Japan’s Saitama prefecture to stop hiring female ‘tea squad’


Members of the Saitama prefectural assembly near Tokyo is attempting to shake up Japan’s conservative workplace culture by ending the custom of employing women to serve tea at meetings.

Official gatherings in Japan does not normally start until female employees – known collectively as the ochakumi (“tea squad”) – have placed cups of green tea in front of their invariably male senior colleagues.

But the Saitama assembly have decided that it will no longer employ seven temporary staff whose job was to serve tea at committee meetings attended by the assembly’s 93 members – just 14 of whom are women – and other senior officials.

The move was not entirely motivated by a desire to challenge traditional gender roles, having been made at a meeting last month to discuss ways to cut costs, according to the daily newspaper the Asahi Shimbun.

But Nobuaki Kojima, who heads the conservative Liberal Democratic party group in the assembly, said the change was also a recognition of changing attitudes towards women in the workplace.

“In line with the trend of the times, we have been discussing whether it’s appropriate to employ women who simply wait around to offer tea,” Kojima told the Asahi, adding that from now on, thirsty assembly members would have to provide their own refreshments.

But the assembly’s example is unlikely to mark the beginning of the end of the ochakumi, many of whom are regularly employed “office ladies” with duties other than keeping their colleagues’ cups topped up with tea.

The idea that women should operate quietly in the background while men dominate the boardroom – or legislative chamber – is deeply entrenched in Japanese society, according to the country’s highest-ranking UN official, Izumi Nakamitsu.

“On Japanese TV debate programmes, men discuss difficult subjects while female announcers are on the set like ornaments,” Nakamitsu, the undersecretary general and high representative for disarmament affairs, said in an interview with Kyodo news published this week.

“On TV dramas, too, you might see men holding a business meeting and women serving them tea.”

Japanese children are conditioned from an early age to accept traditional gender roles, Nakamitsu said, but added: “There is nothing you can’t do because you’re a woman. It’s important to make an effort, believing you can do anything.”

The Prime Minister, Shinzō Abe, vowed several years ago to create “a society in which women can shine”, but by this year, Japan was a long way short of achieving his target of women holding 30% of leadership positions in business, government and politics.

A record 237 women won seats in 41 prefectural assemblies in local elections in Japan last April – an increase from 207 four years earlier – but female representation in politics is still low at the local and national level.

Japan regularly performs poorly in global comparisons, coming 121st out of 153 countries in the World Economic Forum’s global gender equality rankings last year – a record low and the worst among the G7 nations. Only about 10% of MPs in Japan’s 465-seat lower house are women, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union.

Nakamitsu warned that failure to challenge gender roles could encourage Japanese women to seek opportunities elsewhere.

“If you don’t like the situation (in Japan), you can go out into the bigger world outside,” she said. “Ultimately, it’s Japan’s loss.” (Source: The Guardian)