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Irregular working conditions grinding women down


For nearly two decades, Ms Sugiyama (a pseudonym, as are the other women profiled in this article) moved back and forth between Tokyo and Osaka, performing office work for companies.

Now in her late 40s and still unmarried, she works for a worker dispatch firm. While on the job, she avoids personal conversations with others except when discussing things related to work. Too many unhappy experiences have led her to fear "human landmines."

One day she came back to the office limping badly. A male co-worker had opened a door with too much force, and her toes had been caught in the door frame. Clearly in pain, she was advised to go home early, but took some pain killers and continued working.

A subsequent examination found that a toe had been fractured in multiple places, and the doctor told her it would take "three months" to recover. But she continued to limp to the office, afraid to take time off for fear her short-term work contract would not be renewed.

Writing in Shincho 45 (December), Miho Hirai describes single working women like Sugiyama as "Wasurareta onna-tachi" (the forgotten women).

Initially Sugiyama worked for a worker dispatch firm to earn money for study in the United States. Back then, she did English correspondence and other jobs for 1,600 yen an hour. Now, 16 years later, the pay is unchanged.

What has changed is that in those times, a majority of temp-help jobs were performed by women in their 20s. Now the majority are performed by those in their early 40s, or even some in their 50s.

According to statistics from the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, in the middle of this year, 18.81 million of Japan's workers were employed as non-regular staff at companies -- an all-time record. This, based on the most recent survey that's conducted every five years, found that gave the overall percentage of women working at so-called "haken" (dispatch), part-time, "arubaito," and so on) accounted for 57.5% of all working women.

When employed as regular company staff with twice-a-year bonuses, paid vacation time and other perks, and opportunities for promotion, working women felt confident their claims for equal treatment under the law were reasonable. But the insecure women described by Hirai lead lives of quiet desperation. Competing with men is the furthest thing on their minds. All they can focus on is to hope for steady employment at an hourly wage.

Akiko, age 40, commutes to her job in central Tokyo from a rental apartment in the suburbs, a one-way ride of just over one hour. Exhausted after five days of work, she spends her Saturdays recovering and doing household chores, with no time for any social life.

"If I were to marry now, it would be too late to have children. It would just be a matter of time until I wound up caring for my husband," she says. "I'm all right now, but after I reach my 60s, I get the feeling things are going to be really lonely."

Akiko had started her career as a regular company staff member, and worked eight years as a computer systems engineer. But the long working hours ground her down and she suffered burnout, quitting upon reaching age 30.

She then began working as a temporary staff worker, biding her time until another regular position would come along. Several years ago, however, she was the target of "power harassment" by a manager at a client company and resigned after a year and nine months.

"Whatever the reason, once you rub a company regular the wrong way, you're out," she sighs. "There are ways to fight it, but it takes time and money and it's simply not realistic. Even if they do take me back, I won't be able to work every day on a bed of nails like that place."

Akiko's greatest concern is how many more years she can continue working as a temp-help worker.

"When do they start paying social security pensions? From age 60? Or 65? What will happen when I reach retirement age? At companies you can find various dispatch workers in their 50s, but I've never seen one in their 60s. There's no precedent, no model, and that makes me worry. Because it is certainly what's in store for me."

Virtually all of the ambitious working conditions set as objectives by the Abe government, such as female directors serving on the boards of companies listed on the stock exchange, three years of maternity leave and so on will, if enacted, only apply to regular company staff members under a fixed set of standards.

The words of Kaori, another of the women profiled by Hirai, left her with a deep and sad impression. "Once you deviate from the established way," she said, "there's no place to take you in."

© Japan Today

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How to start? When I read a story like this, planning my return to Japan in early 2014 and hoping to stay for the rest of my life, I can't help but feel sorry for these women and frustrated at the same time because there is no way to meet them when I'm there. Japanese women are quite shy and reserved, when it comes to introducing oneself on the street, in a restaurant or on a train. It seems the Japanese sense of containing the self has destroyed their sense of self, if not impaired it almost beyond repair. What to do, what to do? Join a dating site, and risk disappointment, or worse? And besides, these women are so worried about their livelihoods, they can't imagine, I think, that a man in their life wouldn't be a burden, but could rather do all the cooking and cleaning, if he no longer needs to work. That's the kind of man that wouldn't need them to look after him, as they grow older together. What to do, what to do?

0 ( +6 / -6 )

TrevorPeace1, I sincerely hope your desperation brings you much love and happiness in Japan, and that you successfully take one of these poor obasan's out of the workforce by providing a long and healthy, burden-free relationship for them.

5 ( +7 / -2 )

Very sad indeed... Im sure there are just as many men living like this too though.

3 ( +5 / -2 )

There are countries with labor laws that stipulate if you use a temp-help worker for a fixed term, like three or six months, you must hire them as a regular staff member. Japan needs to revise its laws to give these people a shot at a better life.

13 ( +13 / -0 )

I should think these kind of working conditions grind the men down just as much too. I dont see any way that these poor people can ever lift themselves out of the situation they are in though. It seems to be one extreme or the other - ridiculous long working hours and stress, and security. Or 9-5ers with no security at all. Where is the middle ground - the one where you are a permanent employee, work your butt off 9-5 and then go home? Or is that just another "crazy western idea polluting Japanese society and upsetting the wa".

10 ( +11 / -1 )

Thank you Koizumi for creating an underclass in Japan. These are are the loser dogs you talked about when promoting a winner dog/loser dog Japan based on your buddy Bush's economic philosophy. Japan is being hollowed out by the LDP and their corporate pay masters. This is following the US republican play book for making the rich vastly richer and screwing the rest of the people. Its immoral and unsustainable.

8 ( +8 / -0 )


Go to one of those temp agency's and hire a personal secretary to get your paperwork in order or something. She may be the one...

4 ( +5 / -1 )

The problem here is NOT that they were not saved by marriage or need to be saved by marriage, the real problem here is that current labour law needs change. And as highlighted by some posters above men are also concerned about this.

14 ( +15 / -1 )


Unfortunately no politician will be volunteering to make a change in this area. If you want change you must revolt or get large enough numbers behind you and protest. Do you think this is democarcy or something?

1 ( +1 / -0 )

I think this kind of lonely life is quickly becoming the norm all over the world now. People are a lot more selfish nowadays and want to put of getting married and having kids to as late a date as possible because they want to have freedom or they want to concentrate on their career...

If they are lonely later on... That is their bed and they should lay in it.

-3 ( +4 / -7 )

Japans work life balance as most here know is severely messed up & has been for decades & we are now witnessing the results & its going to get a LOT worse as time passes.

Add to that that labour laws are basically useless & the man/woman on the street have NO re-course when abused by J-inc the future here ........well calling it bleak sounds more like a compliment.

I feel so sorry for those with children here for so many reasons this country is not worthy of having children.

Most Japanese don't seem to care that they only have one life & for the vast majority they are finding out later in life just what they are reaping, I feel for them but at the same time I don't, Japanese really need to want a life otherwise they simply aren't going to have one!

4 ( +4 / -0 )

Too many unhappy experiences have led her to fear “human landmines.”

Yeah, it's called, agoraphobia!

Let me quote an old song to help put this into perspective for these slaves of the rhythm: "This is not my life! It's just my day job! A way to pay my rent!"

-5 ( +0 / -5 )


People are a lot more selfish nowadays and want to put of getting married and having kids to as late a date as possible because they want to have freedom or they want to concentrate on their career...

I don't understand what is selfish about remaining single / child-free while learning and working, making money, paying taxes? can you explain how this is "selfish"? Who is it affecting negatively - or do you mean this on a social level, that all people should live their lives for the commune- I mean country?

7 ( +9 / -2 )

the overall percentage of women working at so-called “haken” (dispatch), part-time, “arubaito,” and so on) accounted for 57.5% of all working women

For comparison it would be helpful to know the figure for men, and to know the figure for total hours worked for these women and their full-time counterparts.

5 ( +5 / -0 )

Now in her late 40s and still unmarried...

Yes, yes, shame on her for failing to find a husband and still having the nerve to complain. (sarcasm)

6 ( +6 / -0 )

Oh my, aren't these the same women 20 years ago who were too good for any of the many men who asked them out or for marriage. Aren't these the same women we heard about the last 20 years who lived with their parents and spent every cent of their pay on travel to Hawaii and on designer goods and could give a &'%$ about anyone besides themselves.

You have a point, a very good one. I am acquainted with quite a few ladies of their ilk, and it seems to me that they frittered away their youth on designer handbags, frequent trips with their friends, and various hobbies and trivial pursuits, all the while turning up their noses at men who didn't meet the "3-highs" standards (tall, with a high salary and a high education). I don't know if all of them are really interested in marriage, though. Many seem happy enough with their friends and hobbies.

-1 ( +7 / -8 )

@combinibento, although I detect some sarcasm in your comment, you say something that I believe is very important, i.e.; a long and healthy, burden-free relationship is what makes couples happy together. @Utrrack, I had a personal secretary before retiring fifteen years ago, and she was perfect - not for me, but for her husband. For me, she was irreplaceable as a professional (this was in Canada, where secretaries are known for professionalism and only work 9-5). Now, as a writer, I do my own paperwork. And thanks, @MubiaRocks!, here's hoping. Perhaps it's just a matter of the time of year? They say spring is the season of love - remember that youthful 'spring fever'? Although these women aren't 'spring chickens' anymore, nor newlywed, they're not nearly dead. Good points from many commentators - it's an issue I can't see being solved considering the culture.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

My ex is the same - works till 7 or 8, hour and a half train ride back to Nagareyama, has to make dinner for her son, up early the next morning to make his bento, then off to work herself. When we chat at weekends she sounds really tired. She's lucky in that she has a good boss, but it's the constant assessments and training courses, as well as the commuting. If overtime was paid it might, just might make her feel a wee bit better.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

“Once you deviate from the established way,” she said, “there’s no place to take you in.”

Embrace the established way!

-6 ( +1 / -7 )

I really hope feminists would one day shut up and accept that life is not as peaches and roses that you protested for.

-12 ( +1 / -13 )

As the article suggests. The law is not necessarily the problem, it is the way it is feared or ignored. She was told to go home, but kept working. She was told to take a break for 3 months and ignored the doctor's advice. Certainly if it was a work accident caused by another worker, she could get support from his insurance... Unpaid overwork as a temporary worker paid by the hour is illegal. Document it for a month and sue sue sue. Or maybe she signed her contract before it was filled out (Yes, this happens in Japan). Grow some backbone and look for another job. Certainly one of the problems is that they kept telling themselves that they would get married and that is why they didn't approach their career like a sane person. From my experience, the problem is the 1950's attitude of not being able to stand up for yourself as a woman. It might not be easy, but certainly Japan is not a third world country where you have no rights or opportunities.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

Interesting article and interesting comments. Not sure why Tessa and a few other got thumbed down for their comments.

It DOES seem that many of these were expecting to get married at some point and life off their husband's income and have no career of their own. Men do not get that option here so I have a hard time feeling sorry for them for having the expectations of being looked after when men do not. If they didn't expect to be looked after, why did they make such poor choices when it comes to working? There are many jobs out there that women can work FT until retirement. Teaching being one of them. Starting their own business is another.

I also rolled my eyes at the woman who injured herself and refused to take the time off suggested - nor go home. It didn't help her in the long run did it? Nothing like playing the martyr.

Also, women who refuse to take their issues to court? Little sympathy from me. Things will never change until women demand that they change and by sucking it up, companies know they can get away with it. Is it easy to fight? No but women fighting for their rights is why western countries are so far ahead in women's issues than Japan. 105 on the UN gender index. Why? Because many here seem to be happy to play victim. And don't get me wrong, they ARE treated like crap but you only get treated like crap if you allow it. Step up ladies. You can't complain if you don't fight it.

0 ( +3 / -3 )

when I had my girl, i was perfectly fine. someone to come home to. cook and have dinner with. brought flowers to her at times to the station. unfortunately things didn't work out. but to be honest, they really like being alone. i don't believe this article. i am single. have been for quite sometime. can't approach anyone on the street or bars. they won't talk to you. or if they do, they will give their details, but you will never hear from them again. they just want to work. life is all about work work work. i cannot understand this. i go to bars, clubs, returaunts. Everywhere and anywhere! i feel there is no sense of freedom in their society. to just just see a face. someone who 'you', as an individual, take a liking to. if feel their companies they work for choose their spouses.

-4 ( +1 / -5 )

Certainly one of the problems is that they kept telling themselves that they would get married and that is why they didn't approach their career like a sane person.

This is absolutely true, at least of the women I know. For most of them, especially the ones living at home without paying any rent or expenses, developing a job into a "career" was seen a fallback option or even a sign of failure as a women. Almost all of them expected to get married somewhere along the line, and none of them regarded their jobs as anything but a source of play money. What's puzzling is that they were equally half-hearted about husband-hunting, and used any excuse to reject potential suitors.

In fact, they truly weren't serious about anything in life except having fun: travelling, shopping, hanging out with friends, all the while making good money with a minimum amount of effort (no wonder housewives in Japan expect to do the same). A few years ago a disgruntled man told me that Japanese OLs were the most decadent creatures on earth. At the time, I couldn't really understand what he meant, but now I get it.

The halcyon days of the overpaid OL are over, ladies. Get used to it. And don't expect any sympathy from women like me.

1 ( +4 / -3 )

Well said Tessa. I used to teach a few of them when I did company lessons. They were fun to go out with as they new the best restaurants but when it came to working hard, having a clue about the future, saving money... Nope. Many were either too picky about the guys or had no interested. major assumption that someone would finally marry them. From what I know, two of the four are still single - and still in the same position at work. The other two finally bagged decent guys, quit and are now SAHMs...

-2 ( +1 / -3 )

The other two finally bagged decent guys, quit and are now SAHMs...

Nicely put! Have you noticed how similar the two lifestyles are, though? I know that that the ageing OLs are fending for themselves on low incomes, but basically they have no mouths to feed but their own (and certainly no annoying husbands/kids to tend to), and they are probably getting big tax breaks, too. The "smart" ones who married, thereby hooking themselves a free cash machine, have to put up with one or two kids at most, and two sets of parents to take care of, but are quite happy to take advantage of the state to take care of all those annoying factors that would otherwise interfere with their hula lessons and bon-bon time. Both types of women still seem to have extraordinary amounts of free time and cash on their hands, and none of them are seriously thinking about their futures! Like I said, no sympathy here.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

Well this is just it, if these women are working for temp companies, why on earth are they doing overtime? All the women I know who work for temp companies are out the door at 6:00 and off for dinner with friends in similar situations. Why would anyone kill themselves for a contract job? Isn't very clever now is it?

The women I feel sorry for are the FT moms who have to deal with the expectation that they will work overtime like to men - gee, don't those men have wives at home looking after the kiddies? I have no idea how they manage with the little support here for them. I also feel very sorry for the dads who would much rather be at home and having bath time with Jr. than be stuck in yet another useless meeting that started just before work was supposed to be over.

I don't feel too sorry for the OLs who didn't pursue a career, won't stand up for themselves when laws are clearly broken and whine about how busy they are when most other workers here are busier, more stressed out and in the case of men, don't have the luxury of quitting their job.

-4 ( +0 / -4 )

There's a huge elephant in the room here: I've never heard guys with money complain about the girls rejecting them as suitors. I think a lot of these women have unrealistic expectations about a potential suitor's income. Let's face it, if you're a hakken temp or an ordinary OL, you're not pulling in a high octane banker or corporate executive, not for marriage anyway. A lot of those women don't realise we have standards too. You have to be well educated, traveled, have some class and be from at least a little bit of money.

Of course not all women are in that boat, which is why I am surprised to see so much sweeping criticism of them based on these few stories. My only complaint about Japanese women is that I can only marry one at a time! Unless we start a cult or something LOL!

Marriage and a family is probably less appealing for both sexes at this point. On the whole, working conditions are getting worse and less secure, and couples are now exposed to much more of the outside world and have higher expectations. As the expectations rise, reality is sinking. Eventually they will re-calibrate, though, once the hollowing out of the middle class is complete and one's fixed socioeconomic position in society is accepted as reality. It's a bitter pill to swallow, but the days of upward mobility are over...we pulled the ladder up behind us LOL!

-2 ( +1 / -3 )

Neo, the sad thing is though, guys seem to be okay with it. I know a lot of lovely guys who have married, what I consider to be anyway, gold diggers. Nasty gold diggers who clearly wouldn't be married to these guys if they didn't work at a certain company. Just last week on the news they had the rankings of companies with regards to who women want to marry and company names. I can't think of anything sadder than that. Rankings for companies in terms of marriage suitability. Disgusting. Many females here have told me how "lucky" I am to have married my guy who happens to work in one of the top ranking companies. When I tell them I dated him when he was a student with no job, they are shocked. Something it seems many of them wouldn't consider doing. They may end up like these women in the article with that sense of entitlement and materialism.

-3 ( +3 / -6 )

Neo, thanks for making my case for me. thmarie, that's just media fluff. Japanese women on the whole are the most caring, grounded and loving people in the world.

-2 ( +1 / -3 )

Neo, thanks for making my case for me. thmarie, that's just media fluff. Japanese women on the whole are the most caring, grounded and loving people in the world.

Hahahahahahahaha! Thanks for the laugh. Try living here for a while and then date one. I have heard and seen numerous things that make me think otherwise. Some lovely lovely ladies here but to suggest they the most loving, carding and grounded is a joke.

And I think you might want to chat with some of the women here about the types of jobs and companies they want a spouse to work for/at. My female students squeal like pigs when they find out where my husband works. As did my high school students when I taught that age. But I guess that's just media fluff. Clearly you don't know about gokons and kompa where the company name is pretty much the most important factor for women to decide if they want to go or not.

-4 ( +0 / -4 )

At the risk of sounding like a hackneyed "get off your lazy behind" diatribe, what these "forgotten" women need to do is take action and make society remember them again.

They could all learn a lot from the amazing true life story of a close Japanese female friend of mine who has been to hell and back again and emerged 10-times stronger. She is not only the most hard-working, resourceful, and praise-worthy Japanese women I have ever known. She this the most dynamic, vivacious and all-around amazing human being I have ever met period!. Her story is a shining example of just how much can be accomplished with good old-fashioned elbow grease.

(FYI, I'm an American male, age 42, and I've been living in Japan (mostly nearly Tokyo) for the past 22 years. I speak, read and write Japanese fluently)

My friend, who goes by the handle "Suzy", turned 50 this year. She was born way up north in rural Japan. She learned the value of hard work early in life when a divorce left her mother to support her by starting her own business (that turned out to be quite successful). Working part time in high-school, Suzy saved up enough to by her own stereo set for 300,000 yen, which back then was the equivalent of an average man's annual salary: i.e. a fortune. Suzy always longed to live in Tokyo, and with her mom's reluctant permission at age 20 she left home, but with the strict understanding that she was on her own. And when the cousin she was staying with embezzled her meager month's income, her tearful phone call to mom begging for some emergency cash was met with just two simple options: other come home permanently, or solve your problems on your own. Well, Suzy took choice no. 2.

Not only intelligent and resourceful, but a total knock-out beauty as well, Suzy had plenty suitors but unfortunately ended up marrying a good-looking a$$hole. Running a doomed-to-fail izakaya, he begged Suzy to help out in the kitchen and wait ables after his staff quit when he stopped paying them. And in spite of being 7 months pregnant, she agreed. But when he kept on running the business into the ground, with the birth of their first child just around the corner, Suzy anxiously asked for assurance that they would be able to get by. Her husband's enraged response was to beat her to a pulp. She was hospitalized and required reconstructive surgery on her face to replace her shattered cheekbones.

After the saccharin apologies of a typically abusive husband, then the inevitable infidelity began.

Several years, two more kids, and countless more beatings later, Suzy got sick of turning a blind to her husband's reckless philandering ways, and when he finally stopped supported the family's living expenses, she decided to look for a job (faced with three kids and zero income, she had no choice really).

Minimum wage just wasn't going to cut it, but being a 40-something woman out of the workforce for nearly 20 years, she faced a Herculean uphill battle to find a decent paying job. But every time she got knocked down, she promptly get right up again with no whimpering. Then she realized that selling life insurance was just about the only industry in Japan that offered women any chance of promotion and higher (i.e. livable) wages.

With zero knowledge of insurance or business in general and armed only with her sharp wits and dynamite smile (not mention her still to this day smashing looks), she hit the ground running, walloped the nefarious attempts at sabotage that new women employees typically get from their female coworkers, and in just few instantaneous months rocketed to the top-ranked sales lady of her entire division, then her entire branch. Then, when she needed to close just one more contract to earn in a mere month a new level of certification that most take half a year to attain, she bagged the biggest corporate account her branch had seen in years. Commissions included, her take-home pay that month (and for many thereafter) topped 700,000 yen. That's more than her (typically male) branch manager made and more than her piece-o-$hite husband made. Meanwhile, she was still supporting and bringing up three teenage kids and still enjoying the occasion night out on the town with her female friends (and turning down pickup lines from would-be suitors half her age), while also putting more miles on Harley Davidson motorcycle (she re-wrote the book on sexy biker chicks!), and learning to play guitar! (there wasn't enough time left for the rest of her hobbles though, so she had to give up practicing karate and drumming in her rock band, although she still occasionally found time to hit the dance-club circuit).

During the next round of typical HR reshuffling, the company decided Suzy was far too valuable for just one lucky branch to hog for their own, and transferred her to the regional HQ as a mentor to new recruits to the sales force. There she continued to win the adoration and respect of her apprentices, coworkers, and managers.

After adding weightlifting to her hobbies and further toning her youthful figure, Suzy turned 50 this year. Her kids are nearly all grown up and independent. She's financially stable, and the process of getting her divorce. I've never seen her more happy or more beautiful.

And the crowing glory to her story is that in spite of all the hardship and humiliation she has suffered and endured, not once has she ever said "it's society that's to blame for me predicament" or spoken ill of anyone. She has taken full responsibility, good or bad, for every decision she has made, and when faced with a setback, rather than whining about how "unfair" it is, she just goes straight to work doing whatever it takes to get back on track.

Suzy's lesson for these so-called "forgotten" women is that you'll never improve our life just waiting around for help to arrive. You have to spring to action yourself and squeeze every ounce of potential out of whatever options are available to you. The opportunities are still out there. You just have to go out and grab them.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

Holy cow, that was a long post. I think you put all the forgotten women to sleep before they reached the moral of your story.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

I just view all my life experience as my debt I owe to GOD. Notice that none of us is trapped by accidental situations.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

LostSoul45, what a fantastic and inspiring story!

She has taken full responsibility, good or bad, for every decision she has made, and when faced with a setback, rather than whining about how "unfair" it is, she just goes straight to work doing whatever it takes to get back on track.

That could be the story of my life, too. Thanks for sharing.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

many japanese men & women works in indonesia as contract local staff i. They paid with good salary plus the company gives them apartment and car with driver. Many of them dont want to work in japan coz they have to paid the apato n commute with train. so my suggestion you should find job in another countries

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Tessa, I see you're also someone from whom we could all learn a thing or two. Glad you enjoyed Suzy's story. Rock on!

1 ( +1 / -0 )


Try living here for a while and then date one.

I have, and that only strengthened my opinion.

-4 ( +0 / -4 )

What i don't get is why these women persist in getting things in a half hearted way? I mean, if you are going to work, at least to be in something that you like and make a career if you are going to work to get a husband then take care of yourself and out in "housewife" mode, but these cases are in the middle, tsk tsk, I am unmarried but I don't regret that, because I chose to have a career and be free to do what i want, I wasn't expecting to live this far but here I am ;)

I remember an acquaintance of mine when we were in high school, she wanted to have lots of boyfriends and leave her mom's house, but she didn't consider entering university or community college to work and live independently, she was waiting for her prince charming to whisker away form her family home because she hated doing the household chores and obeying her parents and all that time I thought " what's the purpose of leaving the home to live with a husband to whom you have to cook, laundry, clean the house, etc, if you clearly hated it?" Anyway, as far as know, she still lives close to her mother, doesn't work and neglected her figure...

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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