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Promoting Women’s Interests in Corporate Japan

A street scene in Japan. (Samxmeg/iStockPhoto)

A street scene in Japan. (Samxmeg/iStockPhoto)

Mitsuru Claire Chino talks about promoting women’s interests in corporate Japan. She is currently General Manager in the Legal Department at Itochu Corporation, an international trading company. Claire is also a fellow of Asia Society's Asia 21 Young Leaders Initiative.

How did you first become interested in women’s issues in Japan?

I work for a large Japanese company, which has 4,000 employees in Tokyo.  However, when I attend meetings, I am usually the only woman in the meetings.  I felt very self-conscious about this, and wanted to learn why there were not more women involved in our day-to-day decision-making.

What are some of the challenges that working women face in Japan?

I think the issues that face Japanese women are essentially the same as those facing American women.  For a working woman, it is difficult to balance her career and her family.  For instance, if you have a child, you may have to cut back your working hours in order to raise your child.  The question is how the company and its other employees treat those cases.  Does the company have a good leave policy to allow mothers to raise their children?  Are the other employees receptive to these situations so that women can actually take leave?

You also have experience working as a lawyer in California. What do you think are some of the similarities and differences between what women may face in Japan and America?

As mentioned above, I don’t think that the issues facing female lawyers in the U.S. are all that different from those that Japanese working women face.  When I was a partner of a law firm in the U.S., there were only 6 or 7 female partners among approximately 100 partners.  The issues we discussed involved balancing work with family life.  In a law firm, lawyers are usually measured by the number of hours worked and billed, and this makes it difficult for someone to balance life with work and still make it to the top.

As a working woman, clearly this issue is important to you personally. But how did you convince your company in Japan that women and diversity should be a broader corporate priority?

I first turned to the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals, which specifically list gender equality as one of the goals.  I then turned to the World Economic Forum’s Gender Empowerment Index, based upon which Japan ranks very low (this year, 79th).  Japan faces a challenge as a nation, and it is the private sector that can make change at the grass roots.  I went directly to the president of the company and made these arguments.  I believe that diversity is only possible when management is committed.

You attended a women’s college in the United States. How are women’s colleges viewed in Japan, and what do you think are their advantages and disadvantages?

A women’s college in Japan is slightly different than a women’s college in the U.S.  A women’s college here is perhaps more like what a women’s college was in the U.S. in the 1950s, a place to educate young women so that they become good wives and mothers. 

Women naturally take on leadership roles at women’s colleges (such as class presidency) and I think this is an advantage.  In other words, your gender does not play a role in determining your capability. The disadvantage perhaps is that you can grow up naive and protected in a sense, not having been exposed to men’s way of thinking or working.

You’ve had a very international upbringing, an international education, and an international career. What are some things you’ve learned from an international perspective that have been valuable to you in your career?

Having grown up in many countries, I was exposed to many people with diverse views and personalities.  This environment is something that is not readily available in Japan, still a closed culture.  As a result, I learned to be open to others’ views and this helped make me a broad-minded person. 

One of the greatest assets of the U.S. is certainly its diverse human capital.  I moved to the U.S. when I was a 9th grader and was shocked at the diverse culture.  I hope students today will learn much from others with an open mind, and nourish a global vision.