Celebrating the Women of Japan: “Go Beyond the Stereotypes”

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At the beginning of April 2018, Tokyo-based businesswoman Melanie Brock launched a social media project to profile 365 women in Japan – one for every day of the coming year. The very first woman she profiled was her former host mother from her days as an exchange student in Aomori, who at 80-something years old still practices medicine.

Since then, the Celebrating Women in Japan Twitter account has attracted almost 3,000 followers and featured women – both Japanese and foreigners – of all backgrounds: journalists, athletes, company directors, artists, business owners and more.

Brock says she got the idea from fellow Australian Dr. Kirstin Ferguson, who became a social media icon in Australia after launching her #CelebratingWomen campaign. Over the course of a year, Ferguson profiled two women a day from anywhere in the world, from all walks of life. By the end of the year, she had featured 757 women from 37 countries.

The motivation behind launching the Japan version of the project was to champion women in Japan and to go beyond the stereotypes by showcasing a range of stories, Brock says. “I feel it’s not my job to stand on a soapbox and tell everyone what I think should happen. I thought [Celebrating Women in Japan] would be my angle by just saying, ‘These are the women of Japan’.” In terms of what the profiled women have said or achieved so far, Brock says not much has surprised her. She has always found Japanese women to be “pretty gutsy,” committed and focused on both family and work. However, a common theme emerges when she asks what the Japanese government could do to better support women: improving childcare. Brock says it’s “ludicrous” that it’s still an issue for so many families as it’s a conversation people in Japan have been having for a long time.

“The motivation behind launching the project was to champion women in Japan and to go beyond the stereotypes by showcasing a range of stories”

One of the biggest challenges of the project has been getting enough women to profile – not because there is a shortage of those worth featuring, but because so many refuse to accept that what they do is worthy of being profiled. However, the overall feedback on the project so far has been overwhelmingly positive. “I’ve had the mother of someone I profiled write to say they’re so proud of their daughter. I’ve had a daughter write to say she’s proud of her mother. I had a note from someone saying that she reads this every day and it gives her inspiration,” Brock says.

So what would Brock hope to achieve by the end of the 365 days? It was her aim from the beginning to try and profile women of varying backgrounds and she hopes that by the end of it, she will have helped to uncover more stories of women’s lives all over Japan. “I would like people to know that Japan is more than just Tokyo. If that’s my way of repaying the incredible gift that I was given by [living in Aomori], then that would be a nice thing to do.”

Here, we introduce you to five of the inspirational women featured in the project so far…

THE APPRENEUR: Kaoru Joho

Kaoru Joho is the founder of Table Cross, an app that directs a percentage of the revenue made from restaurant bookings to a fund made up of 10 non-profit organisations that helps children in developing countries. Joho, 25, set up her company when she was still studying at Rikkyo University and actively employs stay-at-home mothers and others who benefit from a flexible working schedule. She believes that companies can use different ways of working while still reaching their goals. “Long hours working style is outdated. I value making the best of one’s power within a limited time, and using the rest of your time for staying with family.”

THE ECO ARCHITECT: Naoe Sekiya

Naoe Sekiya is an architect and entrepreneur who comes from several generations of architects, some of whom helped to build the city of Kawagoe in Saitama. After some time abroad when she was younger, she returned to Japan to help her father run his architecture business. Following the 2011 earthquake, she became passionate about helping others live a cleaner, greener life, especially educating women to make healthy choices when purchasing or growing food. “The food culture and food growing industries in Japan need to catch up with other developed countries. Healthy women lead productive and successful lives,” she says. She believes the Japanese government and local businesses need to do more to include women in leadership roles. More funding should also be made available to women who want to start new businesses. Her advice to the next generation: “Try to find something you love to do. Be patient and never give up. Respect others and be thankful for everything.”

THE COMMUNICATIONS EXPERT: Lowly Norgate

A long-time Japan resident, Lowly Norgate is the communications manager at The British School in Tokyo. She is a full-time working mother and strongly believes the government needs to improve access to childcare, particularly when it comes to access to affordable domestic services. She believes that the world has a lot to learn about Japanese women, especially that they are all individuals and not just the stereotypes portrayed in the media. Her advice: “Take your time. Life/career is a marathon not a sprint. Learn from your mistakes and don’t beat yourself up about them.”

THE DRIVEN DIRECTOR: Lori Henderson

Lori Henderson is the executive director of the British Chamber of Commerce and has lived in Japan since 2003. She was awarded a Member of the Order of the British Empire in 2013 for services to post-earthquake reconstruction and to the British business community in Japan. She says the world has a lot to learn from Japanese women’s resourcefulness and resilience. “While they are extremely under-represented in the senior ranks of businesses and government, they are the best-educated and … some of the most driven women in the world,” she says. Henderson believes long working hours need to stop, especially as women have, for a long time, been the sole caregivers in the family, even when they have a job outside the home as well. Her advice for future generations: “Do it your way. Ask for what you want. Create the new.”

THE CYBERSECURITY COLUMNIST: Mihoko Matsubara

Currently the chief cybersecurity strategist at NTT Corporation, Mihoko Matsubara first developed her interests in international security as a student at Waseda University. She worked at the Japanese Ministry of Defense for nine years before studying at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies through the Fulbright program. She returned to Japan in 2012 and while working in cybersecurity she started a daily English newsletter about the kinds of cyber threats and cybersecurity policies that the Asia-Pacific region faces. She now has a weekly column with the Mainichi Shimbun and is passionate about bringing different perspectives and backgrounds together in the cybersecurity community. Mihoko’s advice for the future generations: “Aim high. Identify a solution to challenges people are struggling with. A good sense of humor and true grit will pave the way for you.”


Follow Celebrating Women in Japan on Twitter at @womenofjapan. To nominate someone for the project, email Melanie Brock at celebratingwomen@advisoryjapan.com

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