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Philanthropist looks to groom more Japanese women leaders in quest for social change

  • August 9, 2017
  • , The Japan Times
  • English Press

After a decade running an executive training program dedicated to Japanese female leadership, philanthropist Atsuko Fish has had many takeaways, but the biggest was that she had not pushed women anywhere hard enough to achieve social change.


The Japanese Women’s Leadership Initiative executive four-week training program in Boston, which celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2016, is this year a revamped version of itself with the emphasis on participants delivering through their actions, Fish said.


“If I push too much, Japanese people feel pressure. They feel like we Americans are too pushy, so I had been gentle even though when they come back to Japan they have to present an action plan,” Fish, 74, said in an interview in Tokyo, where she came to conduct interviews with potential candidates for the 2017 program.


“I said if I am going to continue this program I have to really tell the participants that I want them to execute. I want to know what they are really changing in society. I am becoming pushier,” she said with a laugh.


Fish, who left Japan to live in the United States in the late 1970s and founded JWLI, has decided to hold the program twice a year (once in the spring, starting in 2018), instead of only in the fall. Because of the high standard this year, it will be the first time six women, instead of four, have been selected, she said.


“We met very impressive applicants this time, so we decided to take six people this year for the first time ever,” Fish said. “If there were 10 people in a year, this group would influence hundreds of people, and so on, and so on,” she said.


A remarkable group of women who, at a glance, are already making their mark in Japanese society, they would appear to need little motivation to achieve more success through the leadership program.


Keiko Chida is a secretary-general at End-of-Life Care Association of Japan — an organization that aims to raise capable people in communities to support their loved ones’ choices near death, as well as raise awareness in the community at large about end-of-life care.


“In Japan, the patient usually doesn’t have the freedom to choose (how to die), usually the family chooses. (Chida) talks about educating the community, family, and medical care people, and how the patient has the right to make decisions,” said Fish.


Kuriya, founded by Shuko Ebihara, is a nonprofit organization that aims to empower migrants aged 16 to 26 through art projects and promote multicultural understanding and dialogue with Japanese youth. Its motto is “migration = positive social impact.”


“She started this organization to help train immigrant youth and place them in jobs,” Fish said.


Kaori Matsuzaki is director of Otera no Mirai, (Future of Temples), a company that promotes the survival of temples and educates priests in courses and seminars nationwide about the important roles they can play in society. “Some 400 priests have taken this course. She wants to learn strategic thinking about the course itself, so she can help more temples,” Fish said.


Global Stage Inc., a startup launched by Saori Osu based in Nagoya, supports single mothers struggling to make a living. Osu is also the representative director for the Working Mothers Association of Japan.


According to a survey released by the health ministry, the proportion of children in Japan living below the poverty line increased to 16 percent in 2012.


“The single-mother issue is a big problem in Japan now,” said Fish, citing an article released in May by the Washington Post that spotlighted “single mothers (struggling) with poverty and a culture of shame in Japan.”


Akari Yuki is the program director of refugee hiring at Fast Retailing Co., a retail holding company whose primary subsidiary is casual wear retailer Uniqlo Co. In a global partnership with the U.N. Refugee Agency, the company has started a program to hire refugees and immigrants at Uniqlo stores in Japan.


“The interesting thing is she is training store managers on how to utilize these foreign employees as a team-building method,” Fish said, adding that Yuki would like to lead her own organization in the future. “She thinks that the Japanese community should accept more refugees, so a system or training course is necessary.”


At the time of this printing, the sixth successful applicant, whose name has not been released yet, was awaiting approval from her company to participate in the leadership program.


“We don’t have to take six but we wanted to take them because these women are amazing, so we wanted to fill all the spots,” said women’s leadership program manager Kozue Sawame, 37.


There are various reasons an applicant might not be selected for the program, said Fish, one of the biggest being poor English ability. But applicants who are self-centered, who are not team players or lack a clear vision — even if their English is outstanding — possess qualities not sought after, Fish said.


She said this year one applicant who studied at a prestigious American university and was fluent in English, did not make the cut. She was too focused on herself.


“If their vision is not clear, we like to encourage them to apply again. But we don’t need people who are ‘me, me, me,’ because we would like to create a team,” Fish said.


For JWLI-II (the newest version), there are five basic pillars: having a clear vision; creating an outline; developing a plan over four weeks in Boston, including taking an entrepreneurship course at Babson College; execution of the plan under a two-year mentorship in Japan; and participants implementing actual social change and innovation through their actions in Japan.


The leadership course is scheduled to take place from Oct. 10 to Nov. 3. Yasuhiro Yamakawa, an associate professor of entrepreneurship at Babson College, will help the women prepare for their trip abroad.


Because of enhancements to the program, which involve catering to the participants to choose their respective mentors, active participation is required from both sides, said Sawame.


“Every component of the program is catered toward one of the fellows. It’s hands-on from our side and hands-on from their side as well. We also want to make sure the mentors meet the needs and interests of our fellows,” said Sawame.


Hence, mentors, including NGO leaders and other professionals, will be chosen with care.


“Each individual Fellow has a different dream, so we cannot pick the mentors from a box. There has to be chemistry,” Fish said.

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