STANDING OUT IN JAPAN : Women have begun to crack the traditional male-dominated corporate culture but the going can be tough.

<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

When Mie Teno was hired to help a major Japanese company establish a U.S. plant, she went about the project just as any Japanese man would. She quietly cultivated allies at all levels of the corporate bureaucracy, beginning with the section chiefs and working her way to the vice presidents. Finally, with the consensus of all of them, her recommendations went to the top.

Teno worried that her effectiveness might be diminished because she happened to be a woman. But she soon knew that the president was sold on the U.S. plant: He entertained her at a posh restaurant in Tokyo.

Instances of businessmen entertaining Japanese female executives are virtually unheard of in this country, where women are typically relegated to the role of “office ladies” who serve tea to their male bosses and colleagues in addition to their clerical duties.

Teno is one of the few Japanese executive women making it in male-dominated corporate Japan. “Japanese top management is very reluctant to take women within their companies, but they are willing to work with women,” explained the 45-year-old consultant who heads her own firm, Deltapoint International Ltd., a joint venture with a Bellevue, Wash., company.


A handful of women executives like Teno are slowly making their way in the corporate world. Most head their own businesses. Many prefer working for foreign firms because they offer better opportunities. Japanese companies only recently lifted discriminatory hiring practices against women and now allow them to take management-track jobs, once reserved exclusively for men.

New Assertiveness

The idea of high-ranking women in business is at odds with the traditional image of Japanese women as supportive homebodies whose primary concern is the care of their husbands and children. But this self-sacrificing image is unraveling among modern Japanese women such as Socialist Party Chairwoman Takako Doi, the first woman in Japanese history to head a major political party.

She effectively rallied women, who showed a new assertiveness in recent elections. Women exhibited stunning political clout last Sunday in helping to defeat candidates of the Liberal Democratic Party, which has been embroiled in political scandals and also initiated an unpopular 3% consumption tax.


The defeat caused Prime Minister Sosuke Uno to resign. Earlier this month, Japan’s Agriculture Secretary Hisao Horinouchi had to make a public apology for saying a women’s place is in the home.

In short, Japan is offering new alternatives to women. “My thinking is quite different than the Japanese thinking,” said Mieko Hirabayashi, director of Spazio Design Associates, a Tokyo design and business consulting company. “I never say marriage and making a family is that important. It is part of my life, but not my whole life.”

Today, women account for 39.9% of Japan’s work force, but a third of those female workers are part-time or contract workers. Women hold very few corporate positions, according to a survey by Tokyo Shogo Research Ltd. They headed only 3.7% of the 376,800 small companies surveyed. Of the top 100 companies (by sales) headed by women, 73 succeeded their fathers or husbands because of death or illness, and 19 were founded by women.

Still, bucking the deeply ingrained traditional roles of women is not easy. Japanese companies may have earned international kudos for their quality and productivity, but women have long been nudged out of their jobs after they marry and have children. Equality in the workplace did not become legally mandated in Japan until 1986.


Projected Labor Shortage

Ten years ago, when Chizuko Nara went on her first interviews with Japanese companies, “They would ask me ‘would you be all right if you had to stay late to work with other men? Could you find your way home all right?’ Maybe it had to do with my being so young.”

Nara, now 33, went to the United States instead, where she earned an MBA at the Leonard N. Stern School of Business at New York University. She worked for Nomura Securities in New York before moving to Tokyo to become a vice president in Japanese Equity Research at Salomon Bros. Asia Ltd.

Working to the advantage of women, who account for more than one-third of Japan’s college graduates, is demographics. “Women will play a greater role because of a projected labor shortage,” said Charlotte A. Kennedy-Takahashi, president of Oak Associates, a Tokyo-based human resources company. “There are already two jobs for every college graduate. By 1991, there will be five jobs for every college graduate.”


For now, Japanese women seeking managerial or executive positions find employment at foreign firms more attractive. IBM Japan, for example, has been the No. 1 choice for the past five years among female graduates seeking employment, according to an annual employment survey by Recruit Co.

“I think the foreign firms have given more opportunity to women, partly because there has been a shortage of men,” explained Kennedy-Takahashi, an American who has lived in Japan for nearly two decades.

Bilingual and Bicultural

The Japanese government and companies typically snap up the top male graduates from the country’s prestigious universities and colleges. Until recently, a stigma attached to job hopping and nonconformity forced men to seek lifetime employment at Japanese firms.


“If one had gone to work for an international company, it was seen as outside of the Establishment,” explained Nara at Salomon Bros. “It is still very difficult to get Japanese men who are very experienced, in their 30s or 40s or 50s, to work at American companies or any foreign firm,” she added.

The opening of Japan’s financial markets to foreign companies in 1985 “opened a big, big road” for women, according to Nara. Many of the women who went to work for U.S. banks and financial companies were bilingual and bicultural, having been educated abroad while their brothers were forced to stay in Japan to get the domestic education that Japanese firms traditionally prefer.

Hirabayashi at Spazio, for example, lived in Flushing, N.Y., for five years and returned to Japan at age 18 when her father was transferred back home. Nara, who spent many years abroad because her father was in the Japanese diplomatic corps, earned an undergraduate degree in international relations and business and economics at Pomona College.

“With women, foreign banks have found that they have tapped a rich vein that has been overlooked in Japan,” said Robert L. Sharp, vice president of Asian corporate banking at Manufacturers Hanover’s office in Los Angeles. “We get an awful lot of ladies who are well educated, bright and do great work. About two-thirds of our staff are female. That has been very good for us,” said Sharp, who worked at the bank’s Tokyo office for 12 years.


Other women have created their own niches in the business world. When Teno returned to Japan after working for three years at the United Nations in New York, she did not fit into any employment category at a Japanese firm. One major Japanese company, however, referred her to the Tokyo office of A. T. Kearney International, a U.S. consulting company, where she worked for 14 years, working her way up to become a vice president. She left to form Deltapoint International.

Background Hinders

Mariko Fujiwara, who lived in the United States for 12 years and earned a degree in anthropology from Stanford, returned to Japan in 1981 with an academic background that made her hard to place in corporate Japan. She began work with the Hakuhodo Institute of Life & Living, a research arm of the Hakuhodo advertising agency, where she now oversees projects on a contract basis. “With someone with my background, it is not possible to work full time, male or female, it wouldn’t matter.”

Women have a long--and hard--way to go. Japanese women, like foreigners, face some formidable challenges in working in Japan’s closed and clubby business circles where much business is generated by personal relationships and transacted after-hours over drinks.


When Hirabayashi worked as an account executive for McCann Erickson-Hakuhodo, the advertising agency, she was one of many assigned to the Asahi beer account. She dutifully visited the client every day, had meetings in the evenings at least twice a week, chatted and drank beer.

However, she soon realized that some business relationships were beyond her control. “My boss’ niece was sent to marry the Asahi’s boss’ son.” She switched to a firm that is partly owned by an Italian company.

Another woman left a Japanese firm to join Citicorp a year ago. At the Japanese company she had been one of the few women hired in sogo shoku, the predominantly male employment category that is the track to management. Although the Japanese company had told her that she was of equal status with her male counterparts, she received secondary assignments in support roles to the men.

Working among Japanese men also means matching their long hours, and many women headed up the corporate ladder have and continue to make personal trade-offs.


Many Sacrifices

“Working in Japan as an executive, male or female, you have to make quite a bit of sacrifices,” said Yoko Ishida, 37, a vice president at Citicorp Japan’s investment banking division in Tokyo. “If you want to compete, you have to work late. . . . It is difficult for women, especially if they are married. Fortunately, my husband is sort of used to it.” Ishida, who has no children, began her career in the clerical staff, or ippan shoku as it is known in Japanese, at Bank of America’s Tokyo office 15 years ago.

“An executive woman must be someone who has the ability to be dedicated to the company,” observed Hirabayashi, 34, who is single. “Even now I hire someone to clean once a week. I can’t take care of myself. How can I take care of a husband or baby?”

Meanwhile, these few executive women are developing a certain business style that may be unique in its indirectness and perceived as unassertive from a Western perspective. Few will directly confront or take issue with their Japanese colleagues; it’s not the Japanese way, they say. “The American image of aggressive is forward, mannish,” explained Nara at Salomon Bros.


Part of this indirectness stems from the Japanese business culture in general. Decisions are made by consensus and a substantial amount of information gathering is done on an informal basis. “To a large extent professional women in Japan are still proving themselves,” explained Shirley Lichti, program manager of international marketing at IBM Asia/Pacific Group and president of a Tokyo group called Foreign Executive Women. “To take a Western approach would be career suicide.”

Hirabayashi’s consulting work demonstrates some of this indirectness. “If I have a meeting, my client wants to do something and I feel what he is saying is not correct, I would not say it straight out. I would try to understand why he came to that conclusion, is it the character of the company? If I feel it is possible to change the situation, I will try. After the meeting, I’ll have dinner or a drink to find out what he is thinking. Those indirect things are the basic ways of how to do business. I always remind myself not to be too aggressive or too direct. It is part of the culture.”

Difficult Task

Skirting two cultures is a daily task for Ishida, who uses a different style when dealing with American business associates than she does with Japanese businessmen. “I think and act like an American when I’m with American colleagues. I switch to the Japanese mode when I’m with Japanese companies. You have to do that to gain credibility. In Japan, we’re more subtle in expressing our ideas. If I become too direct, I could be offending that person. . . . It is very different.”


Even when it comes to serving tea, Japanese women on the managerial track might do it. “Serving tea doesn’t mean so much to me,” explained Hirabayashi. “It’s a question of hierarchy, not gender.”

Kennedy-Takahashi describes the style of Japanese female executives as “quiet modesty. If they have been successful, they do not act aggressively. It’s a quiet managing. . . . A lot of Japanese women did it by being soft--by being softly aggressive--that means they were thinking ahead, being there at the right moment with the information at the right time . . . maneuvering. The American concept is to get in there and push your name. Successful Japanese women scare me. I get a feeling of the incredible ability to manipulate. A woman who harnesses that is deadly.”

Teno exudes this quiet confidence. Her busy schedule has her out to business dinners or lunches two or three times a week. “My policy is that I don’t eat alone,” she explained in her Tokyo office decorated with expensive cut class and crystal.

“Doing business in Japan, you have to be in a responsible position. You have to be high-ranking and confident, " she explained.


Yet for all their achievements, which are considerable in slow-changing Japan, the new generation of executive women does not like the phrase “executive women” because it attracts too much attention.

Nara at Salomon Bros. explained: “I don’t like the term executive women. I feel it is unnecessary. It places emphasis on what I’ve done because I’m a woman. I don’t think that is necessary. It draws extra attention. It increases the difference that is already there.”

Hirabayashi summarized her feelings: “Executive woman sounds like a woman who has given up a lot of things to have a career.”