Final thoughts…

21 days, 25 remarkable women 🙆‍♀️

Immensely grateful to have spent the last 3 weeks in Tokyo embarking on a travel project to learn about the lives of working Japanese women, with a special focus on women entrepreneurs! 😊😊😊

The places of interest were the working spaces of women from various backgrounds. The admission tickets were the generosity and kindness of these women who welcomed a curious traveller amidst mounting emails and endless to-do lists. The top attractions were to spend an hour or two listening to these women earnestly share about their beginnings, their struggles and their aspirations. And the souvenirs were their experiences that I’ve documented which will form the material of a short story I will write and hopefully, share with you soon.

In all solo travels, moments of solitude are inevitable but I’m thankful for these pockets of time to reflect more deeply upon the nuggets of experience shared. In that process, here are three thoughts that have lingered…

1. In the city of flashing lights and pulsating crowds, it was so easy to be swept up in it and apply that same rhythm to the interviews I conducted – test the hypothesis, note the parts that don’t fit and draw a conclusion. But I soon realised that in my haste to sieve out the dominant narrative across individuals, I had overlooked the multi-stranded narratives present in each individual. Instead of going into interviews with a notebook filled with methodical questions, I had to grow accustomed to working with blank spaces. Listening to understand and not to reply. Writing to chronicle and not to justify. Getting to know these women as individuals and not through labels.

2. The perennial chicken or egg problem – which comes first: success or happiness? When asked to rank how successful they think they are at present, most women gave themselves an above-average rating. For many, their success ranking followed an upward trend over the years. However, even at their lowest point, they had already experienced the happiness of discovering what they loved and what they could devote their future to. As Narumi Onishi, woman entrepreneur, quipped, “Entreprenuership is about doing something you love and pursuits fuelled by love and happiness, have their own special way of working out.” Perhaps happiness is less of a destination and more of a starting point.

3. As one fond of sentimentality, the goodbyes were the hardest. One moment we had made ourselves vulnerable to each other and the next moment, both of us were whisked onto the bustling streets not knowing if we would ever see each other again. Physically apart, however, I feel that we are now connected by our shared dreams. In dreams begin responsibility and in shared dreams, we experience camaraderie and uplift each other to do more for our communities. I used to think that we all had to grow our own trees but as Akiko Otsuki, a fighter of women’s rights for over 50 years, illuminated, “we are all part of one tree and our duty is to extend its foliage to provide shade and protection to help others thrive”.

This travel project was sustained by the warmth and kindness of many.🙂☘️ From high school friends, colleagues, acquaintances and even names they have only heard off, these people tirelessly delved into contact books and generously shared their networks.

This trip has left me touched and transformed and I hope to pass on the universal wisdom and kindness that was generously shared with me. I guess this is why they say that the best trips, never really end.✌🏻🙂

Prof Suguira: on Maternity harassment


She worked as published for 16 years before giving it all up and turning to academia.

Research Focus: 

She feels that becoming a mother in the context of Japanese society is a highly contradictory process. this is because as one becomes a mother, she is also expected to work like a normal person which is physically quite impossible. A woman is torn between fulfilling the requirements as a mother and meeting the expectations of a good worker.

In most cases, maternity harassment means female workers facing discrimination in the workplace during the course of their pregnancy and while bringing up their children. However, her definition of maternity harassment focusses on the internal paradox that women face between fulfilling the expectations of both motherhood and her career.

Before academia…

During her time at the publishing company, she recalled that even when she was heavily pregnant, her company still expected her to work long hours and put in the same number of hours as men. She strongly disagreed with such treatment as she knew it was physically damaging and taking maternity breaks should not be seen as a weakness.

While women may perceive discrimination as maternity harassment, others may seem it as ensuring the quality of work. How do you point out the difference? 

After WW2, society became very male-centric as the economy required the “salarymen” (work long hours, pledge loyalty to one company) to increase productivity and recover from the war. However, more recently, when women joined the workforce, the “salaryman” expectations were imposed on them too. By then, the “salaryman” persona had started degenerating into the “careless man” persona – one who works without consideration of the needs of his own family.

The irony is that while society enforce equal expectations on both men and women workers, equality is not truly achieved as these standards are male-centric and not attuned to the demands of motherhood.

Hence, to differentiate between maternity harassment and ensuring quality work, the definition of “equality” has to be more clearly ironed out.

Why is maternity harassment still present in the workplace even if there are laws that prohibit companies from engaging in maternity harassment? 

There are no fines for violating the laws!

Even with the law, only a small percentage of women will benefit. The law only applies to permanent staff who work in more law-abiding companies. 60% of female labor work as temperature staff and do not enjoy such benefits from the law.

However, the irony is that even as the law is being enforced which is in favour of permanent staff, the number of females in permanent positions has not increased. This is because, the government has also enforced a higher tax rate for dual-income households. more women are still pushed to temporary jobs to avoid higher tax rates and as a result end up in temporary jobs and are subjected to a higher likelihood of maternity harassment.

How do women usually respond to maternity harassment? 

Most women do not staying anything. Recently, however, women have become more outspoken and have resorted to suing companies that treat them unfairly. However, she feels that even if women stand up to speak out against it, it is not enough to completely alter such deep rooted institutional sexism. More recognition should be accorded to these women for having the courage to speak up and success should not be measured solely based on the outcomes.

Ms Aoba Nezu – Arts as medium for Business

What she does and how she got started? 

4 years ago, she was a program officer at a public incorporated company that aims to bridge cooperations with the arts. She realised that many companies relegated arts to the peripherals. However, she saw the value of arts to business and wanted to harness it.

Now, she runs her own consulting firm that provides business strategies using arts, culture and even sports as a medium.

For example, many large companies have their power centred mainly in the hands of old men and the young people are constantly trapped in lower level jobs. Due to the ageing society, there are fewer opportunities for young people to rise through the ranks and older staff hoard the higher positions, Young people also tend to change jobs more frequently because of the stagnation of opportunities.

This creates a divide in the office between the young and old. To bridge the divide, she organises company bonding workshops that uses arts to foster more opportunities for honest communication between different levels of staff. (using one of Shakespeare’s plays, the team (compromising of both senior and junior staff) have to recreate a scene. However, the junior officers are given the roles as stage directors and the senior staff have to follow along. Such reversal in roles show older staff the capabilities of junior staff and give junior staff more confidence.)

On how she’s so convinced that the Japanese work culture needs changing

After living and working in the west for more than half her life, she grew to realise how stifling and rigid the Japanese work culture was. As a result, there is a talent outflow from Japan. Coupled with the aging population, power in Japanese companies is over centralised in the hands of older workers. But the young people are the ones who have to pay taxes and take care of the ageing population. She feels that she wants to reshape the working culture to create a more conducive/nurturing/embracing/encouraging environment for young people.

On gender related challenges in the workplace and how to navigate around them

She acknowledges that many people in top leadership positions in the corporate world are male and naturally the idea that women are ill-equipped to be rational and decisive is still pervasive.

Even with the government encouraging more women to enter the workforce, the ground is still resistant to the change in mindset. In response, she feels that this can be overcome by women using logic to defeat overly misogynistic men. She shared that during presentations, she counters negative perceptions of women in business by being extra logical and decisive and adopts a no nonsense approach. She believes defeating one by logic is the best way to reshape perceptions.

On whether women entrepreneurship is a possible key to breaking the glass ceiling…

She feels that currently there is little government support to encourage women Entreprenuership. When women want to start their own business, they are usually advised to start as an NPO. This already reveals society’s perception that entrepreneurship is risky and more so women entrepreneurs.

She feels that there should also be skills retraining and design thinking course to reshape how women think because they have been repeatedly forced towards thinking in a box and might not be aware of their entrepreneurship potential and their possible opportunities entrepreneurship can bring.



Ms Tsutsumi – challenging instituitions

Since my travel fellowship mainly comprises of interviews, I will be sharing an interview transcript (obtained with permission)and my reflections from one of my interviewees.

What does she do?

  1. She runs a co-working space attached to a daycare facility (2 months to 6 years). She hopes that this will enable parents to settle toggle between their working and childcare responsibilities and not have to sacrifice one for the other.
  2. She operates venue hire services where parents can have play dates with their children.
  3. She runs a child-friendly cafe and hires staff who find it hard to find work in Japanese society due to their personal circumstances (disabilities, criminal record etc).
  4. She also manages an employment agency that helps people who are commonly shunned by society find work.

How did she get started on this? 

She used to a be freelancer at a broadcasting center. She believed that work was an autonomous decision and that you will be rewarded fairly for the work you have done. However, after having children she realised just how much labor laws were rests on the assumption that a woman will work for a big company and have kids. She felt that the value of work. especially for women, was compromised.

For example, she feels that it is common for a woman’s career to last only up till she has a child. (Japanese corporations often give husbands whose wives stay home a bonus, and the Japanese tax system punishes couples with two incomes.) She feels that the laws are overly myopic and does not take into account women who choose to explore alternate paths like working through the pregnancy and after birth. Hence, she created a company that aims to enable women to make more independent decisions and build a more inclusive and diverse working environment.

On the lack of career portability in Japan…

(This might explain why Entreprenuership is not gaining as much traction in Japan).

In Japan, the company pays taxes on behalf of their employees. Naturally, young people are swayed to work for big companies and as a result, they do not really have a clear goal of what they truly want to do.

When it comes to a woman’s prospects, it is still influenced largely by societal expectations. She gave the analogy of a cocoon. The cocoon’s existence is dedicated solely to the development of the pupae and loses its value after a butterfly emerges. Likewise, a woman is seen as a mother and a wife first before a woman.

What shaped her views? 

From young, she already knew what it felt to be an outcast as she suffered from a heart defect and could not play with other children. A few years ago, she met a mother with her kid at a playground late at night. She asked why the mother was out so late and the mother revealed that her child suffered from albino and because the child was bullied so often by other children, she could only bring him out at night to be spared of the tormenting. At that moment, Ms Tsutsumi felt enraged because it seemed that society was unrelenting and unsympathetic to even children. Those for were different were immediately branded as an outcast.

This experience motivated her to build a community that rewards efforts instead of endowment so that we can all create our own truths instead of living out society’s definition of truth for us. Hence, her company makes it a point to hire those who find it hard to gain employment.