Long before Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared empowering women in the economy to be an essential pillar of his “Abenomics” strategy, Kyoko Higashiyama made it a rule in her company to create opportunities for women to land full-time employment and be able to work while raising children.
While the number of female entrepreneurs in Japan is still less than half that of males, many like Higashiyama, 42, are pioneers in their own right in creating business models that address social issues, such as the underutilization of women’s skills and waning rural economies.
Higashiyama’s Estrolabo is a small machikoba, or town factory, that specializes in precision metalwork drilling in Higashi-Osaka, Osaka Prefecture, a city known for its high density of factories. Of its four employees, three are mothers with young children still in elementary school, including two who are single mothers.
Just like craftsman at other machikoba factories, they work with extreme precision and care, maneuvering large machinery while reading complicated blueprints to drill holes as minuscule as 0.1 millimeters in diameter into metal.
“Sure, there is the pressure that I must not mess it up, but at the same time it also brings a sense of satisfaction,” one of the workers, 35-year-old single mother Megumi Shiotani, said of her job.
Shiotani and her husband divorced when her daughter was just 1 year old. To make a living, she looked for a job, but was turned down wherever she went. Company after company told her they would not hire her because she had a child and would likely often take leave at short notice, causing an inconvenience.
Her encounter with Higashiyama rescued her from despair and exhaustion.
“(At first) I was worried as I am rather clumsy with my hands,” she recalled. “But when I saw how the other women worked hard on this craftsmanship, I also felt like giving it a try.”
Shiotani has since turned into a skilled artisan at Estrolabo. She works from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., which enables her to make it in time to pick up her daughter, now in the third grade of elementary school, from after-school day care. It is Higashiyama’s policy not to ask her staff to work extra hours or on holidays, so they can attend to their childrearing needs.
Higashiyama launched her business at age 33, after an acquaintance suggested that she open a machikoba with only female workers.
While she herself is single, Higashiyama said she has seen many of her friends quit their jobs after they got married or once they had children. Government statistics show that even today, about 60 percent of working women in Japan quit their jobs upon the birth of their first child.
“So I thought if I am going to start a business, I’d want to proactively employ women who are raising children or caring for sick or elderly family members, and make it a company where they can continue to work” without having to quit due to such commitments in their private lives, she explained.
Keeping her business running under such considerations is not easy, however. For example, Higashiyama and her only male employee — her elder brother — must shoulder the burden of any overtime needed to complete unfinished work by deadlines.
Finances are also tight. Despite having made a profit from the third year after opening the business, her company slipped into the red due to loans taken out in the aftermath of the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy and is expected to take another year or two before it can return to the black, she said.
Still, Higashiyama is optimistic and has set her vision further down the road. First, she started a business importing sundries, which has nothing to do with metal processing but will provide a means for staff members to work from home should circumstances require them do so.
She also envisions expanding her staff to over 30 members by hiring people from different generations, so that they can have the flexibility to establish different work styles according to the needs and commitments at their stage of life.
Eventually, she would like to “let one of the mommy artisans take over as company president and I will become company chairman,” she said.
Meanwhile, miles away in Oshu, Iwate Prefecture, another female entrepreneur successfully established a new business producing bioethanol from rice, making use of idled farmland and stimulating the local economy.
Rina Sakai, 41, used to work in the finance industry until she quit 10 years ago and enrolled in the Tokyo University of Agriculture to study brewing.
After being asked for help by Oshu municipal officials and local farmers, Sakai launched a project to make ethanol fuel from rice. They did manage to extract ethanol, but the production costs were way too high to make ethanol fuel a profitable business.
Then, something from daily life caught Sakai’s eye — cosmetics. “The market for organic cosmetics is approaching ¥10 billion. There will be demand (for bioethanol) even if it’s expensive,” she thought.
Local farmers cultivated organic, industrial-use rice on paddies that had been left idle due to the government’s rice acreage-reduction policy. The rice is then fermented at Oshu Labo run by Sakai’s company, Fermenstation Co., to extract ethanol.
Branded as 100 percent natural ethanol from a traceable origin, it is sold to cosmetics makers at about ¥25,000 per liter. Demand from different outlets is growing, even though the market price of ordinary ethanol is only several hundred yen a liter.
Additive-free soap made from the rice lees after extraction is also enjoying brisk sales at department stores and other shops in Tokyo. Surplus lees are also provided to local poultry farmers in Oshu as feed, given its high nutritional value.
“This is a full-cycle ecobusiness that makes use of every bit (of the rice) to the fullest,” Sakai said proudly.
A mother of two, aged 3 and 7, Sakai usually works from her home office in Tokyo and communicates by phone several times a day with the female staff at Oshu Labo to check on the ethanol extraction processes such as temperature control.
She also goes to Oshu in person about three times a month, leaving Tokyo in the early morning on the first Shinkansen out and returning on the last train at night, while her husband takes care of the children for the day, she said.
Local farmers welcome the new business.
“For us farmers, nothing is more cruel than to be told ‘Don’t grow rice!'” said farmer Tsutomu Sato, apparently referring to the government’s policy since 1970 of trimming rice production to keep surplus rice off the market to prevent prices from falling. “She saved us.”
Similarly, Kunie Oikawa, who runs a farm stay, said, “Not only did she find a new use for our rice. She came to this land as a complete stranger, got us all united together and enlivened the whole community.”
Sakai’s business model of involving the local community in her endeavor has won various business contests both in Japan and abroad, and is beginning to gain attention. Her next goal is to apply her knowhow to utilize other idle farmland across the country.
“There are a lot of challenges, but I am excited about it,” she said with a big smile.