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Sunday, July 13, 2003

OUT OF THE SHADOWS

Opportunity knocks for women in Japan's climate of change


Staff writer

With the days of the Asian Tigers long gone, and Japan Inc. now more of a pussy cat gone belly up, the talk is no longer about the world's second-biggest economy taking over the world, but about the profound structural changes that will be necessary just to keep it afloat.

News photo
Yuri Konno (Yoshiaki Miura Photo)

But every cloud proverbially has a silver lining. Some changes that are already happening -- such as the expansion of the small business and self-employed sectors -- have greatly improved prospects for women wanting to start their own companies. These, in turn, will become one of the driving forces of a revitalized economy, says Yuri Konno, president and CEO of Dial Service Co.

"About 35 years ago, the business world in Japan was a male-dominated society, and women were not considered human resources," says Konno, a female entrepreneur who started an advice hotline service in 1969. "Back then, there were just no positions for a career-oriented woman."

However, Konno believes that when the bubble economy collapsed in the early 1990s, it took many of the country's conventional values with it. "The protracted economic slump and the decline of lifetime employment have forced us Japanese to reconsider our traditional working habits and styles," she says.

Konno clearly speaks from experience. When she herself tired of being an unvalued human resource and decided to set up her own company, she ran into a barrage of obstacles. She was regarded as too young, lacking assets or guarantees, and devoid of experience. Oh, and there was also the "problem" of her being a woman.

"In those days, a firm with a female president was not taken seriously, and major banks wouldn't even look at my business plan," she recalls.

However, she says the structural shift from a society dominated by large, profit-maximizing corporations to one more attuned to day-to-day life has allowed women to become more active in an increasing number of areas. This, in turn, is fostering increasing social acceptance of working women in Japan, she believes.

"These days, large, male-dominated corporations are no longer perceived as being safe and reliable," she says. "So with the breakdown of that stereotype, Japanese society is slowly and steadily beginning to accept businesswomen as valid and valued members of the workforce."

As this trend has gathered pace, more and more public and private organizations have begun supporting prospective female entrepreneurs in various ways. Some offer information pertaining to setting up a company, while others provide opportunities to network and exchange opinions with a wide range of business people. In addition, a growing number of how-to books, forums and classes are now specifically aimed at aspiring female entrepreneurs.

"Not only that," Konno adds enthusiastically, "but you can find venture capitalists who are willing to back up women with sound business ideas even in the very early stages."

Indeed, according to information gathered by Teikoku Databank Ltd., the number of companies with a female president more than doubled between 1985 and 1996, from 25,265 to 54,175, and is continuing to climb rapidly, with 65,915 logged by July 2002. Similarly, loans extended by National Life Finance Corp., a public financial body, to businesses started by women more than doubled between fiscal 1999 and fiscal 2001, from 7.5 billion yen to 15.5 billion yen.

"Whereas the road ahead of female entrepreneurs once looked like an animal track," Konno observes, "it improved to a footpath between rice paddies. And finally, a highway is being constructed."

Nonetheless, in order to make that "highway" both wider and more secure, Konno says female entrepreneurs still have to fight against the kind of discrimination and prejudice that -- in the male-dominated past -- regarded women as weak and unreliable, and lacking the management ability to run a business.

"The most effective way to overcome such prejudice is to prove that women can soundly operate a profitable business," she says. "By accumulating many examples of successful stories of female entrepreneurs, we will be able to raise our status and so be treated equally with male company owners."

Konno, the first Japanese woman to be selected as a member of the Committee of 200, a prestigious and influential U.S.-based organization dedicated to furthering the role of female entrepreneurs on the international stage, now splits her time between her own company and various advisory and consultative positions in both the public and private sectors.

In 1998, she was also awarded a Leading Women Entrepreneurs of the World prize by the National Foundation for Women Business Owners, a nonprofit U.S.-based research, consulting and business leadership organization.

However, with the benefit of her international experience, Konno points out that the situation in Japan still lags some 20 years behind that in the United States, due largely -- she believes -- to a lack of leadership from the government here. Whereas the U.S. government has developed various support programs for businesswomen, including a legally enshrined policy of affirmative action to provide opportunities for women or minorities prone to suffering discrimination, no such initiatives even appear to be on Nagata-cho's horizon.

Equally, while U.S. society has long valued innovative business ideas and entrepreneurship, "which has made many American dreams come true," as Konno puts it, Japan has traditionally valued "hardware, such as land and buildings, and not ideas and visions." This has prevented the growth of a climate for social acceptance of venture businesses -- let alone ones with women at the helm.

To catch up with the U.S., Konno suggests the Japanese government not only provide more supportive programs, but also introduce tax breaks for venture companies and help reduce the burdens of child care and domestic chores for working women.

She is frustrated, though, that neither the government nor bureaucrats here appear capable of responding to the rapidly changing social and business conditions. "It is essential for them to facilitate new businesses that are emerging to fulfill a whole range of social needs," she says.

She also claims that although the government has set up numerous corporations under the auspices of ministries and agencies (often run by former bureaucrats), this simply serves to deprive private companies of work opportunities. "If the government were to entrust some of the state-contracted businesses to private firms and encourage the emergence of new businesses with growth potential, this would generate more jobs and help to rejuvenate the economy," she insists.

The upshot of all this -- past traditions and present ineptitudes -- is that in Japan only 5.57 percent of companies are headed by women, compared with more than 40 percent in the United States. And although Konno would like to see a two-digit figure by 2010, 30 percent by 2015 and 50 percent by 2020, she regrets "this is not an optimistic target."

"Japan is changing from an economic power in the 20th century into a country seeking quality of life in the 21st century," she says, "and we can only hope that for everyone's benefit it will also become a country in which women can take initiatives in opening up a whole range of exciting new fields."



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