Career Opportunities for Women

Career Opportunities for Women

It has often been said that women are the most underutilized resource Japan has - certainly if you look at the boards of listed companies, one sees virtually no women gracing their ranks. A recent statistic quoted just 200 female board members in Japanese listed companies, versus 54,000 male directors. Indeed, women who have done well in their careers are typically seen as strange or selfish for choosing their job over a family - and so how could you trust a high-level position to someone like that?!

Some years ago, I was confessing to a friend of mine who is the female CEO of a successful translation company just how hard it was as a foreigner to build a business in Japan. The banks wouldn't help me, vendors made me sign purchase contracts that indebted my children (I'm not joking!), and large corporate customers would say to my face: "How do we know that you won't run away overseas if things go wrong?" Her response was a good lesson for me: "I know how hard it is. I've spent 25 years as a women 'shacho' just creating this small [25 person] business. You've only been here 10 years!" Then I realized that it really is a man's world in Japan, even as a foreign man.

There are of course some successful women entrepreneurs in Japan, both foreign and Japanese. Some of the more notable people I've had the pleasure to meet include Reiko Lyster of Elle International, Kumi Sato of CosmoPR, Yoshiko Shinohara of TempStaff Japan, and Merle Okawara who with JC Foods become the first non-Japanese and only the second woman entrepreneur to do an IPO in Japan. Without exception, each one of these women has an outstanding intellect, fierce tenacity, and yet an air of graciousness - helping them to not only survive but to succeed. Then if you look at the major foreign multinationals, in particular, you will find many capable top-level female executives in companies such as Korn Ferry, Microsoft, Nestle, Vodafone, and others.

The interesting thing is that most of these successful women have risen up in the marketing, human resources, fashion, and import industries, not in engineering or manufacturing. This, I believe, points to a natural direction for women trying to build a career in Japan. It seems that the male captains of industry do not feel threatened by women managing "creative" and "soft" business, whereas they might if they were building factories and designing computers. And so our female entrepreneurs have been allowed to grow. So, if you're female and foreign, think PR, communications, and human relationships as a career foundation.

Years ago I had a friend who became the first female Kacho (section manager) in a Japanese manufacturing company. She was fluently bilingual and worked like a Trojan. She was the Marketing Bucho's right-hand person and ran most of the export marketing operation. No overseas promotion was considered without her input and opinion - to the extent that she had to attend many of the overseas trade shows personally. And yet, through all the long hours and the personal risk of controlling tens of thousands of dollars of marketing funds, she found time to be human and to handle vendors like myself with a personal touch. We developed a great working relationship, and when she needed a special favor - like an ad in 3-5 days, we would always look after her.

Unfortunately, at Kacho level, she found herself frustrated by a glass ceiling and with no prospects of promotion and little time for a private life. It was a Japanese manufacturing firm after all. So after five highly productive years, she decided to return home (that's right, I forgot to tell you that she wasn't Japanese!). Not long after, the company's export sales started to fall and today the firm is an also-ran in its field. What a wasted opportunity...

Lastly, I would be remiss, if I did not mention the FEW (Foreign Executive Women) organization and their excellent Career Guide 2004. Go to to get more details. FEW is a self-help group for foreign executive women in Tokyo looking to network and improve career opportunities. I strongly recommend you attend one of their monthly meetings...

If you are considering a career in the recruiting industry, you can drop Terrie Lloyd an email for more advice at You can also see his weekly newsletter, called Terrie's Take, at