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Japanese Part-Time Women Workers Have Had Enough

Miho Marui’s campaign against wage discrimination shakes up Japan’s vast part-time economy
“I guess I was just mad”
“I guess I was just mad”Photograph by Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg

Miho Marui isn’t exactly sure how she wound up standing on top of a bus on a wintry Tokyo day in 2009, staring up at the 35-story headquarters of KDDI. Yet there she was, hands trembling as she shouted at her bosses through a loudspeaker. Co-workers pressed against the windows to watch her pick a fight with Japan’s second-largest phone company over labor practices at one of its subsidiaries. “I guess I was just mad,” says Marui, a trained marine biologist and University of Tokyo graduate, who together with a friend started Japan’s first union for temporary and part-time workers. Marui has drawn unflattering attention to the treatment of the country’s mostly female temporary labor force. In April a Tokyo court recommended a settlement for a wage-discrimination lawsuit she and others filed in late 2010 against the subsidiary, KDDI Evolva.

In the U.S., the inequality debate has focused on the wealth gap between the richest 1 percent and everyone else. In Japan, the lines are drawn between those with full-time jobs and an estimated 20 million temporary workers. Full-time status in Japan (known as seishain) is something like college tenure in the West. It more or less guarantees a job for life, often with subsidized lunch at the company cafeteria and allowances for housing and commuting. The biggest benefit is legal protection backed by decades of court rulings against dismissal in the majority of cases.