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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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Women Get Down to Business

Jul. 13, 2015

Efforts are underway to foster female enterprise in Japan. Women have been called the untapped resource that can fire up Japan’s economic revitalization. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the International Monetary Fund both say the country needs to bring more women into the workforce.

NHK senior commentator Aiko Doden joins Aki Shibuya and Sho Beppu in the studio to discuss efforts to close the gender gap.

Shibuya: There is an awareness that there should be more women in the workforce, but the situation in Japan doesn’t look very promising.

Doden: You’re right. The World Economic Forum issues an annual Gender Gap Report and last year, it had Japan ranked 104th. The country does well in terms of women’s literacy and longevity, but the low ratio of women in the workforce has pushed Japan down the list. In another statistic, Japan ranks just 44th of 77 countries in the Female Entrepreneurship Index, a measure of how easy it is for women to start businesses. That’s one of the lowest among all advanced economies, so we have a long way to go.

Beppu: What kind of things are taking place to try to change the situation?

Doden: It’s not very easy, but the Development Bank of Japan (DBJ) is one organization that’s trying. They’ve been handing out awards for the best and brightest business ideas from women since 2011. They recently picked their latest prospects, handing them sizeable grants as well as invaluable mentoring support.

Awarding Excellence

Women from across Japan gathered in Tokyo to pitch business plans. They competed for an $80,000 grant, plus a year of mentoring in marketing, branding and other areas that will take them on a path to success. About 1,500 budding entrepreneurs applied this year.

The grand prize was awarded to Rika Yajima, whose winning enterprise involves Japanese handicrafts. She is passionate about passing on traditions to the next generation and uses artisans from across Japan to create unique pieces, including tableware, for children.

Her products can be expensive because of the skills required and materials used.

They include lacquerware from northern Japan that features elegant textures and patterns that take months to create. A single cup can cost around $100. She also sells ceramic bowls from Tokushima Prefecture have a rough texture that makes them easy to hold. On the bowls’ inside is a ridge designed to help children scoop up food neatly.

The competition judges praised Yajima’s business plan for opening up a new market, and breathing new life into Japan’s craft industry. They said it will help artisans train successors and create new jobs.

Bank officials say female entrepreneurs have the power to boost Japan’s growth and enhance its social structure. “Usually male entrepreneurs try to do something very relevant from their previous work experience, while female entrepreneurs sometimes start completely different things, or start from scratch. They are all more connected to their own communities or societies so they can come up with ideas that are down to earth but at the same time very innovative,” says Fumiyo Harada, the general manager of the DBJ Women Entrepreneurs Center.

A previous winner, Keiko Yoshimoto, recently showcased her latest product in Kyoto. She has created a strong brand since she won in 2013, selling premium Japanese green tea that is brewed in cool water with hand-picked, high quality leaves. Her tea is sold in wine bottles.

Yoshimoto has had to work hard to convince suppliers that she is on to a good thing. "We’re used to selling tea leaves that people brew in pots,” says tea farmer Riichi Yoshida. “I was a bit hesitant at first to go along with her idea. I just thought people might be attracted to the gimmick, but it turned out that the tea is more delicious than I’d imagined. I’m sure it will appeal to consumers.”

Yoshimoto’s products also carry hefty price tags, ranging from $24 up to $2,400. She battled at first to make her idea take off: "Some people in the industry wondered how I would be able to build a viable business with these bottles. They doubted I was serious about selling such expensive products in a sluggish market,” she says.

The business, Royal Blue Tea, has quadrupled over the last five years as she followed advice from her mentor about market branding and changed the labels on her bottles. She also knocked on the doors of upscale restaurants and held tea parties in Japan and abroad.

Her tea has graced tables at major events, including an APEC summit and state dinners. Now she’s working to build a presence in the Middle East to tap into its established tea culture.

Yoshimoto’s reliance on finest-quality tea leaves is giving hope to high-end producers. They’re looking to her to revive interest in the top end of the market, and help them survive as rivals churn out cheaper alternatives. "I think Japan’s economy needs businesses that cater to people looking for high-end products and top brands,” she notes.

Doden: This may look like just another business but I think it has that “game changer” element. It could change the concept of tea itself, by challenging conventions and customs. First, no one ever thought of enjoying green tea in a wine glass. Tea had always been a beverage poured from pot to cup. Yoshimoto has changed that, and created a brand new market. And with the creation of this new market, she has the potential to revive quality tea farming.

Shibuya: I’m sure there are obstacles in starting a business in any country. But is there anything specific about starting a business here in Japan?

Doden: Budding women female entrepreneurs say they feel disadvantaged in 3 areas: lack of capital, lack of a business network, and lack of role models from whom they can learn. And a woman can be at a bigger disadvantage once she puts her career on pause to start a family in Japan. That’s why the Development Bank of Japan is helping women entrepreneurs in these three areas, as well as providing seed money.

Beppu: On a national level, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe says we need more women to boost the economy. Some even use the word “Womenomics”. But will this really change everything?

Doden: I think it’s not a matter of choice anymore. A Goldman Sachs report says if women played a larger role in the workforce, it could boost Japan’s economy by 5%. But for that to happen, beyond having the right policies and regulations in place, there are two issues to address. One is to get rid of the traditional gender stereotype that women are the homemakers and men are the breadwinners. Second, we have to change the work-life balance in this society, and understand that what matters is not overtime hours but productivity. Otherwise women won’t want to return to work once they start a family. Entrepreneurs, whether they be men or women, can often overcome these challenges by becoming their own boss, and be successful if they have the right idea and the right support. And that is why some people think entrepreneurs can be part of the solution, by transforming the way we work and the way we live. I think it’s about time that we seize that moment.