As a consultant who works with Japanese companies and having lived in Japan for several years, I am familiar with the challenges that women face in the Japanese business world. In the past and still to too large a degree today, Japanese women are not given the opportunity to reach their full potential in a Japanese company.
This is, of course, changing, and there are successful Japanese women in high-level positions who deserve to be spotlighted and recognized as trailblazers in business, in a society that doesn't traditionally support or encourage working women to climb to the highest management levels.
In 2010, I wrote a series of blog posts that addressed this issue and interviewed a few Japanese women who were successful in reaching higher corporate positions or running companies.
Japan has made strides since 2010, and with the news that Japan Airlines Lines (JAL) promoted Tottori, Mitsuko as its first female President, I thought I should revisit the topic. I hope this latest milestone means 'Japan, Inc.' is ready to make greater efforts in appointing more of the numerous exceptionally qualified women they have to leadership roles and on boards of Japanese companies.
Perfect Storm of Economic Challenges
Japan is facing the serious problems of declining birthrates, an aging population, and a shortage of workers. These factors are all converging like a perfect storm of economic woe that will be catastrophic for Japan if not comprehensively addressed with multi-pronged solutions put into place. One way to address the labor shortage: Women! It has become imperative to start making use of a pool of resources that is already abundantly available in the country. They are citizens, speak the language, are trainable, and willing to contribute.
When necessary in the past, nations called on women to join the workforce and take on traditionally “male” jobs. For Japan, they are facing similar traditional (male) labor shortages, and one of the potential ways to deal with this shortage is to use the other half of their population in “nontraditional” ways. This can be in the types of jobs or the opportunities for development and advancement in the work they do. The Japanese government and corporations are putting into place a variety of plans to deal with these problems and although I do not know what those solutions are, I wanted to look at the plight of women in corporate Japan and how they can become a key component in the labor shortage solution.
The New Hammer
For years, many Japanese women who wanted to expand their horizons beyond the limits their national culture and business culture imposed left Japan’s shores to seek out ‘freedom’ in other countries (or worked in foreign companies.) By ‘freedom’ I mean pursuing opportunities without the limits of traditional Japanese (work) culture. Upon returning to Japan with international business experience that should have been a plus on their resumes, they were often underutilized due to their nontraditional experiences.
The women who remained in Japan (or in Japanese companies) and started at the bottom of the corporate ladder knew the climb would be filled with many obstacles if they wanted to rise above the traditionally regulated roles of house wife, office lady, or being stuck at the lowest management levels. They kept working to overcome and rise.
All of these women are role models whom every Japanese woman and man should value and admire.
To turn an old phrase on its head that is used to explain how Japan handles differences of any kind, “the nail that sticks out should not be hammered in; it should become the new hammer.”
A hammer that can be used to stamp out conformity, promotion based on age instead of merit, and not appreciating the intelligence, skill, and power of women more on a nationwide scale by placing them and keeping them in lesser roles than for which they qualify.
A hammer can also be used to pull out embedded nails. Use it to pull up creativity, critical thinking skills, different problem-solving styles, and individual uniqueness that can be used to the benefit of the whole company. Support others in elevating, rather than suppressing, their talents and everyone can be outstanding together.
Japan has talented women working and waiting for a chance “to show their power,” as one of the women I profiled all those years ago stated, from which to choose and develop. Harnessing the talents and power of women can help address some of the country’s increasing labor shortage challenges and inject new experiences, fresh perspectives, and a different level of diverse and innovative thinking into Japanese business culture.