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Japan’s female truckers in for the long haul

Trailer trucks are driven near the international cargo terminal to deliver containers at the port in Tokyo
Yoshikazu Tsuno | AFP | Getty Images
Trailer trucks are driven near the international cargo terminal to deliver containers at the port in Tokyo

Rumi Yoshida manoeuvres her 10-tonne lorry to a halt and leans back in her cabin after nine hours delivering food and drink around Tokyo.

"I like the freedom of this work," says Ms Yoshida, one of 180 drivers at the Shimizu Unyu trucking company. "I don't think it's unsuitable for women . . . My male colleagues don't treat me any differently."

Japan's shrinking workforce, a consequence of one of the world's most rapidly ageing populations, is helping to push a cultural shift in long male-dominated industries such as haulage and construction.

"There were always female applicants in the past but we didn't hire them," says Eiji Shimizu, chief executive of Shimizu Unyu. "There were many applications for our jobs so we had no difficulty hiring staff, and we were afraid that women wouldn't be able to work for long periods because of the nature of the work, which involves handling and loading packages."

But as the number of applicants for its vacancies has dwindled, Shimizu Unyu has opened its doors to women, who now account for 10 per cent of its drivers.

This reflects a national trend. Between January 2007 and October this year, Japan's working-age population declined by 7 per cent to 77.8m, according to government statistics, and job vacancies now outnumber applicants by 10 per cent.

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In the increasingly challenging search for labour, companies are turning in growing numbers to women: the proportion of working-age women in employment has risen to record levels, reaching 67 per cent in October.

"Employers no longer have a choice [because of] the tightening labour market," says Atsushi Seike, a labour economics professor at Keio University. "It's really good news — we have wasted a talented female workforce in the past."

The shift is particularly welcome for women wishing to enter jobs traditionally considered unsuitable for females, such as 25-year-old building site supervisor Michiko Iwaza.

Ms Iwaza's architecture professors at the elite University of Tokyo tried to discourage her from pursuing her chosen career, warning her of the industry's reputation for the "three Ks" — a concept that translates roughly as "dirty, dangerous and difficult".

But this image is outdated, says Ms Iwaza, now employed by the leading construction group Kajima, as she gives a fast-paced tour of a major building project in the Tokyo district of Akasaka.

She casts a diminutive figure as she passes the older male labourers whom she oversees, but reports no problems in exercising her authority. "The sites are cleaner these days and not dangerous, and workers don't shout all the time like they used to," she says.

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Women are an increasingly common sight on Japanese construction sites, as building activity picks up with preparations for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic, and infrastructure spending as part of the government's fiscal stimulus efforts.

This year the government set up a team charged with doubling the number of women in the construction industry to 200,000 in the next five years.

The land ministry is offering to fund female changing and sanitary facilities on building sites, while officials are visiting schools to encourage young women to consider a career in the industry, says Yoshiko Kimura, who leads the team responsible.

"Companies cannot ignore women engineers these days," says Reiko Kuwano, head of the Society of Women Civil Engineers. "The trend is changing quite fast, probably because the shortage of engineers is now quite serious."

But while "old-fashioned" attitudes towards women have largely vanished from the industry, Ms Kuwano warns that excessive working hours continue to deter many women from pursuing their careers after having children.

The Japanese Trade Union Confederation is calling for a cultural shift aimed at increasing female workforce participation, with companies offering more flexible working hours and men playing a greater role in child rearing.

"Years ago Japanese women fought for equal rights, and I think they have achieved that in many companies," says Jun Saito, senior research fellow at the Japan Center for Economic Research.

"But now they have to work like men — work until late at night, and be sent off to other cities or overseas, which is not so attractive to many women. The real problem is the Japanese style of working."