Japan’s ‘Office Ladies’ Seek Revenge--in Print


They are the unheralded backbone of Japanese industry: running its offices, making its tea, pampering its bosses--and taking its abuse.

Now Japan’s ever-polite “office ladies” are exacting their revenge--in newspaper and magazine columns where they irreverently gripe about their bosses’ foul manners and expose their companies’ quirkiest secrets.

Instead of the smoothly run Japanese companies shown to the outside, the “OL” columns reveal a world run by bizarre rituals, where executives whack underlings with rulers and receptionists cover up for philandering bosses.


“The things they take for granted are really weird,” said Shigeru Suzuki, an editor for the weekly “Company Mysteries” column in the national newspaper Asahi.

One woman, for example, told Asahi--anonymously--that her colleagues were so “brainwashed” they treated a visit by the company president like the arrival of a venerated religious leader.

“Some workers even cried, they were so moved to see him,” said the OL, who quit in disgust after a year on the job. She added that workers bowed to a New Year’s video of the president sent from headquarters.

Japanese OLs are similar to administrative assistants in the West, but their responsibilities are wider, and include duties such as making tea or pouring beer at after-hour drinking sessions.

While their office management is indispensable, they are not considered part of the “club” of career workers. Sometimes they are even denied access to sensitive company documents.

But their unique role as the gatekeepers of Japan’s largest companies positions them perfectly to narrate the shenanigans going on behind the boardroom doors.


The columns often provide an irreverent window into the corporate obsession with rules, formality, hierarchy and all-encompassing loyalty to the company.

In one Asahi column, an OL said her bosses arranged a training seminar on the proper method of brewing tea, the correct way for getting on an elevator and suitable colors for painting nails (no red).

OLs were even ordered to keep diaries for six months--and then exchange them with senior colleagues.

“That training seminar was hell,” she said.

The columns also give voice to female complaints in a society that sees pleasing men as a woman’s highest calling.

“It’s like being a maid,” one woman railed. “If you hear the boss getting up from his desk, you have to run and get his coat for him.”

She also said her male colleagues suggested she sleep with customers to boost sales.

The undercurrent of discontent has been tapped by several magazines in recent years, including the weekly Shukan Bunshun, which uses surveys of OLs to chastise executives for such transgressions as standing too close to office ladies when speaking to them.


Despite all the indignation, the columns are less about women’s liberation than about making money. Single, with plenty of pocket money and still living at home, young women are a market that publications can’t afford to ignore.

The columns also rarely take the complaints seriously. The two writers who respond to the OL interviews in Asahi usually make light of the problems, while Bunshun often deals with trivial topics, such as OLs who hate their bosses’ neckties.

Miwako Hatayama, a “Company Mysteries” editor, said many OLs actually enjoy their roles and aren’t interested in moving up the career ladder. Often they get their jobs through family connections and are simply looking for a husband, she said.

“I assume these women . . . sort of expect to marry company guys when they get hired. For them it’s a status symbol, and they feel like they won the prize,” she said.

But it’s also a system that shortchanges women’s potential and fails to capitalize on their talents, said Suzuki, Hatayama’s colleague at Asahi.

“Women can do the same work as men . . . but companies don’t have a good system to utilize them in the workplace,” he said. “Those women aren’t aware of what they’re capable of.”