About 20 ambitious women in their 20s and 30s, some from as far afield as Hiroshima and Miyagi prefectures, gathered one Saturday at a Women Entrepreneurs School course in Tokyo.

Presenting their plans and goals later in the day, one told of her dream of owning a restaurant, while another said she hopes to use the course to mold her vague ideas into a definite business plan.

The five-session course, held on Saturdays in Shibuya, teaches the women accounting and how to complete business plans, as well as how to hire staff and methods of promoting their businesses through the media.

After completing their business plans, the students hold discussions with their classmates and lecturers.

“I wanted to give myself an incentive to move on,” rather than narrowing my possibilities by always taking the safest way, said Yoko Zaikawa, 26, of Miyagi Prefecture, explaining why she joined the class.

Although Zaikawa is unsure what kind of business she wants to create, she already carries a set of business cards bearing the title “shacho ni naru” (would-be president).

Zaikawa is one of an increasing number of women who are eager to start their own businesses — an option that has become available to women in recent years.

Some said they came to their decision after realizing the “equal opportunities for men and women” slogan was just a facade. Others, stifled by the nation’s rigid labor market or unable to re-enter the workforce after taking leave to raise children, said they simply have no other options.

Some experts say the time has come for such a change, citing the growing range of how-to books and forums aimed at aspiring female entrepreneurs.

The national and local governments are eager to offer their support, hoping the businesswomen will create more jobs and help revitalize the ailing economy.

Some 2,392 women received loans from the public financial body National Life Finance Corp. to set up new businesses in fiscal 2001 excluding March, for which data are not available yet, up from 1,315 in fiscal 1999.

As of June, there were 64,079 female company presidents, according to Teikoku Databank Ltd., which said the number has been steadily increasing since the survey began in 1980.

Advances in information technology and the structural shift from heavy industries to service industries has enabled women to become more active in an increasing number of areas.

“More than 4,500 women aged between 18 and 83 have attended our course in 12 years,” said Kyoko Okutani of Women’s World Banking Japan. “Of them, nearly 1,000 have already set up businesses,” including a recycling shop, a cafe, a care center for the elderly and an organic bakery.

Women’s intuition

WWB Japan, launched in 1990 as the Japan branch office of the worldwide nongovernmental organization, holds two-day bimonthly courses encouraging entrepreneurial women.

“Women are more on the side of the consumer’s point of view and they try to solve people’s problems through their businesses, while men would rather stick to making a profit,” Okutani said by way of explaining why her group acts as an advocate for female entrepreneurs.

“Safety, authenticity and simplicity” have been ignored in this male-dominated, money-oriented economy. And as women are more likely to respond to the demand for these three principles, Okutani said, it is time for them to establish businesses.

Men are too focused on appearance and status, whereas women stick to reality, she added.

Okutani said most of her 1,000 graduates who started businesses are only breaking even or just making a slight profit.

“Women don’t seek excessive profit to unnecessarily enlarge their businesses,” she explained. “(They know that) making a huge profit is not the only measure to assess whether the business is going well. They would rather seek fulfillment.”

Despite the growing trend, the number of female business owners is still relatively low, according to Shiro Sato, a professor at Atomi Gakuen Women’s College.

Sato, who believes women will stimulate the economy as well as society, laments the fact that women’s potential abilities are not being fully utilized.

Japan needs more female company presidents, Sato said, pointing out that in the United States, more than 9 million enterprises are owned by women.

“American female firm owners organize extensive networks so they can pressure the government effectively,” he said, adding that a lack of networking among Japan’s female entrepreneurs has prevented them from doing the same.

Kahoko Tsunezawa, organizer of the Women Entrepreneurs School, said her own experience had taught her the need for such networks.

She said the course is not only to encourage women but also to help them develop a network. Students are registered on a members’ Web-based mailing list, enabling them to contact each other to share their experiences, information and opinions even after they have completed the course.

Tsunezawa, who is also president of marketing company Trenders Inc., which she founded in 2000 at the age of 26, said it was very hard when she ran into difficulties after starting out and had no one to turn to for advice.

“I wasted a lot of time thinking alone what to do,” she said. “But when I happened to meet with other female company owners and listened to them, the problems were instantly solved.”

Tsunezawa said the course also makes the idea of starting a business a reachable goal for all woman, encouraging them to consider it among their options when deciding on an occupation.

“I want to inspire women who lack confidence, and change their tendency of saying that they don’t deserve to be a company president.”

Tsunezawa’s efforts seem to be bearing fruit. A third of her current class did not previously believe that setting up their own businesses would ever be possible, yet now they are ready to take the first step. Tsunezawa is expecting more potential female entrepreneurs to knock on her door.

Perseverance necessary

Shigeko Mitsuhashi, president and founder of Tourism Essentials Inc., which dispatches tour conductors to travel agencies, welcomes the increase in female entrepreneurs.

However, she cautions that although it is easy to go out and start up a business, keeping the company going is not.

A former flight attendant, and known as a pioneer in the national travel industry, Mitsuhashi established her tour conductor company in 1973, when the government fully lifted the ban on overseas travel.

Today, her company racks up 3 billion yen in sales and has more than 1,500 employees.

She is critical of some women who see making profits as evil, saying that if women hope to survive in the business world, they had better change their way of thinking.

“Without making profits, the business will go under, depriving people of jobs,” she said.

Mitsuhashi pointed out that paying workers and corporate taxes are another way of contributing to society.

“Once you set up a company and hire workers, the responsibility you must shoulder is enormous,” she said, adding that some would-be female entrepreneurs lack an encompassing managerial view.

If her words make potential entrepreneurs feel like giving up before they begin, she said, then they are not ready to face the hardships ahead.

Seiichiro Yonekura, a professor at Hitotsubashi University Institute of Innovation Research in Kunitachi, western Tokyo, agrees.

Although the number of female business starters is increasing, their lack of managerial skills is preventing the movement from growing further, he said.

Yonekura, who advocates venture businesses, thinks women have good ideas but often fail to utilize and expand them due to their lack of management skills.

“Women limit themselves by saying that their ideas should not be a big business.”

Yonekura also blames a society in which those who take on a challenge and fail find themselves the target of criticism. People should be praised for taking action, he said.

“People must be aware that nobody falls down without making a step forward.”

Tsunezawa, of the entrepreneurs school, believes people can always recover, no matter how many times they fail. Experience of failure helps you learn, she said.

“The Japanese talk too much about risks, but what exactly are the risks?” she asked. “I would rather take the challenge than be afraid of invisible risks.”

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