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Women at work: Standing out above the old boys: Forging a path as a woman in corporate Japan

  • December 21, 2021
  • , The Japan Times
  • English Press



Japanese women are an enigma to the world. On one hand, they are portrayed by popular media as second-class citizens in a stubbornly chauvinistic culture. On the other, a small but rising number of women do advance their long careers despite adversity, although collectively less prominent than their Western peers.


Are these female pioneers a privileged breed? Or are they mere mortals who manage to find an equilibrium, outside the Western end goal of “having it all”? Is there an underappreciated advantage to being a minority, just as there is a disadvantage to being a majority?


This series is an attempt to answer these questions through first-hand interviews with these successful Japanese women. The experiences of these women are highly varied, a testament to the rich diversity of Japanese women’s professional lives.


Most of the women are between the ages of 55 and 65 and belong to the generation who joined the workforce around the introduction of the 1987 Gender Equality in Employment Act. As this generation nears retirement, their career trajectories over the past three decades reflect both what has changed and what remains as implications for women in the Japanese working world.


Through this series — Women at Work — I hope to give us Japanese women a voice, and to fill the void in the narrative which renders us an object of curiosity and, at times, misguided sympathy. Finally, I hope to draw lessons from their stories to build better engagement between us, other workers, our employers and society.


When Ryoko Nagata, before graduating from the prestigious Waseda University in 1987, interviewed with her prospective employer, Japan Tobacco, she made a curious request: “I don’t smoke, and I want to work on something other than cigarettes.”


Her outspokenness and unconventional thinking were, at the time, of course an anomaly. A male recruit just out of college making the same request at a job interview would surely be interpreted as a failure to read the proverbial smoke-filled room. But luckily for Nagata, Japan Tobacco was at a juncture where it had begun to diversify its business portfolio to supplement the saturating cigarette business, especially after its domestic monopoly ended in 1985. Japan Tobacco was in need of change.


Fast forward to today, and Nagata, now 58, is the most senior female executive at Japan Tobacco, a major global company with a market cap of over ¥4 trillion. She has been sitting on the board as its standing audit and supervisory board member since 2018. Nagata is sought after as one of the few high-ranking women in the world of Japan Inc., and she also now serves on the board of Honda Motors as a non-executive director.


A lifelong Japan Tobacco employee, Nagata is not your typical elite high-flying Japanese middle-aged woman, bred on the vibrant cluster of foreign multinational firms – finance and professional services representing two of the fertile sectors that produce this breed. Nor is she a hardened “male executive in a skirt” who gritted her teeth through daily chauvinism by playing golf and backroom dealings. Nagata exudes the nonchalant confidence of someone comfortable being the forthright person that she is and with the recognition that she deserves.


Her story, which Nagata herself describes as “quite unique,” builds on a fortunate combination of Japan Tobacco’s long-term intention to nurture female talent and her resilience when taking on new challenges.


An early challenge

The traditional career path within Japan Tobacco was a well paved one, with a slow and steady progression. In contrast, the non-tobacco realm serves as a sandbox for Japan Tobacco, allowing experimentation with business models and career paths.


For Nagata, it meant cutting her teeth with Japan Tobacco’s fledgling businesses, ranging from a Burger King joint venture (dissolved in 2001) to a frozen food business, which the company acquired from Asahi Kasei in 1999.


It was when she was assigned to a managerial position in the Food Business Division, as a middle manager to run its frozen food business, that she met her first serious challenge. With no prior experience in the processed food business, she found herself surrounded by seasoned colleagues from Asahi Kasei.


It is not hard to imagine how her new colleagues, male and middle-aged, rolled their eyes at their younger, female boss. Her designated role as a change agent was a saving grace – she was not supposed to be one of them but was tasked to instill change. In fact, Japan Tobacco’s intention after the acquisition was to pivot the food business from industrial-use to consumer-use to leverage the firm’s consumer branding capabilities.


To make matters worse, around the time of Nagata’s arrival, performance was in decline, bringing the acquisition itself under scrutiny. Tension culminated when a male colleague from Asahi Kasei, a peer at her level, declared in front of all her colleagues, including herself, that Nagata was clearly unfit for the managerial role. “I was absolutely mortified on the spot,” she recounts.


To Nagata’s surprise, the one who came to her defense was her boss, the head of the Food Business Division and another lifer from Japan Tobacco. Even though Nagata was wary of his micromanagement style, she recalls being saved by his support. Japan Tobacco had her back. “I was definitely deflated, but I also knew he was right (that I lacked experience). I was so nervous and eager to perform, I ended up spinning my wheels,” Nagata says. Rather than being defensive, she took the criticism with a constructive attitude.


Her approach to compensate for lack of experience was to leverage her team. After the humiliating experience, she worked to gain the trust of her coworkers by holding rounds of one-on-one meetings with her team members from Asahi Kasei. “You really need the personal connection as the foundation to mobilize someone.”


By her third year working with the frozen food business, performance was bouncing back. Increasingly, Japan Tobacco management viewed frozen food as a growth area for the group — so much so that in late 2007, Japan Tobacco was ready to acquire Katokichi, a branded frozen food manufacturer, planning to subsequently consolidate them with the frozen food business of Nissin Foods, a packaged food giant under the joint ownership of Japan Tobacco and Nissin Foods. The combined turnover of the hypothetical subsidiary would have been ¥260 billion, making it the largest domestic frozen food player, and overseas expansion for the business was also in sight.


But just a month after the successful takeover bid of Katokichi, crisis struck. In a food scandal that quickly grew into a diplomatic spat between Japan and China, frozen dumplings from JT Foods, a 100% owned Japan Tobacco subsidiary, imported from a Chinese supplier were blamed for a food poisoning incident in which nine were hospitalized. The situation eventually caused Nissin Foods to pull out of the tie-up.


Inspectors found pesticides in the dumplings, resulting in a consumer uproar in Japan over food safety. Two years after the incident, a disgruntled Chinese employee at the local supplier was arrested as the culprit for contaminating the product line.


For Nagata, the dumpling saga was a real-life exercise in crisis management. It was not without a revelation.


“In the most unexpected moments, you meet people that wow you,” she said.


Nagata recounts that JT hired temporary hands to handle upset consumers’ phone calls about the dumplings. Women who entertained at bars would come in to earn pocket money before starting their night job. “They were just amazing with their listening skills.” The experience was a lesson for her to be unbiased.


Long-term vision

Emerging from the crisis, she was assigned to lead the beverage business from 2008 to 2013, where she successfully delivered a turnaround. By then, her reputation as a fixer in the non-tobacco businesses was cemented.


What Japan Tobacco had in mind for her next was a corporate role – corporate social responsibility, a relatively new and growing field which required a strategic communication framework. Appointed to be an executive officer in charge of CSR, Nagata spent her energy on changing the executives’ thought process. In contrast to the daily firefighting they were accustomed to, CSR requires approaching societal challenges over a longer time horizon. Presenting a vision then back-casting to address today’s problems, including facing their own deficiencies, was a mindset shift Nagata had to navigate her senior colleagues through.


“The management naturally dreaded disclosing anything incomplete – like sustainability KPIs — but the disclosure of work-in-progress is a must for CSR,” Nagata says. Step by step, she nudged the management to break away from their comfort zone. “The cycle starts to run on its own when they get recognition (from disclosure), which pushes the boundary of their comfort zone a little further.” The delicate balance between pushing the cause and ensuring followership is something she learned from her previous career chapters.


Nagata affirms that Japan Tobacco is a gender-equal employer and always has been. Out of the six women who joined the company out of school in the same year as professionals, three remain, including herself — a ratio relatively high for the generation. The other three retired on the occasion of marriage, a social norm at the time.


Today, she marvels at the options available to women. “Now mothers return to work 100% after maternity leave at Japan Tobacco. There is little physical or emotional constraint against women working.”


Encouragingly, the gender ratio in the incoming batch of recruits for Japan Tobacco is balanced. But with only Nagata and three other women, two being non-executive, serving on the board of 35 directors, are they mere exceptions? Are they a show to assure young women today that the corporate ladder is not hostile?


Nagata brushes off such concerns. “I think rather than focusing on gender, it is important to create your own individual story, the one and only,” she says. She argues that while employers are responsible to flexibly support working in every life stage – from raising small kids to tending to aging parents – the ultimate accountability lies with the individual to charter their career. The ideal is engagement between the employer and the employee to make it happen.


“It comes down to a hybrid system,” she says. “A combination of platform as common denominator and on top a negotiation between the individual and the company.”


Old-boys club

Yet Mutsuo Iwai, the deputy chairman of the board at Japan Tobacco and a long-term mentor to Nagata, expressed a more somber view. He points at “the entrenched culture of the old-boys club” in Japanese companies, including Japan Tobacco, as an inhibitor to successful mass replication of Nagata’s story.


Men would bond and exchange tips through late hours at the office and drinking that ensues. If such an old-boys culture is alive in mainstream businesses, the race there remains rigged for women. It is an uphill battle, even before factoring in the biological clock.


Iwai points out that “there is still such a narrow image of naturally accepted leadership styles in the organization – male and monolithic — which stifles diversity.” Iwai frankly admits to a gender diversity deficiency in the pipeline following Nagata.


Assigning Nagata to the company’s non-tobacco business, therefore, was by design, Iwai says. Japan Tobacco reckoned that she “would enjoy more freedom in a new space than working in the tobacco business entrenched with the old-boys hierarchical culture.”


For Japan Inc. to truly embrace diversity of talent, this kind of culture surely must change. In Nagata’s case, her career path was carefully designed, so she was exposed less to that culture. What she demonstrated over three decades is that it is indeed possible for women to flourish in their corporate career if given the right opportunity to do so.


Today, the challenge is for companies, including Japan Tobacco, to ready the ground for many more women.


On the bright side, Iwai points out two factors that inadvertently work in women’s favor. One is the work style change forced by COVID-19. Face-time at the office is irrelevant in the age of remote work. This, he suggests, undermines the culture of in-person camaraderie — for better or worse.


The other factor he mentions is more unique to Japan Tobacco. Because of health awareness and the emergence of popular alternatives such as heated tobacco products, the stability of the conventional cigarette business has fizzled in recent years.


“Command and control no longer works,” admits Iwai. “We now switch to trial-and-error, the bottom-up approach,” which erodes the rigidness of patriarchy. This, he hopes, broadens the window of acceptance for leadership styles. “Only then can we expect a richer pipeline of female talent following Nagata.”


Nagata had said, “I feel lucky. Wherever I was assigned, a wind of change blew.”


Iwai later adds a nuance to her sentiment.


“We put her where we expected a wind. And indeed, she performed well every time.” Iwai summarizes Nagata’s approach as her “survival.”

“She understood what we expected of her and delivered – not in the old-fashioned way of bonding over late night drinking, but in her own way of being in the trench and connecting with the line soldiers.” It is a balancing act of accommodation and sticking to your guns.


Japan Tobacco’s bet on Nagata was handsomely rewarded. The beverage and food businesses, once considered a hobby of a cash-rich tobacco company, continued to gain recognition in the overall Japan Tobacco portfolio. Later, putting Nagata in charge of CSR paid off as well, preparing Japan Tobacco for the increased attention on sustainability that is observed today.


Iwai explained the rationale behind putting Nagata in the role.


“CSR at the time needed a major upgrade, requiring a trailblazer,” he said.


The challenge for Japan Tobacco and Japanese society at large is to replicate Nagata’s success on a larger scale. It is a proof of concept that a talented woman can develop her own leadership style and thrive in a corporate environment. But a proof of concept is pointless if it remains an anomaly. It is only when career paths like Nagata’s become the norm that, as she points out, focusing on gender becomes irrelevant.


Nobuko Kobayashi is partner and managing director with EY-Parthenon, a strategic consulting arm within EY Strategy and Transactions. She is also EY’s Asia-Pacific strategy execution leader and the Japan representative for EY’s Geostrategic Business Group. The views reflected in this article are the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the global EY organization or its member companies.

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