Upper house

Japan’s first female union leader urged by men to refuse job

Male colleagues of the first woman to head Japan’s largest labor association begged her to turn down the job because they believed her gender made her unable to fight Japanese companies for higher wages.

In an interview with the Financial Times, Tomoko Yoshino described a barrage of efforts to derail her promotion to president of the Japanese Trade Union Confederation (Rengo). The organization, she said, was supposed to represent all workers but had maintained for years a “man-centered image”.

“The men told me I had to definitely decline the offer because not only were we going to have a general election [in October] and an election to the upper house [in 2022], but next year’s salary negotiation was also going to be difficult due to the coronavirus pandemic, ”Yoshino said.

“They said it was too hard for a woman to handle the job at such a difficult time,” Yoshino said.

But opposition to her nomination, she said, was offset by overwhelming support from female members of Rengo, who saw the promotion as a clear signal of progress. “In a sense, something that had been a source of frustration among women has now turned into an expectation,” she said.

Yoshino, who took on the lead in October, made the comments as Rengo prepares for the “shunto“Negotiations between workers and management throughout Japanese industry.

The process, which begins in January, for many years sparked relative disappointment among workers and governments alike, who hoped that larger wage increases would induce a broader economic recovery.

Last week, Rengo adopted a plan to demand a total increase of 4 percent in negotiations, combining a pay scale and a regular pay rise, the same goal for the seventh year in a row.

The government supports the upward trend in wages and is preparing to raise the threat of blocking investment tax credits for large companies that do not raise workers’ wages. Large companies usually respond around March.

Along with these negotiations, Yoshino will likely use his position to pressure the many Japanese companies that continue to drag their feet on a series of gender equality and “womenomics” policies introduced over the past decade.

The cabinet office said last month that 33.4% of the 2,189 large companies listed on the first section of the Tokyo Stock Exchange had no female executives in July. These companies included Canon and chemicals maker Toray Industries, both of which formed chairmen of Keidanren, Japan’s largest business federation.

Japan ranks 120th out of 156 countries in the gender gap ranking in 2021, the worst among major advanced economies, according to the World Economic Forum.

Although there were discussions to create an environment where women could continue to work unhindered when they were married, pregnant, had children or cared for their families, Yoshino said she saw many women leaders are ignored for the top positions in the union association.

“I realized that women can only reach a certain level with the glass ceiling,” she said.

Despite the anxiety at the time of her appointment, “I thought I should convey the thoughts of the women here, and I decided to never miss an opportunity to break the glass ceiling on my own.”

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