For Miyuki Zeniya, the first female full-time board member in Japan’s banking industry, her challenge at Saikyo Bank is a challenge to the country’s conservative banking world.

In April, the small regional bank in Yamaguchi Prefecture with assets of 673.2 billion yen headhunted Zeniya, 42, from Hu-Management Japan Co., an outplacement firm at which she was a managing director. Two months later, the bank made her a senior managing director to be based in Tokyo.

Her first mission was to re-energize the bank by cultivating new demand. Her second was to get information about the multitude of lending and investment opportunities in Tokyo.

“I was surprised myself. I didn’t expect I would draw this much attention,” Zeniya said in a recent interview, referring to the heavy media exposure she’s received since joining the board.

The attention underlines the fact that Japan lags far behind the West in promoting female executives, despite the rapid globalization of business itself.

“The Japanese banking sector is still a very conservative world,” Zeniya said.

Her arrival was part of Saikyo Bank’s efforts to survive fierce competition amid a major reorganization of the banking industry.

Before Zeniya’s appointment, Saikyo Bank last year received the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry’s award for actively placing women in important positions.

The bank had also started a unique mobile banking service involving buses equipped with automated teller machines to provide easier access to people in rural areas.

As a result, Saikyo Bank was able to report a 1.02 billion yen net profit in fiscal 2003, after posting a 6.23 billion yen net loss in fiscal 2000.

With Zeniya on the board, more new services are being introduced, including two new loan products exclusively targeted at working women.

One is a housing loan of up to 60 million yen with a maximum term of 35 years. Women who are contractual employees or temp staff often find it difficult to get loans, Zeniya said. The new housing loan is designed to help such women.

Another is loans for women who want to go to business school or obtain a vocational license. Japanese firms have mostly selected men when sending employees to business schools overseas, but in recent years more and more women are going on their own initiative, she said. The limit of these loans is 3 million yen, with a term of between six months and seven years.

Zeniya’s next project is to offer financial tools to a growing segment of female entrepreneurs whom she says have little chance of getting loans from banks.

Zeniya knows that catering to customer demand is of one of the most important principles in the service industry, a lesson ingrained in her memory from her days at Nomura Research Institute, Jardine Fleming Investment Trust and Advisory Co. and Hu-Management.

Even so, many banks “still don’t realize what kinds of services people want,” she said.

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