Tokyo - Japan has taken a further step to bring its traditional corporate culture in line with international standards with the passage through parliament of the country's first law to ban job discrimination against women in the workplace.
The equal employment opportunity law also lifts long-standing restrictions on women's working hours, which currently prohibit overnight shifts and limit overtime to 10pm.
Until now, companies have been required only to make a "good effort" to end discrimination against women in their recruitment and promotion policies.
Under the new law, which does not come into effect until April 1999, discriminatory practices will be an offence. However, the only concrete punishment spelled out in the legislation is publication of the offending company's name.
Public humiliation is a potent weapon in Japan, which prides itself on social delicacy and discretion.
The country's labour ministry, which is charged with enforcing the new law, says that its power to publicly condemn corporate offenders is an adequate deterrent.
However, representatives of unions and women's groups yesterday warned that the absence of heavier penalties such as fines would dilute the impact of the legislation.
"We welcome the law as a great improvement on the previous guidelines, which were almost meaningless," said Ms Tomoko Suzuki, a member of a Tokyo women's group.
"But we don't think the threat of being named in public will stop companies from their past practices."
Some women's representatives, including female MPs, have also criticised the removal of restrictions on overtime hours as premature.
They say that Japanese companies are still far behind their western counterparts on issues such as child care, and that employers' demands for late-night work will place impossible burdens on working mothers.
Most unions and women's groups, however, have welcomed the lifting of the restrictions as an equalising move. They say the curbs have been used to prevent women from entering management positions.
In a corporate culture where many workers are still reluctant to leave the office at night before their superiors, the restrictions have been seen as a powerful disincentive for companies in considering women for career-track positions.
Furthermore, the new law is likely to lend fresh momentum to the emerging trend for women workers to take discrimination complaints to the courts, following some landmark victories in the past year.