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WOMEN AND POWER : Women Fight Stereotypes--and Knuckle Under : Job seekers flock to plastic surgeons in recession-era Japan, where 'looking pretty is like having a (prestigious) name card.'

June 29, 1993|LESLIE HELM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TOKYO — Ryoko Ono, a 22-year-old psychology major, was pleased last summer when she passed the examination to get a job in a credit card company. But she worried that when she began working after graduation in March, the company wouldn't let her have the direct contact with customers that she wanted.

"People thought I had a dark personality," explained Ono recently over a soda at a coffee shop near her office.

So last December, she decided to try to improve her image. Having borrowed $3,800 from her parents and taken an equal amount from her savings, Ono went to a cosmetic surgeon. He raised the bridge of her nose slightly, put a more defined half-moon-shaped curve in the wrinkle above her eyelid and added some silicon to her chin to make it more pronounced.

"I got the job I wanted," said a now radiant Ono. "The operation gave me confidence. I am more approachable, so my bosses feel more comfortable assigning me work."

As a prolonged recession makes jobs harder to come by here, a growing number of female university graduates are turning to cosmetic surgery to help them land the positions of their choice. At Jujin, probably Japan's oldest and largest hospital for cosmetic surgery, officials report a noticeable increase in the number of young university students coming in for operations--a trend comparable to one the hospital noted after a recession in 1982.

"When there is a labor shortage, companies will take anybody, but when they have many applicants they tend to judge by looks," said Fumihiko Umezawa, the head surgeon at Jujin.

Companies prefer employing good-looking women because it boosts their prestige, he said. "Looking pretty is like having a (prestigious) name card that says Toyota on it," said Umezawa. "Someone who looks better appears smarter; that is the way we think."

Female graduates bitterly agree. A 22-year-old university graduate who was turned down for a job at more than 20 companies said she sat in on group interviews in which pretty women who did poorly answering questions nevertheless tended to be hired.

"Clearly, there is a different standard for hiring men and women," said Ikuro Takagi, professor of social policy at Japan Women's University. Takagi said that the problem of discrimination based on looks has become particularly acute since corporations cut back on hiring last year.

Although cosmetic surgery is still less common in Japan than in the United States, it is gaining rapidly in social acceptability. One television station runs a weekly Sunday program titled "Fashion Info for the Young" that is seen by millions nationwide. At least once a month, the program includes a 10-minute segment called "Cinderella Surgery" in which men and women discuss their cosmetic surgery experiences.

"Our feeling is that cosmetic surgery is a kind of fashion, an extension of cosmetics," said Yuichi Aita, a planner at Locomotion, the company that produces the program. When the program began running last summer, it sparked a boom in television and magazine coverage of the phenomenon.

Invariably, the media paint an overly bright picture of what surgery can accomplish. "We aren't interested in cases that fail," said Aita of Locomotion.

But corporate attitudes and a lengthening recession also have played a key role in promoting surgery. "Companies used to be very obvious about hiring women for their looks, but we thought that the practice had been stamped out," said Hiroko Shiga, executive director of the Bank Labor Research Assn., a union-associated think tank. Now that companies have so much choice among female applicants, "the practice appears to be creeping back," Shiga said.

But Shiga is quick to add that students who turn to surgery to help them get jobs are foolishly exaggerating the importance of looks. "What companies really need are people who can work efficiently and get the work done. Life is tougher than the students think."

Still, few doubt that major companies put a premium on a woman's looks, particularly if she will come into contact with customers. Female employees are often called "office flowers," an overt reference to the decorative function expected of them. They are decked out in designer uniforms and trained in the precise way to bow, serve tea, use makeup and, according to one training video, "smile sincerely with the eyes."

The more prestigious the company, the more attractive the women who work there are expected to be. Trading companies, banks and insurance firms usually get top honors in contests ranking companies with the most attractive women. Having attractive women also helps employers attract capable men, since men here typically end up marrying female co-workers.

Mitsui & Co., a trading company and frequent high scorer in corporate beauty contests, denies its hiring is based on looks. "Hiring is based on capability and character," said a public relations official. "It is true that the company is regarded this way (as having pretty women), but that is a coincidence."

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