Tomoko Yoshino
Tomoko Yoshino: ‘They said it was too difficult for a woman to handle the job in such a difficult time’ © Akio Kon/Bloomberg

Male colleagues of the first woman to head Japan’s largest trade union association begged her to turn the job down because they believed her gender made her incapable of fighting corporate Japan for higher wages.

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

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

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

But opposition to her appointment, she said, had been offset by the huge support of Rengo’s female membership, 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 been transformed into expectation,” she said.

Yoshino, who assumed the top role in October, made the comments as Rengo prepares for the annual “shunto” negotiations between labour and management across Japanese industry.

The process, which begins in January, has for many years delivered relative disappointment to workers and to government administrations that had hoped that larger wage increases would induce a broader economic recovery.

Last week, Rengo adopted a plan to demand a total increase of 4 per cent in the negotiations, combining a pay scale and a regular pay increase, the same target for the seventh consecutive year.

The government is supporting the trend of wage increases and is poised to raise the threat of blocking investment tax credits for large companies that fail to raise workers’ pay. Big companies usually respond around March.

Alongside these negotiations, Yoshino will probably use her position to raise pressure on the many Japanese companies that continue to drag their feet on a range of gender equality and “womenomics” policies introduced during the past decade.

The cabinet office said last month that 33.4 per cent of the 2,189 big companies listed on the first section of the Tokyo Stock Exchange did not have any female executives as of July. Such companies included Canon and chemical manufacturer Toray Industries, which have both produced chairmen of Keidanren, Japan’s largest business federation.

Japan ranks 120th among 156 countries in the gender gap rankings in 2021, the worst among big advanced economies, according to the World Economic Forum.

Although there had been discussions to create an environment where women could continue working without obstruction when they were married, pregnant, had had children or taking care of their family, Yoshino said she had seen many female leaders being passed over for the highest positions within the trade union association.

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

Despite anxiety at the time of her appointment, “I thought that I had to pass on the thoughts of the women here, and I made up my mind that I should never miss a chance to break the glass ceiling by myself”.

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