A Change of Spirit

Written by Jacinta Plucinski, Be Movement issue 3 – JAPAN, published March 2014

Mitsuru Claire Chino, Executive Officer and General Manager of the Legal Division at Itochu Corporation, is the youngest and first female executive officer of a major Japanese trading company.

Nagasaki-based researcher, writer and illustrator Midori Shimotsuma gave up a stable life to dedicate herself to her passion.

Minami Tsubouchi, Chief Executive of BEYOND Tomorrow, sculpts the leaders of the future.

Yuko Isoda, Vice President of Matsushima Tourism Association and Okami (Managing Director) of Hotel Matsushima Taikanso, heads the largest hotel in Matsushima Bay, one of Japan’s top three scenic sites.

Four women, shaping their own path, share a common courage to set their expectations and make choices.

Unavailable childcare, unsuitable working hours, unequal pay and embedded societal expectations that reinforce rigid roles for women and men – to the detriment of both – are situations people in all countries face.
Yet, whilst the situation is global, the changes needed are culturally unique.

Midori Shimotsuma says, “The situation is not perfect, [but] it has changed a lot. The older generation, when they had children, they had to quit work. Even though some people suffer hardship [today], it’s changed.”

So what are the challenges today?

Upon her return to Japan from working in Europe and the Middle East, Minami Tsubouchi noticed, “There are many striking things about women working in Japan. Their self-esteem is much lower compared to men and also women outside of Japan.”

“[The current social set up] doesn’t make sense for them [women] to act independently, pursue an independent life. It doesn’t make economical sense. It doesn’t make social sense.”

What then needs to change?

For Yuko Isoda, Japanese women “… have to create themselves strong, have to have their opinions.” However she stresses, “We don’t have to deny our Japanese ways.” There is a spirit that Japanese women possess, one that is strong, beautiful, honest and kind.

A mother and career woman, Isoda says, “It is possible for Japanese women to have a successful career and happy family, if they are supported.”

Trading companies are perhaps the most conservative of companies in Japan. Since Mitsuru Claire Chino began at Itochu in 2000, she has done much to spearhead change.

“Sometimes you have to see how things are … evaluated … at the entrance level … and you have to somehow go along with that. Even if you wanted to make change, unless you get in you can’t make any change.”

Chino initiated a groundbreaking workforce diversification plan in the belief that companies can set up better systems that recognise a person’s life situation individually, regardless of gender.

For example, Itochu provides flexible hour arrangements and childcare facilities, broadening the choices for both parents and giving men the opportunity to participate in raising their family.

“It’s important for each employee to be proactive in suggesting to the company … what his or her situation is, how he or she can contribute to the company while making sure the needs at home are also met.”

If women wish to ‘climb the corporate ladder,’ Chino says, “… women need to create those ladders; customise those ladders for themselves.”

This kind of confidence requires education.

For Tsubouchi, encouraging female students to set higher expectations for themselves and develop more practical and analytical thinking is just as important as encouraging the ‘soft’ skills such as empathy and communication.

“We receive more applications [for our leadership programmes in Tohoku] from females …”, Tsubouchi says,“… but when we review application content, men have more compelling content in terms of critical thinking.”

“Female students might write things like ‘I want to contribute to Tohoku region … because we care.’ Boys might write something like ‘The financial assistance is going to this sector and I feel like more budget should be provided to here …’”

The opportunities and challenges for women are different depending on the sector. In management, especially hotel management, Isoda believes “Women have good characters, qualities” and have to systemise that advantage.

In the non-profit sector, Tsubouchi believes women are more appreciated and given more opportunities.

Shimotsuma, as a writer, hasn’t found any difficulties in being a woman. “It’s been good … because I can learn more [about] daily life through a mother’s eyes.”

What’s critical for Shimotsuma is looking at what society grooms us to believe will make us happy and society embracing the choices women make in pursuit of happiness.

“Maybe Japanese women are too wise to chase to the top like monkeys,” she laughs. Then adds contemplatively, “I think there will be [more women leaders], but not having a career [is ok too]. [Being] happy … that’s most important.”

This sentiment is echoed by Chino, Tsubouchi and Isoda.

“I really hope women can be freer …”, Chino says, “… in the sense if they choose to work they’re happy. I want us to be courageous by setting standards that are high in aspiring to be the next CEO, [but] I don’t think working in a company is the best choice for everybody. Some women are very happy managing the household. That’s an important choice as well. That’s their freedom and that should be celebrated too.”

Marriage, family, a career – any or all of the above?

“Each woman has their own way of living. One woman likes to take care of the kids. Another wants to work,” Isoda says.

Yet whichever a woman chooses, change can only occur when she has the courage to set expectations for herself, the courage to make her own choices and the courage to take responsibility for her decisions.

For Tsubouchi, “I would like my female colleagues and sisters to know that living independently is definitely fun. The first step might be frightening and … taking on new challenges might seem daunting … but it is the first step towards freedom, fun and dynamic life. Without overcoming that initial fear, you can’t reach where you want to be.”







Human Check*