- The Washington Times - Friday, July 26, 2002

TOKYO While many Japanese are casting nervous looks over bad news in the U.S. economy, fearful that it could prolong Japan's economic stagnation, this country's newest emerging group women in business met Sunday in a major hotel here to exert more influence.

Their growing presence could help reinvigorate Japan's economy, some analysts say.

More than 730 participants mostly women from across Japan, plus some from overseas attended the seventh International Conference for Women in Businesses. Many speak more than two languages, and some in managerial positions with large U.S. corporations have a good command of English. Unicul International Inc., the company that publicized the event, said the $120 admission tickets were snapped up in a couple of weeks, though more than 70 percent of the participants paid for their own.

The dynamo energizing this annual event is Kaori Sasaki, one of Japan's most visible female entrepreneurs. She runs Unicul International, a communication consulting company, and EWoman Co., another consulting firm operating a Web site for working women.

The conference appears to reflect the rising influence of working women in Japan. While the ailing economy is a psychological blow to many Japanese men who are loyal to their companies, an increasing number of women have been motivated to climb corporate ladders or start their own enterprises.

In a country where militant women's movements are nonexistent, Japanese women still have to struggle for promotion or sometimes just survival. The protracted economic downturn has cost more women their full-time jobs and made them seek part-time or temporary employment.

Japanese companies in general are infamous for treating women as an underclass of workers, and the glass ceiling to top positions is too thick to be cracked, particularly in the top tier of Japan Inc.

"Given the fact that women constitute less than 1 percent of board members of Japanese companies listed on the Tokyo Stock Exchange, I think it's fair to say that Japanese women are still underrepresented in the business world," said Sakie T. Fukushima, a representative director and Japan's regional managing director of California-based Korn/Ferry International, the world's largest recruitment company.

"I understand that this [less than 1 percent figure] includes women who assumed board status as a result of succeeding [to high status in] their husbands' or fathers' companies. So this figure includes those who were not hired from outside the company or promoted from within based on merit," she said.

Even though U.S. companies still have few female chief executives, many qualified women are taking managerial positions, said Takanori Mizuno, an independent economist who worked for Fuji Bank in New York. But "Japanese companies don't take a serious view of female talent as much as U.S. counterparts [do]."

In Japan, women hold 7.8 percent of managerial positions, according to a recent survey by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry.

Japan's equal employment opportunity law was amended in 1999 to mandate penalties for discriminating against women in the workplace. In fact, analysts say, the government's long-awaited action is the result of Japan's shrinking work force that will have to attract more women.

Still, analysts say sex equality at work is all talk and no action. Women aren't awarded promotions according to ability or performance, they say, and usually are assigned trivial jobs, such as clerical work and serving tea.

Women's roles as workers in Japan are seen as "supportive," said Keiko Tani of Tokyo Women's Union, a labor group. Many foreign companies operating in Japan, including American firms, relegate women to the second tier, she added.

However, Mr. Mizuno, the economist who worked in New York, attributes inequality in the workplace to women's passivity and attitudes remaining from Japan's feudal system.

The reason does not appear to be a lack of talent. Participants at this week's conference said it is no secret that most of the top graduates of leading Japanese universities over the past several years have been women.

"They are very bright, capable people. Still, once they enter a typical Japanese company, their talent is not well utilized," said Mrs. Fukushima. "So some of them go instead to work at foreign-affiliated companies."

Would women have been able to prevent or moderate Japan's protracted economic troubles if companies had put more qualified women in managerial positions?

"Had they utilized these capable women professionals 10 or 15 years ago and developed them to be general managers heading business units, some Japanese companies might have had the flexibility and resilience needed to respond more effectively to changing economic conditions, and thereby helped the economy revive more quickly," said Mrs. Fukushima.

As of the end of June, 65,915 company presidents in Japan were women, representing 5.57 percent of the heads of 1.2 million corporations studied by Teikoku Databank Ltd. The total was up 2.9 percent from 2001. Actual totals probably are higher because the studies do not include the increasing number of small companies, analysts say.

Some observers say this crop of emerging women entrepreneurs, many of whom have left companies because of sex inequality, may help revive Japan's economy.

Many women wonder why "although it's obvious that we are more talented, our salaries are lower than some male counterparts." said Kyoko Okutani of Women's World Banking Japan. "Or, why are we treated only as part-time workers although we put more effort in our career than young men?"

Those with positive thinking, Miss Okutani said, push themselves harder. "I would say their energy from outrage helps trigger their launch," she added.

Women's World Banking says about 6,000 Japanese women ages 18 to 83 have attended its business school in the past 12 years. Of these, nearly 1,200 have established their own companies.

Mr. Mizuno said he was impressed with the women entrepreneurs he met while lecturing throughout the country. "They are very energetic and vigorous, compared with men," the economist said.

In ancient Kyoto, Yumiko Tange, one of this new breed of women entrepreneurs, runs Awake, a company that operates a computer school, develops software and builds networks.

As a housewife for five years, she had a sense of boredom and alienation from society, but found it was not easy for married women like her to re-enter Japan's rigid work force. So she took a part-time job in a computer lab at her alma mater.

After learning that other housewives had difficulty going back to work, despite their good education and intentions, she came up with the idea of establishing a company and creating jobs for other women.

Mrs. Tange now employs a cadre of housewives while imparting computer skills to other women who want to find work.

"I now have a sense of fulfillment since I'm doing what I want to do," she said in her simple office. "And also I'm so satisfied because I have come to know a variety of people through my business."

Some local governments have begun nurturing future female entrepreneurs, who, unlike their male counterparts, tend to be more interested in seeking fulfillment in life rather than expanding their business and their profits, analysts say.

Kyoko Tsujisaka, president of Software Technical Support, an Osaka-based company providing data-processing services, has seen people's values change since Japan's economic bubble burst in the early 1990s.

When the Japanese economy was booming, "those in business wanted to make as much profit as possible but now they say they want to contribute to society," said Miss Tsujisaka, a leader of female entrepreneurs in Osaka who started her company 18 years ago with 350,000 yen of capital and now has annual turnover of 200 million yen ($1.7 million).

"In prosperous times, large corporations used to draw much attention," she said. "At a time of economic slump like this, however, small- to medium-size enterprises have a very good chance."

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