was for a Japanese tech company. When she got to Amazon, she was surprised by the large number of female managers, whose ranks she’d someday like to join. Women hold only about 5 percent of all senior roles at Japanese companies, whereas Konishi estimates that in her division at Amazon, it’s closer to half. Japan’s Amazon office said that information about managerial positions is confidential.

Konishi credits company policies, such as allowing employees to set their own hours and work from home, as creating a new standard. Employees aren’t guaranteed lifetime employment, but Konishi says it’s worth it. “People value their private time,” she adds. “There’s not the same pressure to go out for drinks after work.”

That means she’ll have more time to take care of her own kids, when she has them. “I hope my future husband is super cooperative, but I still think I’ll be primarily responsible for child care,” she says.

Yuko, the young salarywoman, in the Kanda district. (Shiho Fukada for The Lily)
Yuko, the young salarywoman, in the Kanda district. (Shiho Fukada for The Lily)

Change is coming, but only slowly, says Yuko, the young salarywoman who also hopes to have children and a full-time job. “The traditional image of women has roots really deep down, so that affects us without us even realizing it.”

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