[O] PPAMA, Japan -- Fumiko Haneda, one of only 18 women among the 2,200 workers in Nissan Motor Co.'s sprawling automobile factory here on the southwestern outskirts of Tokyo, says she is "determined not to fall behind the men." Still, the 19-year-old assembly line worker is not sure she really wants to keep up in one respect -- working the 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. shift every other week.
Women have basically been shut out of jobs in Japan's world-beating auto factories. Companies say this is because Japanese law prohibits women from working between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m., preventing them from fitting into the typical job rotation -- a week on a day shift followed by a week on a night shift.
Now, as part of a push for equal opportunity, restrictions on late-night and overtime work for women are being lifted. But after years of complaining about their second-class status, some women now fear the price of equality will be schedules as arduous as those of Japan's notoriously overworked men.
"When you see the men after their week on the night shift, their cheeks are sunken in and they look thinner," Ms. Haneda said. "They just look dead."
The relaxation of rules on working hours is but one step in a broad, slow transition in the role of women in Japan. And as often happens when women advance in the workplace, there is a conflict between their commitment to equality and the practical impact on their health and family life, and on society.
The concerns will seem familiar to Americans, but they are amplified here. Although about half of all Japanese women are employed, making up 40 percent of the work force, they have traditionally been restricted to rather menial jobs, often part-time, and have been expected to quit when they marry or become pregnant. Wives care for the family, while husbands work until midnight and sometimes transfer to distant cities without their families.
But that traditional model has gradually been breaking down. The lifting of restrictions on women's working hours, which was approved by Parliament in June and will take effect in two years, could open more opportunities for women, not only in factories but in some white-collar jobs, where working until midnight is often required.
"As long as women have the courage and the energy, they can advance," said Yoshie Ota, director general of the women's bureau at the Ministry of Labor.
But critics, among them many women's advocates, say the new law will result only in new types of exploitation, allowing auto makers and other companies to replace full-time male employees with part-time women workers, who will receive lower wages and benefits and no lifetime employment.
Others say it will be difficult for women to spend more time on the job unless men spend more time on household chores.
"It is impossible to work at the same level as men who have a dish of rice waiting when they come home late," said Tomoko Kawasaki, 33, who works for the Japanese branch of an American bank. "They have wives doing everything for them."
A report by the prime minister's office notes that Japanese men spend less than half an hour a day on child-rearing and household chores, even when their wives work. While Japanese women account for only 35 percent of paid working hours, the report said, they shoulder more than half of the total work of society when unpaid housework is included.
There is also concern that longer working hours might further discourage women from having children. Already, mostly because of economic prosperity but also because of the difficulty women face balancing jobs and family, Japan's birthrate has fallen to what the government sees as an alarmingly low level, with an average woman expected to have fewer than 1.5 babies in her lifetime.
In response, laws were enacted a few years ago to give women a year's maternity leave and to allow women with young children to leave work up to two hours early each day.
Still, some women find working long hours to be a reasonable compromise.
Yasuko Matsuura, 49, a divorced mother of two high school age students, drives a taxi from 8 a.m. until 2 a.m. or even 5 a.m. the next day. (Women taxi drivers were exempted from the prohibition on late-night work in 1985, and since then the number of women drivers has more than tripled. But they still constitute just 2 percent of all drivers.)
After quitting a clerical job to care for her mother-in-law six years ago, Ms. Matsuura could not get a similar job when she tried to re-enter the work force a year ago. About the only jobs available to her, she said, were cleaning buildings or taking care of old people.
"At my age no other job would offer as much salary" as taxi driving, she said. So she has stuck with the job even though it means little time with her children and occasional problems with unruly male passengers.
Harumi Fujishima, 27, drives a truck delivering fish to Tokyo's wholesale fish market. She said an advantage of her hours -- from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. -- is that she never has to miss work when there is a problem with her 8-year-old child. Her husband, a carpenter who works days, takes care of the child at night.
The new equal employment opportunity law is intended to strengthen Japan's first such law, enacted in 1985. That law merely urged companies to "endeavor" to provide equal opportunities in hiring and promotion. And there were no penalties for violators.
"After 10 years of enforcement, we realize this law has no teeth," said Hiroko Hayashi, professor of law at Fukuoka University.
For while there has been some improvement, women still earn far less than men. Salaries for full-time women workers rose to an average of 60.2 percent of men's in 1995, up from 56.1 percent in 1985. In the United States, by contrast, the gap has been narrowing at a faster rate and women's wages are now 75 percent of men's. In Japan, even as the ranks of female managers grew slightly, women still represent less than 9 percent of all managers.
Moreover, companies got around the law by creating two types of employees -- management-track employees and general workers, who do clerical work and serve tea and have limited chance of promotion.
While the classification is not officially based on gender, virtually all general workers are women, while men dominate the management track. A few companies are also experimenting with a sort of "mommy track" -- management-track jobs that do not require transfers to other cities but also have lower salaries and promotion opportunities.
The new anti-discrimination law is stronger than the old one in that it requires companies to provide equal opportunity, not merely try to do so. It prohibits discrimination in hiring, meaning that recruitment advertising should no longer specify the gender of the person being sought. Women with grievances will find it somewhat easier to ask for mediation.
Still, the only penalty under the new law is that violators risk having their names made public. "It is improving, but it's nothing like the anti-discrimination law in the United States," said Kaori Takizawa, a Tokyo lawyer who represents women in employment lawsuits.
So women's groups, rather than applauding the new law, are focusing more on the possible harmful effects from the lifting of the ban on late-night work and the limit of 150 hours of overtime a year, with separate weekly or monthly limits as well.
To be sure, such restrictions were always something of an excuse for not employing women. In jobs for which women were considered essential, like telephone operators, flight attendants and nurses, the restrictions were lifted either in the 1985 law or at other times. The limits have also been lifted for managers, reporters and editors, and some food processing workers.
Moreover, the ban is sometimes circumvented. Kazumi Matsumoto, 27, a planner at Toyota, said she has to leave work at 10 p.m. or when she reaches her limit on overtime, but she takes her work home to finish -- without pay.
While auto factories do not generally hire women, electronics factories are full of them. At the NEC Corp.'s huge semiconductor factory in Kyushu, 1,500 of the 3,600 workers are women. The factory works on three shifts, with women eligible to work two of the shifts.
The difference is that electronics assembly is considered delicate work best performed by women, while auto assembly is considered heavy work for men.
Nissan's Oppama plant is typical of Japanese automobile factories in its low number of women employees. Honda Motor Co. has no women on its automobile assembly lines in Japan. By contrast, women make up about 20 percent of the workers at Nissan's factory in Tennessee and about 30 percent at Honda's factories in Ohio.
When the Oppama plant opened in 1961, several dozen women were hired -- but only to sew seat covers using old-fashioned sewing machines. As sewing became more automated, the job was shifted to men.
But four years ago Nissan began hiring a handful of women to work on the main assembly line. They are full-time employees, paid the same as men with similar experience, but are not assigned to certain jobs requiring heavy lifting.
Takeshi Kitajo, a personnel manager in Oppama, said women add "vitality" to the assembly line. "The workplace becomes more cheerful," he added, saying that men behave better and the factory has become cleaner.
Another reason Nissan is hiring some women is concern there will be a shortage of young men in the future. The population of young people in Japan is declining and factory jobs have become less appealing as the nation has grown affluent.
Still, even after women can work nights, Nissan is likely to go slowly in increasing their number on its assembly lines, Kitajo said.
Ms. Haneda, the assembly line worker, has no regrets about her unconventional choice. "My parents wanted me to become a regular office lady," she said, but she wanted more physical work.
Still, traditional attitudes die hard, and she has doubts whether this will be a lifetime career. A male co-worker, she said, while urging her not to quit when she found the job too rough, added in the next breath that it would be all right for her to quit if she was to marry. "I don't think I can continue to work after marriage," she said.