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Entrepreneur looks to aid women, economy

Female-friendly shared workspace a boon for moms

by Ayako Mie

Staff Writer

Yushi Katayama began to think seriously about leaving Japan after the birth of his son, Shota, in 2012.

The decades-long economic slump and poor social welfare system as well as lack of innovation made Japan less than an ideal place for him to raise his son, he thought.

“I can probably live through it, but I wanted what’s best for my children,” said Katayama, 32, who did not go through the regular Japanese educational system, instead attending international schools in Tokyo and college in the United States.

But rather than lament the deficiencies and move away, Katayama had an idea: Why not launch a business that helps women continue to work after becoming mothers, which might in turn help shore up the economy?

Last June, Katayama opened Hatch, a shared workspace for freelancers and entrepreneurs in his office building in Tokyo’s Akasaka district, where his main car-importing business, Shintoyo Enterprises, is located. To attract women, he set up a playroom inside Hatch so mothers can work while caring for their kids.

“I would like to set an example that women can work if there is some help,” Katayama said.

Japan is infamous for lacking a social system that supports working mothers. Some 70 percent of women leave their jobs after having their first child, while only 34 percent of women with children under 6 years old work, according to the 2010 Goldman Sachs report titled “Womanomics 3.0.”

This erodes Japan’s competitiveness and productivity, the report says.

According to the International Monetary Fund, if Japan raised the female employment rate to 70 percent, per capita gross domestic product would increase by 5 percent. The Goldman Sachs report suggests that if Japan can bring the rate to 80 percent, it would boost GDP by 15 percent.

Finally responding to the implications of more robust female employment, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe hammered out a grand scheme in mid-April to extend child care leave from the current 18 months to three years as part of a national growth strategy.

But working mothers are in need of more immediate action. Day care facilities are in short supply, and the situation is especially dire for freelancers and entrepreneurs, who are given lower priority than full-time company employees for precious spots.

Katayama got the idea for a female-friendly workspace after witnessing the hardships his wife, Minhee Katayama, 27, went through after giving birth to their son. Working from home while nursing her son was not practical. Her work as a freelance video maker sometimes necessitates working through the night.

“I could not find a place for my son, because I work as a freelancer,” said Minhee. “Although the government encourages women like us to work, there are some systemic flaws.”

For only ¥20,000 a month, members of Hatch get 24-hour, seven-day-a-week access to the workspace, which has a playroom for children right next door.

The number of shared workplaces has spiked in Tokyo since around 2011. But because most freelancers and entrepreneurs are men, only a few offer a system that suits the lifestyles of working mothers, according to Katayama.

Hatch values worker diversity. Katayama believes that if people from various backgrounds interact, more business ideas will be generated. Currently, Hatch has 25 members, of which five are working mothers. About half the members are non-Japanese.

“I checked out several coworking spaces (before choosing Hatch), but some of the guys looked at me like I wasn’t serious about my business just because I have kids,” said Naoko Toyota.

The 37-year-old used to work for one of the biggest Internet companies in Japan but quit when the demands of her job left her without adequate time to raise her 3-year-old son.

“But here, women can support each other and men embrace diversity, too.”

Dreaming of starting her own company, Toyota launched a service that teaches the elderly and women how to use iPad and iPhone apps. A conversation she had with Katayama about office supplies led to another business idea.

Convinced that women would appreciate the convenience of having everyday items such as stockings and sanitary products available at their offices, she is planning to set up vendors at companies.

Operating Hatch made the Katayamas realize they have to take their business to the next level: turning the playroom into a quasi-day care center. Even though the playroom is somewhere to put the kids while working, parents must still keep an eye on them because there are no nannies on hand.

“Bringing kids to your workplace definitely reduces productivity. But if we can concentrate on our work even for three or four hours, it would push up our efficiency,” said Katayama, who plans to bring in two nannies who are setting up their own nursing care business.

He also plans to offer English classes and other programs to enhance kids’ creativity so that his son can learn at least three languages — Japanese, English, and Korean, which Minhee speaks.

“What we are trying to do is to show through cooperation we can create female role models who work while raising children,” said Katayama. “If kids want to emulate their working mothers, it would eventually boost the female workforce in Japan.”