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The Women Behind the Shoji Screen

May 03, 2019

The traditional image of women in Japanese society is that they are very differential to men to the extent of walking behind them in olden times or sitting on the other side of the shoji screen waiting to attend to their needs if they were playing mahjong or entertaining their friends. Seldom did one ever see Japanese couples on vacation together. Japanese men prided themselves on taking their bar hostess companions away on trips rather than their wives. It should come as no surprise that birth rates declined rapidly after the baby boom following World War II. Moreover, Japan has not only an aging population but also a shrinking one.  

The author moved to Japan with one daughter and then subsequently two more daughters were born there. When the middle daughter was born, the Japanese nurse asked if there was a preference for a boy which there was not. A year later, when the next daughter was born, the same nurse just shook her head and said the daughters will take care of you when you are old. Even mature, professional Japanese women succumbed to the same stereotype of themselves.  

A recurring thought was what future the author's daughters born in Japan might have faced if their parents had been Japanese. It would have been difficult at best. However, all three daughters have excelled at their choice of professions. Oddly, the Japanese nurse practitioner would not tell the Japanese doctor of a birthing problem until he found out for himself. Interestingly, that daughter now works with strong-willed surgeons to guide them through complex robotic surgical operations. Well, the tea lady mentality of the Japanese business world is beginning to change albeit very slowly.

Only a very small fraction of female workers has been able to assume top positions in public, private and nonprofit organizations according to data from Teikoku Databank Ltd. Although the percentage of company presidents who are women is currently only 7.8%, it has grown from a level of 5.5% over twenty years ago. However, in the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Index, Japan ranked 110 out of 149 countries. Therefore, some progress has been made but there is a long way to go. The government of Prime Minister Abe has promoted gender diversity in the workforce as a national growth strategy setting a goal of women's leadership roles of 30% by 2020. It appears that some progress is being made in the traditional "male only" financial services sector.

The Nikkei Asian Review recently reported that audit firm, Ernest & Young ShinNihon, appointed its first chairwoman. Experienced in auditing companies in sectors including electrical machinery, Masami Katakura, will spearhead the digitization and globalization efforts of the firm which has offices in 42 cities outside Japan including greater Asia, Europe and the Americas. Katakura-san, age 50, has been with the firm for 20 years and has been a director since 2016. Current Chairman Koichi Tsuji, 61, will head the umbrella organization in EY Japan. Tsuji-san, keep an eye in the rearview mirror as Katakura-san is moving up. Not only is this event a rarity in Japan, the same general observation could be made in other places around the world.

An earlier pioneer in the financial services sector is Kathy Matsui. Her parents were Japanese Christians who immigrated from Japan to the U.S. in the early 1960's where she was born. She worked in her family's flower business while attending school and learning Japanese. She earned degrees from Harvard and Johns Hopkins. She then spent two years on a Rotary scholarship at the International Christian University in Tokyo to perfect her Japanese language capability. After a 25-year career in the financial services industry in Japan, she was named a Vice Chair of Goldman Sachs Japan in 2015.  

Twenty years ago, she published a paper in which she coined the term "womenomics" arguing that the increasing participation of women in the workforce was a better solution to Japan's economic stagnation than increasing immigration or the birthrate. She likened the low participation to "running a marathon with one leg." Prime Minister Abe is one of her greatest fans declaring that "Abenomics is womenomics." The IMF has warned that in the absence of structural reforms, demographic headwinds could cause Japan's real GDP to fall more than 25 percent in 40 years.

Perhaps an even more extreme example of a strong woman in the financial services industry is Murakami Aya who is the CEO of the investment fund of C&I holdings. Not only does she manage the private investment fund founded by her father, she latched on to the cause of proper corporate governance and became a very vocal corporate activist. There has been no secret in the past of lax corporate governance by Japanese including cozy relations with the Yakuza Japanese gangsters all the way to the most recent scandal of Carlos Ghosn and Nissan. Do not be misled by Aya-san's thoughtful and youthful appearance as she is a forceful advocate of her cause. Dressed in her customary black coupled with her frank and forceful speech, she could be mistaken for a ninja.

It is apparent the Japanese times are "a'changing" for the better for all concerned though the advancement of women will be critical to the continuation of a reasonably strong economy. There is a powerful economic force behind those shoji screens waiting to emerge into what was formerly a "men-only domain." Otherwise, the graying old men will no longer be able to afford their luxuries and relationships of the past which could create a massive real estate collapse in the Ginza bar neighborhood of Tokyo.

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