Corporate Japan is still male-dominated, and the nation’s trading houses are especially thought to be so because they tend to hire more men to handle tough negotiations overseas and hand women the back-office jobs that support them.

Yet in April, Itochu Corp. promoted Mitsuru Claire Chino to one of its executive officers, making her the first woman — and its youngest employee — to hold such a high-ranking position in a major trading house.

Chino, 47, recalled receiving the phone call from the president’s office informing her of the decision.

“Honestly speaking, I was very surprised to hear about the decision,” she said. “The president assured me that it wasn’t because I am a woman that I became an executive officer. But even so, there must be something they expect from me because I am a woman.”

Chino, who was born in the Netherlands and spent her early years in London, Los Angeles and Tokyo, said she has never felt that being female was a disadvantage.

“But it doesn’t mean I don’t need to do anything (for women). As the first female executive officer at a major trading firm in Japan, there are things that I can do and should do,” she said.

A graduate of Smith College and Cornell Law School, Chino is now the head of Itochu’s legal division. She joined the company in 2000 after making partner at San Francisco-based law firm Graham & James.

Although she speaks calmly and does not appear aggressive, Chino was nicknamed “Tough Cookie” during her time in the United States after becoming known for her aggressive pursuit of litigation and tough negotiating style. Many of her clients were Japanese companies.

Since joining Itochu, she has initiated programs to reduce the gender gap and encourage female employees.

The idea to launch diversity-promoting programs came soon after she was selected as one of the World Economic Forum’s 100 Global Leaders of Tomorrow in 2003.

One autumn day in 2002, Chino received a letter from the WEF that said she had been named a GLT, and inviting her to attend its heady annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, the following year.

There, she had to make an impromptu speech about why she deserved to be recognized as a GLT.

“I was the only Japanese woman. Since many of them were entrepreneurs, there were only a few people who were working for big corporations. So I said in the speech that I was selected because I have potential to achieve something for women working for Japanese corporations,” Chino said.

So after returning from Davos, she put her words into action.

She wrote an email to then-President Uichiro Niwa, reporting on her experience at Davos. Niwa invited her to lunch and suggested that she form a committee to achieve her goals.

Thus an in-house panel to promote diversity came into being, and Itochu took a number of initiatives to reduce its gender gap, including a mentoring system for female employees.

When the mentoring system was launched in 2004, there weren’t many women in senior positions who could help because Itochu didn’t start allowing women to pursue “sogoshoku” (career track jobs) until 1989.

Chino said the system was intended to provide a way for young women in the company to get work advice, but it also inspired its more experienced female workers.

“By tapping some women to be mentors to junior employees, they became aware of their leadership role,” she said, adding that many are now key players.

Thanks to Chino’s drive, the percentage of career track jobs held by women at Itochu has climbed to 9 percent from 2 percent in 2003.

“I see more women in various meetings at the company now. I think it’s a great achievement that it has become natural for female employees to be at meetings where important decisions are made,” she said.

Chino’s work goes beyond her company and the legal field, and she has been recognized highly by various international organizations.

In 2005, she was recognized as one of the WEF’s Young Global Leaders along with Rakuten Inc. President Hiroshi Mikitani and eight other Japanese.

She also was selected as one of 100 “Japanese Women Recognized by the World” by Newsweek Japan in 2006, and became one of the top 25 in-house counsels in Asia as chosen by Asia Legal Business.

She was named an Asia 21 fellow by the Asia Society in 2006 and a Yale World Fellow by Yale University in 2007.

In 2007, along with her fellow YGLs, Chino launched Table for Two, an NPO that provides healthy, well-balanced lunches to Japanese employees while using ¥20 of each sale to support school-meal programs in developing countries.

Chino, again with other YGLs, also helped start Beyond Tomorrow in 2011, a program to help young survivors of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake acquire higher education and become future leaders in Japan.

Beyond Tomorrow has two pillars — a scholarship program for students who want to get a higher education in Japan or abroad, and a leadership program to help students achieve their goals in the world.

Chino said she often attends breakfast meetings for YGLs and “Global Shapers” — young people in their 20s recognized by the WEF as influential people.

“Those people who are engaged in new projects inspire me,” Chino said.

Asked what her next goal is, Chino said she wants to get her legal team more actively involved in Itochu’s other business activities.

“I think legal functions in corporations will become even more important in the future,” she said.

Since trading companies are involved in several business sectors, the role of corporate legal teams is changing and expanding, she said.

As for promoting diversity in Japan, part of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s drive to spur the Japanese economy, Chino is committed to achieving it.

According to the WEF’s Global Gender Gap Report released last week, Japan now ranks 105th of 136 countries, mostly because of a drop in female lawmakers.

Chino believes that women should be committed and ambitious.

“Some women are hesitant to continue their work because they feel they can’t do it even before they start,” she said. “Women should be committed to their careers, and it is important to be ambitious to do excellent work.”

Chronology of key events for Chino

1966 — Born in the Netherlands. Lives in Britain until age 4.
1970 — Moves to Japan.
1980 — Moves to California with father at age 14.
1988 — Graduates from Smith College.
1991 — Graduates from Cornell Law School and joins law firm Graham & James.
1993 — Transfers to Hong Kong office.
1994 — Sent on loan to Itochu Corp. and spends more than a year in Japan. Becomes partner at Graham & James upon returning to California.
2000 — Joins Itochu and becomes corporate counsel.
2003 — Selected as one of 100 Global Leaders for Tomorrow by World Economic Forum.
2004 — Introduces mentor system at Itochu.
2005 — Named a Young Global Leader by WEF.
2006 — Named Asia 21 Fellow by Asia Society.
2007 — Starts Table for Two program at Itochu.
2010 — Appointed deputy manager of Itochu’s legal division.
2013 — Assumes post of executive officer.

“Generational Change” is a new series of interviews that will appear on the first Monday of each month, profiling people in various fields who are taking a leading role in changing society. Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to hodobu@japantimes.co.jp

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