CAREERS AND THE ASIAN WOMAN: JAPAN AND KOREA COMPARED
CHAPTER 1: INTRODUCTION...................................... 1
CHAPTER 2: EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITIES.......................... 2
CHAPTER 3: ATTITUDES......................................... 9
CHAPTER 4: CONCLUSION........................................ 12
As expected there was an abundance of material on the hiring practices, working conditions and attitudes of female employees in Japan, but next to nothing on those same subjects concerning Korean women. In lieu of documented statistics and case studies I have relied on interviews with both young unmarried working women, and older married women (for information about resuming careers after marriage). Unfortunately it is not possible to foresee what the career opportunities will be for these young women after they get married, raise families and want to resume their careers. All the career professionals I have found and interviewed fall into either one of two categories; they are either professional women (doctors or other health care professionals) or they are teachers at all levels of education. I have yet to encounter the female equivalent of a "salaryman".
Women's position in society in East Asia has gone through many changes in the past. In both ancient Korea and Japan women served as rulers who had full control over their perspective kingdoms. But times change, as has the position of women in these two Asian countries with such old cultures. In Ancient times women's position in society has changed both for the better and for the worse; but in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in both countries; women's position, her rights and the demands on her seem to have been changing for the worse. Although the situation has been improving for women slowly since the turn of the century women's rights are still lagging behind those of women in the West. Rather than a problem with the law as it applies to a woman's legal rights, what seems to be the major stumbling block to the liberation of the women of Japan and Korea is the attitude they and their societies possess. An attitude and way of thinking that is the result of a socialization process which has been dragged along with the culture from the depths of history.
They are instilled from birth with the idea that women are not an equal to their male counterparts, these feelings are reinforced by the way women are treated in their respective societies. As objects or ornaments that must make their way in this world by capturing the favor of men. Essentially, they are not taught to aggressively strive for what they want if it means going up against the established institutions of men. The lingering confucian influence is such an integral part of their psyche it becomes inappropriate to expect from them the aggressiveness in the pursuit of their own ideas and goals as that of western women.
The similarities in job opportunities for Japanese and Korean women far outnumber the differences. In Japan the majority of women, either high school or university graduates, go to work for a company in the position which is commonly known as office lady or OL. As an OL, their primary role is to do clerical work, greet customers/clients and to make and serve coffee and tea. An additional function of the new OL's is to serve as a pool of prospective brides for the newer (unmarried) male employees. Another common name for the new female employees is "flower" and this goes a long way in explaining the difficulty some of the less attractive prospective employees have in getting hired. As one young girls encounter with a panel of three stern looking Japanese men at a hiring interview shows. The first man commented "what fat legs you have", the second suggested that "you are ugly and of no use to us" and the last, after asking if the young lady had a boyfriend responded "you say you don't have a boyfriend? You must be a lesbian".
The OL position in Japan is basically a dead-end job with no room for advancement and as such requires no particular skills. The skills learned in college, except for typing, are generally not used, and in fact, the opportunities for high school graduate and college graduate women are about the same. The difference lies in the level of OL job one is placed in. Whereas the college graduate can find an OL job in a large company, the high school graduate will generally be employed by a smaller company and the pay will be correspondingly lower. It is expected that if an OL gets married she will quit her job to raise and care for a family. The possibility of an OL not getting married is not considered as it is somewhat of a rarity. As of 1993 the average age of marriage for Japanese women was 25.9 years of age. This is after a steady increase over the past few years. The rate is continuing to rise now but the majority of women polled say they do not plan to forego marriage, but only to delay it. A natural result of the average age of marriage going up is that the birthrate is declining.
If an OL stays too long in one job she is put in an awkward position due to her age and unmarried status and is either fired under some other pretense, harassed until she quits or left in her position, (with no advancement) in which case she is ostracized by the other younger OL's. Men, of course, are seldom if ever placed in OL positions. They are generally placed in career positions, positions with a regular program of advancement.
Sogoshoku, is the name applied to a minority of women who are seeking life time careers and are competing with the men for the career positions in Japanese companies. Sogoshokus face serious difficulties in trying to get hired in career track positions rather than OL positions in spite of a 1986 equal employment opportunity law. The law, which was designed to provide equal benefits for both male and female employees includes no punishment for companies who do not adhere to it so it is often ignored. Women who do manage to get hired into career positions then face more problems in the work place. They are generally given less responsibility than the men. They are frequently not allowed to deal with clients, forbidden from making business trips and are sometimes housed in company apartments with restrictions (like ten o'clock curfews) which are not applied to the male employees.
During the mid 1980's economic boom in Japan, companies were hard pressed to fill job slots in the rapidly expanding market and women were hired into career slots at an unprecedented rate. With the economic downturn starting in the early 1990's women hires have again been drastically reduced and the struggle to find a good job for career minded women is again getting difficult.
In Korea the situation for young job seeking women is virtually the same. Although they are not called OL's as they are in Japan both high school and university graduate women looking for jobs are faced with the same paucity of options. The majority of the Jobs available are of the OL variety and include the same functions. Clerical work, greeting customers and serving tea and coffee. In Korea too, the difference between a high school graduate and a university graduate in the job market is insignificant. The university graduate from a good school may land a position working as a clerical assistant for a higher ranking boss than the high school graduate and she generally gets a job in a larger company (apparently this is preferable). She may also earn a bit more respect from the other women employees but she is still locked into a dead-end job with no chance of promotion. The average pay for a high end clerical worker is about 540,000 won per month plus an end of year bonus. ($8,100. or about $13,500. with the annual bonus). For the career minded woman looking for a long term job with the chance of promotion the situation is as bad, if not worse, than in Japan. First of all she must spend a predetermined amount of time at her OL duties (the time being determined by each company). After this set period of time she then needs to let it be known that she is interested in a career track job. In some cases she needs to make a written application within the company. If she is taken seriously and accepted, the chances of this happening are somewhat lower than in Japan, then she may be moved into a career position (this is the way it works in theory). There, she is given less responsibility that her male counterparts, not allowed to meet clients and prohibited from going on business trips. This is after she has spent at least several years as a clerical worker, a requirement the male employees were not required to fulfill.
It may seem that the situations in both Korea and Japan are identical, and indeed they are, with one major exception. The major difference is the pay. In Japan, many of the OL's live away from home either by choice or because they are stationed in a different city. Often the company provides the OL's with an apartment or suitable housing expense. The average wage for a Japanese OL is $38,000 dollars a year. This relatively high wage, though only 52% of the mens pay, is high enough in Japan's economy to allow them many freedoms. They are able to pursue their own interests, as they usually get off at quitting time, while the men almost always stay late. They frequently take a two or three week vacation each year; trips to such vacation spots as Hawaii are common. And at the same time they are able to save money. A popular plan among OL's is to work and save for several years and then to take a year off and either travel or go abroad to study. After which they go back to work and start saving for their next year off. Comparatively, they have quite a lot of freedom afforded to them by their high economic position.
The Korean OL does not have the same freedoms, she mostly lives with her parents while she is employed and is not given a high enough wage to achieve her personal, financial independence. If she were to be posted to a remote location, away from her parents, she would probably either quit or be forced to quit by her parents. Korea adopted confucianism much more radically than Japan and it's lingering effects are much more pronounced. The Korean OL, just like the Japanese OL, is not required to stay late and so has time to enjoy other aspects of life than work.
Surprisingly some of the attitudes of Japanese and Korean women seen to be reversed from what one would expect considering the Japanese woman's financial independence. A surprising one third of all marriages among young women in Japan are arranged marriages. This means they were set up as a blind date, for the purpose of finding a spouse, by a third party. When polled, 70% of the Japanese college women surveyed said their top priority was to get married and about 20% said it was a career. Of the parents interviewed, only 27% of them said they wanted their daughters to go to a university.
This is in stark contrast to Korean women of whom the majority say the most important priority was to make money and then to fall in love. Using the same criteria for an arranged marriage it is estimated that the percentage of arranged marriages is probably higher than one third. The number of Korean parents who wanted their daughters to go to college is near 100%.
The difference in attitude between Japanese and Korean women is that the Korean women are influenced by a heavier dose of confucian socialization. There is sort of a common fantasy which they all share, a kind of a social brainwashing. Most believe they will work for a few years, get married, quit work and raise a family; never to work again. And it seems to be true. They don't claim marriage as a priority, either because their parents are concerned enough about the subject for both parties or it is such an inevitable part of their futures it is something which is not worthy of putting on a priority list. "It's going to happen anyway, why wish for it" attitude. The Japanese, on the other hand have a much higher percentage of old maids (unmarried women over the age of thirty). And growing old without finding a husband seems to be a real concern. The future for the Japanese women is not predetermined. Anyone of a wide range of possibilities exists. It is possible to get a career, get married and raise a family or stay single and work indefinitely.
Unfortunately in both societies the socialization of young women automatically instills many thoughts which are counterproductive to the ideas of equality in the work place and in the home. The revocability of a woman's career seems to be built into her own expectation as well as the social structure in both cultures. In Korea it is difficult for a woman with a general degree to resume her career after she has put it on hold to raise a family. There are opportunities for part time employment beginning to emerge for married women but full time career opportunities are virtually unheard of. In Japan too, once a woman has quit her job to start a family it is difficult to resume her career except on a part time basis. In both countries however, women with professional degrees (particularly in the health care field) have much better opportunities to continue their careers after a long layoff.
The significant difference between the working women of these two cultures seems to be in their attitude. There is a greater sense of personal freedom in Japan, both in thought and in fact. The options for one's future are greater and include various possibilities. The women of Japan are more inclined to follow a variety of paths in the course of their lives, whether it be by choice or as a natural result of their circumstances.
The course of a Korean woman's life is considerably more predetermined, both in her mind and in reality. The thought of pursuing a path of ones own choosing seems to be a rarity. This is further supported by the real shortage of options left open by the society.
In both Japanese and Korean society there is a socialization process which is directly responsible for the somewhat closed views regarding one's personal future. Many things are done or not done under the rationale of tradition. There is no thought involved, it is an automatic function that serves as a yolk around the process of original thought resulting in tunnel vision.
Due to the relatively new process of cultural exchange brought about by the mass media. Things are improving for the asian woman. Korea's more recent birth as an advanced industrial nation has left it lagging behind Japan in the area of personal choices and freedom. In five to ten years Korea will attain the level of today's Japan and Japan too will have made more progress in the quest for women's complete equality.
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