Almost a third of Japanese female employees have been sexually harassed at work, according to a government report.

More than half of those women said they had been subjected to casual comments, mostly by male colleagues, about their appearance, age and physical features.

In the most serious cases victims said they had been repeatedly asked out, pressed to have sex or been touched inappropriately.

In the first survey of its kind in Japan, the health, labour and welfare ministry said 30 percent of respondents in full-time and part-time employment reported being sexually harassed at work. Among full-time workers, the figure rose to 35 percent.

The survey of more than 9,600 women aged 25-44 who are currently working or were previously employed found that 40 percent had been touched in an unpleasant way while 17 percent had been “asked or pressed to have a sexual relationship”.

The most frequent perpetrators, in a quarter of all the cases, were the women’s bosses.

The survey also revealed a general reluctance among women to lodge official complaints about their treatment: Over half said they had suffered in silence, while about one in 10 who did complain said they had been given an unsympathetic hearing or been demoted.

Japan is struggling to raise the profile of women in the workplace, particularly in senior positions. While they are well represented in the part-time, low-paid economy, only a tiny number of executives at Japan’s 3,600 listed companies are female.

The prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has set an ambitious target to fill 30 percent of leadership positions with women by 2020 – an aim many experts believe is unattainable.

At present, women account for just eight percent of senior roles in companies employing 100 people or more, compared to a global average of 22 percent, according to the Grant Thornton International Business Report 2015.

Abe’s “womenomics” programme also calls for an increase in the size of the female workforce to encourage growth. Economists have warned that without them, the country faces economic decline as its population falls and its workforce continues to shrink.

Many working women in Japan also report being harassed when they become pregnant.

A health ministry survey last year found that almost 50 percent of women sent to corporate clients by temp agencies encountered victimisation ranging from dismissal and demotion to unfair treatment and verbal abuse.

The survey found that just over a fifth of full-time employees were also subjected to “maternity harassment”.

Japan performs poorly in international gender equality comparisons. In the World Economic Forum’s 2015 global gender gap index, it ranked 101st out of 145 countries.