Saturday, March 31, was the final day of school for 47 graduates of the interestingly named I’M Personal College in Tokyo.

After the graduation ceremony in the morning, they had a party with around 60 invited guests in a Roppongi club, where they danced, snacked and partied just like new graduates do at such events in Japan. But there was a unique difference: more than half the graduates were stay-at-home mothers or housewives.

When the school opened in 1989, its one-year “business school” for housewives might have been an eyebrow-raiser. But 18 years on, it now has some 1,500 graduates, and its educational scope has widened from housewives in particular to women in general.

Organizing the annual graduation party is considered one of the most important challenges for students, whose curriculum aims to prepare them for professional roles in the business world. So, at that event, they were not only enjoying themselves but also working hard to ensure that the gathering ran smoothly.

“I cannot believe that I am doing this,” said new graduate Chiyako Fuwa, a stay-at-home mother of two, whose key role was as a time-keeper and director of the event. “The preparations for this have been very tough, but it is a very exciting experience,” she said. “I feel like I can do anything if I can do this,” she added with a beaming smile.

Specifically, the school runs two courses — one for students who wish to become writers; the other for those aiming to be counselors. Either way, students take classes once a week for a year, at a cost of around 300,000 yen. This year, about half the writing-course students, and most taking the counseling classes, were housewives aiming to get a job as their next step.

“Over the past 18 years,” said 59-year-old school founder Kazuko Nagai, “I’ve often thought that I couldn’t keep it going. It was financially very hard, especially in the first 10 years. I repeatedly debated with myself if I should close this school.

“But I didn’t close. That’s because of the graduation day. Every time I attend the ceremony, I truly think I was right to have kept this school going one more year. It is impressive to see how these students change during the one-year course.”

In fact, the school was born out of Nagai’s own struggles in life. She got married two years after graduating from a university in Tokyo without having any job experience. In those days, single women over 25 were often compared with “Christmas cakes,” she recalls. In other words, society regarded them as having passed their “sell-by dates.”

As a housewife, Nagai realized that her life’s work had become that of “housekeeper” — but she knew that didn’t suit her. Constantly, she says, she worried whether she could raise her two children properly while having no money of her own.

Then, at age 33, she began studying at night school to become an advertising copywriter. By the time she was 40, two years after setting up her own ad agency, she was winning prizes for her work. That, though, wasn’t enough, and when she was 41 Nagai founded her school to help raise women’s awareness and send more of them back into the working world.

“At 40, I looked around and saw housewives of my age questioning their lives,” she says. “Their grown-up children no longer needed much care, and their husbands were very busy taking important positions at work. Some said their job had basically finished — though probably they would have to look after elderly parents or in-laws in the future.

“Listening to them,” she said, “I wondered how these healthy, mature women could be thinking of retiring in their 40s.”

Also, Nagai’s innate feminist philosophy gave her another drive.

“Our generation, baby boomers, tried to pursue equal opportunities for men and women in society. Wearing jeans of the same design, we tried to introduce the idea of ‘married couples who live like friends.’ But, in reality, I thought that if housewives in their 40s accept that way of living, they would not be able to change the lifestyle of their daughters’ generation.”

Although the situation for working women in Japan is improving, with ever more holding down jobs after marriage, and the equal employment opportunity law now 20 years old, Nagai sees the need for schools like hers continuing, since women’s participation in decision-making in society is still low.

Indeed, female lawmakers account for only 11 percent of current Diet [Parliament] members. According to 2006 statistics from the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry, just 10.3 percent of people in managerial posts are women.

To change this situation, Nagai argues that it is crucial to create a system to give more chances for housewives to acquire skills and work in society.

“I believe that unless we increase the total number of working women, we will never see a Diet in which half the members are women,” she said. “I’m glad to help in working toward that goal.”

Nagai speaks softly, but she is no comforting mother. Faced with a student making excuses for not having done her homework, or turning up late for classes, she can be severe toward their “unprofessional attitude” — which she calls “housewife disease.”

“This school can be a clinic to cure that disease. I tell students they should regard their homework as their actual work, and their classes as their work appointments,” Nagai said.

“But at the same time, it’s amazing to see how they can change during the one year. They become more independent and start living their lives fully.”

Fuwa, the graduate working as a time-keeper at the event, said one of the most important things she got from the school was “courage” — courage to take a step forward in life. She now plans to work as a freelance writer for magazines.

“I’ve been a housewife for 10 years and it took a lot of energy to get out of the house and change my lifestyle. Now, I feel confident about myself, and I think I can rise to any challenge,” she said.

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