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Shaking up Japanese Business

Keiko Yamamoto

Haruno Yoshida is a business leader and a mother. She is also the first female executive to be appointed within 70-year-old Keidanren, the Japan Business Federation.

The government expects her appointment to boost its program, called "Womenomics", to promote the advancement of working women.

Yoshida is the president of BT Japan Corporation, a subsidiary of major communications firm BT. She is responsible for strategy and business operations and keeps in close touch with the company's other international branches.

She found herself in the spotlight this year when the chairman of Keidanren, Japan's largest business lobby, appointed her as the organization's first female executive.

The only woman among 36 members, she believes Japanese companies could often use a women's viewpoint, although this has not been the norm up until now.

Yoshida says she wants to help change the situation for women in Japan. She has a unique way of looking at her appointment. "I call it the 'basil effect,' she says. "It's as if, here is a wonderful Japanese dish. As a final touch, the employer added not ginger, but basil. That happened to be me."

Women occupy 44 percent of the management positions in the US; 34 percent in Britain. But in Japan, they occupy only 11 percent. Japan's male-centered work culture and evaluation system, which endorse long working hours, have prevented women from being promoted.

Yoshida says the issue is one of work-life balance. "The way we work right now in Japan is proximity. You commute to the office from nine am to almost nine pm, elbow-to-elbow, otherwise you are not considered to be working. But in the Western countries, as long as you deliver something you are expected to deliver, you are OK."

Yoshida moved to Canada upon getting married, but after her divorce, she scored top marks in the marketing division of a telecom firm in New York as a working single mother.

She showed us a drawing her daughter made when she was five. It shows Yoshida as an angel on a globe. In those days, she was so busy with work and business trips that she barely had any time to be with her daughter. On the back of the drawing, her daughter has written: "You will always be here in my heart, Mommy".

"I burst into tears when I saw that," says Yoshida. "My pure wish is for my daughter to have as many options as possible -- as she likes. Work or life, she can be a happy career person, and have a happy family.

Yoshida puts much of her energy into encouraging the member companies of Keidanren to appoint more women to management positions. To provide role models, she invites female executives from overseas to address a committee that she heads.

She recently invited Inga Beale, the CEO of Lloyd's bank. "The real benefit is when a business starts treating those women as equals," said Beale in a speech. "When you have a truly inclusive workplace, not just a diverse workplace."

Toward the end of the talk, Yoshida declared "Boys be ambitious, Girls be bold and demanding!"

Yoshida says now is the time to boost the role of women and change Japanese society -- in which gender has been a dominant factor for too long.

"This is more or less, a cultural revolution -- we've never tried to change for centuries," she says. "I think regarding diversity and inclusion -- if we really want to make it happen, we must have a society where various options are available for everybody."

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