Diversity and Japanese Work Environment: How a Startup can Help?
By : Kie Tsukamoto
Who is She?
Kie: What drove you to start Clarity?
Satomi: That probably goes back to my upbringing. I came from a family which owned a family business that my grandfather established. It was a printing company and my dad took over the business; everything was going very well and because of it, I experienced that “rich girl” upbringing back then. Besides, my family was quite “traditional”—father as the breadwinner and mother as a housewife. I grew up and was also put in a school where that so-called traditional value was considered “normal.”
Every mother I looked at, was pretty much a trophy-wife, and that was considered “normal.” Well, at least. it was normal in that specific community. That is why, the school was endorsing that value as well; they had that attitude of “because you are a girl, learning manners is more important than studying.”
Kie: That is the total opposite of what you do right now. How did you evolve from that upbringing?
Satomi: That world was completely destroyed when I was about 14 years old. My dad went bankrupt. Our house, car, every valuable thing was taken. What was “normal” to me was no longer there, and that included my values and principles. Up until then, I was going to school without questioning the values put on me, but when that happened, I started to see everything differently.
I started questioning:
“Is THAT world really ‘normal’?”
You know, just because you are a girl, all you have to do is look pretty and be polite and nice?!
Is that going to help me when something like this happens in life?
All those questions emerged. Then, something even more dramatic happened. My mother decided to open her own company, a graphic design company! Up until then, she had been a typical “trophy-wife”. Always carrying a brand bag that my dad bought for her and never working in her life etc.
That mother decided to start a business. But, obviously we needed every penny that we could get. I am not too sure how my dad really felt back then, but since she started her business, my dad, who had never even once done a chore around the house, actually started helping around the house—cooking! I saw the gender rolls switch 180. That was quite shocking!
All these experiences that I went through during puberty really shaped my identity and created the person I am now. In a positive sense, these experiences gave me a chance to truly face myself and question who I really was and how I wanted to live my life.
This is why I strongly believe that every human being, whether you are a man or a woman, needs to be independent both financially and psychologically; and society needs to provide a system that allows individuals to grow independence.
Supporting Diverse Lifestyles in Japan
Kie: That explains why you established a startup that supports Japanese females who want to work.
Satomi: Right. The rate of female employment in Japan is just nearly 70%; and what is even worse is that there is this M-shaped curve, meaning women in their late 20s and 30s are leaving work—creating a drop in female employment. They are leaving during the most productive years of their careers because they are overwhelmed with work and household responsibilities and pregnancy and child rearing.
This is not just a gender-equality problem anymore because Japan is facing a critical decrease in its labor population. And, here are women who want to work yet cannot come back to work after the birth of their child/children because the work environment does not support people who have kids. This really needs to change!
One thing I have to emphasize is that I am NOT bashing being a housewife/husband. If you are choosing that as your life option, it is completely fine; nobody should bash that. However, this becomes a human rights issue when those women (or in some cases, men) have to “choose” between housework and career.
In addition, in this country, we still see young Japanese girls leaving work saying “I cannot keep going like this,” then quit work to get married and become a housewife, because there is no clear corporate ladder for them to climb. There are two main issues that exist in the Japanese work environment: one is the fact that there are still companies where longer work hours are appreciated/expected.
Another is a glass ceiling for women—causing them to give up. Regardless of sex, these two issues need to be addressed; otherwise, it is not a happy place for anybody. Japan is no longer at a stage where only one gender can financially support another.
But, if those two issues cannot be addressed, it is actually not only women who suffer but men, too. What drives me is not just about empowering women but rather it is more to do with creating a society that enables every individual to be able to live their life by being true to who they are.
How Did She Get Here?
Kie: Can you tell me how you become an entrepreneur?
Satomi: The first company I worked was a BPO consulting firm in Japan that was established by a non-Japanese, serial entrepreneur who was also the CEO back then. This company was supporting Japanese market entry for global companies as part of their services, by searching for office space, recruiting, assisting taxation, and incorporation. Basically, everything.
Kie: A one-stop service for the market entry. Something like what we offer?
Satomi: Yes, exactly. Although I was an executive assistant, I was also assigned to those projects. So, I supported market entry for a wide range of corporations, from retail, pharmaceutical to consulting firm. There are two reasons I decided to work there: one is that I wanted to keep myself in an English speaking work environment since I did not want to lose my English after I studied at San Diego University for a year.
Another is that I wanted to understand how each culture affects how people work. I wanted to grow myself as a multicultural business person because it is not language, but it is culture that affects people’s behavior and how we all communicate.
Because of my experience there, I happened to encounter how non-Japanese higher-ups were handling their local Japanese teams; often times, they were not successful because those managers tended to manage their team just like they did in their own countries.
If companies really want to accelerate productivity and generate good outcomes in global business, they will need culture-sensitive personnel to bring their teams together. You cannot underestimate the uniqueness of a culture, and Japanese culture is definitely foreign to many. It is very complicated.
Kie: Then, what did you do after that first company?
Satomi: After working there for two years, I worked on a contract basis at HR for Google Japan, supporting their recruitment of engineers and managing their internship programs. Then, I moved to beacon communications (globally known as Leo Burnett—a global creative agency), where I was assigned to manage the brand accounts of P&G and Philip Morris for two years. Then, I left there to pursue what I envisioned doing: Clarity.
What Drives Her?
Kie: What motivated you to go on your own?
Satomi: In terms of empowering women, I think that Japan needs both a change in perception and a change in behaviour. I originally thought that it was perception change that this country needed; that is why I decided to get into beacon communications. A brand like P&G has created numerous advertisements that support such movements.
One of their famous women empowerment deliverables is “Whisper Always Like A Girl” campaign. Projects like that were what I wanted to be part of and that was something I was actually a part of. I was preparing that campaign to launch in Japan as well; however, at the very last minute, they put a stop to it.
Kie: I was in North America back then, and I remember that campaign. That was very memorable. But why didn’t it make the cut in Japan?
Satomi: Well, there are few reasons; yet, I cannot disclose everything regarding this. But, one thing that I can say is that we concluded that this campaign was “too soon” for this country. And, that came to me as a slap in the face. Very shocking. That made me think that maybe it is not a change in perception that is required, but rather a change in the behavior. So, I left that company and established Clarity.
What is Clarity?
Kie: So, now I’d like to know what Clarity really is. What is it?
Satomi: It is a company database and a company review site for women and all those who look for diverse work environment. We created a prototype in Dec, 2017 and raised funds and incorporated in Jan, 2018.
Kie: Can you tell me a bit more about the service?
Satomi: It consists of three pillars: 1. Corporate data, 2. Information provided by corporations and 3. User review. We are in the first phase where we collect data, but lately we started designing two things: 1. scales that can measure companies’ work environments and 2. questionnaires to assess users’ works style preferences. By doing so, we aim to create one of the best matching platform for both companies and individual job seekers. We have collected about 4,000 Japanese corporations’ HR system and policy data.
Basically, with this data, you can tell what company has what kind of system and under this system, how employees can work and climb the corporate ladder etc. There are numerous sites that include human resource management systems, but they often just talk about the existence or nonexistence of certain systems, such as parental leave. With such information, you cannot really imagine how the systems are enforced and, thus, how it affects your work/life balance.
We wanted to give more in-depth information about that aspect, so that they can actually imagine what it would be like working there if they have a kid or something like that. Some companies present that information on their own corporate sites but there is no platform where you can access the information about multiple companies at once.
Kie: How did you attain such data?
Satomi: For certain basic information, we used reports published by the government, but our data mainly comes from all those 4,000 companies’ corporate websites. We collected one by one. We actually crowd sourced this. Using crowd workers for this type of task helped us big time, however, we had heartache doing so.
Satomi: Although the crowd workers were women who really felt strongly about our vision – to empower women – we could only pay a very limited amount for them. It really is not much. But they really devoted their time and effort for us since they really supported what we were doing. It really touched my heart and also reinforced the need to change this society for better.
Here is another thing. Since the emergence of crowd sourcing, housewives have gained more opportunity to work “flexibly.” And, this is not only for those women but also for people who are struggling to survive. However, what this crowd sourcing can really produce is a side job not a career (I am not saying it is impossible or every crowd work is like that, but it is extremely hard to develop your career based around it.)
And there are people who say things like this: because there are more women who work, with the emergence of a new work style like crowd sourcing, the empowerment of women or gender bias in the workforce is no longer present. Every time I hear this, I am worried.
Not only for the sake of women but for socially marginalized people. If there is no fair system in society, people who are born disadvantaged can never create a better life for themselves, for their kids; ultimately that is bad for the economy and this country in general.
Where is She Headed?
Kie: What differentiates Clarity from other similar services?
Satomi: Other similar review sites do not allow companies to post their news, information etc. But, I would say if the company evaluation is only done solely based on user reviews, it is not fair because “reviews” are very subjective. What might be bad for you may be a good company for me. Who knows? It is like a relationship. Just because you do not like this guy, it does not mean that I will feel the same way.
So, what we offer is a fair platform, so that the users can make a better decision based on all the information provided. They can look at those subjective reviews, but they can also look at what the company has to say about their policies, systems and corporate culture; then, they can make their own judgement based on it.
In addition to that, the criteria that the existing company review sites are using were not really sitting well with me. They use a criterion like “breathability (of a workplace),” but what is it?! I cannot really tell what it is or what a “very breathable work place” is like. So, I wanted to create an evaluation system that is more objective and data-driven.
This way, it is easy for anybody to understand and they can actually imagine what it would be like working at a company. This data-driven approach also helps corporations to strategically approach their target audience and what they need to change to get those human resources. That is ultimately what I want Clarity to offer in the future.
Kie: Is your target customer Japanese women?
Satomi: At this moment, our target is “Japanese women in their 20s~40s who want to continue their career.” However, I believe that this service can grow beyond supporting women, our service can actually be useful for non-Japanese workers, both female and male, and also for seniors as well. Basically, Clarity endorses diversity.
Kie: What is the passion behind endorsing diversity in Japanese corporations?
Satomi: Diversity is just a means. What I aim to do is to support changing the corporate work environment for people who work there. It is to increase their QOL (quality of life).
A higher QOL correlates positively to productivity; productivity and innovation are two main themes that Japanese corporations are working on and have to work on if they want to survive in this fast-changing world and in this country with its population crisis.
A better work environment for women is an environment where men also feel less stressed. They are also sandwiched between family and work. So, my passion is to create a workplace better for all. By improving productivity levels and generating innovation through diversifying the environment, we will create a better future for this country.
What is Needed for Successful Japanese Market Entry?
Kie: You have worked at and with many international corporations, who have entered Japanese market, but what do you think are the three most needed things for non-Japanese to succeed here?
Satomi: The most important one is to have great local human resources. When recruiting, what you have to be careful about is “just because someone can speak English, it does not mean that they are a ‘great’ business person.”
What I mean by a great local resource directly refers to their actual skill-set and personality. If you have a hard time communicating with them, just hire an interpreter. You may first think that it is an extra cost, but believe me, hiring a “not so great local resource” is much costlier to your business (I even saw some businesses go bankrupt! Recruiting/building a right team is truly essential.)
The second thing is that you should allocate sufficient amount of budget for socialization. This Japanese society is very much network based and referral based. It is very important that you socialize and create those networks. If you are hiring a local person, it is strongly recommended that you hire someone who comes with strong networks. Last but not least, is that you should stay humble and respect the local culture if you are entering a foreign market.
Whether that is Japanese or not, it is very important to show respect and learn their culture. Being biased or having subconscious prejudices about one’s culture is not going to go well. And, if you can, have a good trusty local friend who you can always go ask questions! Then, you are set here.
Message from Asian Market Entry
Asian Market Entry offers international startups a comprehensive service for successful Japanese market entry. One of the major obstacles faced by international businesses is local recruitment and networking. Through our more than a decade of business consulting service, we have developed one of the best professional human resource databases; and we can offer the most suited local professional based on your business plan and needs. We can match you with a local professional with great networks and knowhow to lead and scale your business in Japan. For more information, please contact us.
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