TOKYO — Japan's quiet battle of the sexes has at long last emerged from behind its sliding screens as the nation debates how to save its shrinking families.
The first ripple in the deceptively calm waters of Japanese domesticity came in June during a Cabinet debate over reports that the birthrate dropped last year to its lowest level since the harsh years of World War II.
Reports that Finance Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto blamed higher education for women for the slide--a claim he later denied--incensed women's rights advocates. They said male-dominated government and business are responsible for policies and work habits that discourage women from having children.
The trend toward ever smaller families is a sign that Japan must begin to help the family in its struggle for survival, said Keiko Higuchi, a noted critic and author on family issues.
"Most women are given only two cards to choose from--childbearing without a real career or a career without children," Higuchi said. "Women are having fewer babies for a number of reasons, but the main reason is that society penalizes them for having children."
Early this century Japanese women were encouraged to have babies to strengthen the expanding Japanese empire. Fifty years ago, mothers had an average of five children.
As of 1989, the rate was 1.57 children per woman, and the debate was not over building an empire but over how a diminished work force can support a growing elderly population, and how women can combine careers and children.
There always have been a few daring and usually privileged Japanese women who manage to rear families while making careers in medicine, law and business.
Until suffrage and property rights were granted to women by U.S. Occupation reforms in 1947, however, most Japanese women followed Confucian traditions of obedience to men all their lives--first to their fathers, then husbands and later sons.
Many still do. Feminism remains a foreign concept for many older women who accept the traditional limitations of the kanai or okusan . Both terms meaning "wife" involve the concept of being "inside the house."
After a short dose of stress in the male-dominated business world, many younger women also say they prefer homemaking.
Numerous surveys show that most Japanese women believe that two or three children would be ideal. But they aren't having that many.
The biggest reasons for having fewer children are high living, education costs and overcrowded housing.
The high cost of living eventually forces most women back into the labor force, to help pay for their children's education and to make ends meet after their husbands retire.
Roughly 40% of Japan's workers are female. A severe labor shortage is bringing growing numbers of women into previously male-dominated fields such as construction and trucking.
Women recruited by Japanese companies are usually given two options: the traditional "mommy track" or the same professional track taken by male employees. Fearing the overtime and transfers that men endure for a business career, about 95% choose the traditional track.
When those women return to work after having children, they find only "part-time" jobs, positions that are really full-time work without the benefits of lifetime employment.
Many firms rely on non-permanent female employees, who earn one-half to two-thirds what their male colleagues earn for similar work, to cut personnel costs.
Eiko Shinotsuka, a labor economist at Ochanomizu Women's University in Tokyo, said the system is efficient, but it means that most women work as clerks or in other dead-end jobs.
And remaining single or childless is no guarantee of career opportunity, Shinotsuka said.
Surveys show that just over 1% of all managers in major Japanese corporations are women, mostly at lower levels of management. Only 3.8% of all Japanese companies, in most cases tiny entrepreneurships or family businesses, are headed by women, according to Tokyo Shoko Research, a private research institute.
Sexual equality is guaranteed by the Japanese constitution. Since 1986, an equal employment opportunity law has required companies to let women apply for positions previously open only to men.
Unlike the United States, the law does not specify penalties or require that women be hired or receive equal training or promotion opportunities.
In July, a Japanese court made the first ruling in favor of women who complained they had been denied promotions on the basis of their sex, but the court did not order any mechanism for promoting the complainants. The 18 women, however, were awarded $640,000 in compensation.
"Women can't go to the courts with a law that only says firms should 'try' to provide equal treatment. The law has helped, but it's still no good. It needs penalties for enforcement," Shinotsuka said. "It would be better to eliminate discrimination altogether."