Chika Kako is a rarity in Toyota Motor Corp.’s upper echelons.
Last month, the 50-year-old was promoted to the No. 2 job at the luxury Lexus division, becoming the only woman among the automaker’s top 53 managers. President Akio Toyoda has made diversifying his executive lineup a priority, but while six foreigners have risen to the company’s highest ranks, the elevation of women has been slower.
“To be honest, I never really thought about approaching my work from the point of view of being a woman,” said Kako, who Toyota made available for a group interview at its main Nagoya office after an annual roundtable event to introduce new executives. “My mission has always been to just speak my mind.”
Even with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s “womenomics” push, Japan hasn’t made much progress at getting women into positions of power. The auto industry, in particular, remains a man’s world. Nissan Motor Co. leads the pack in terms of gender equality, with women making up more than 10 percent of its domestic managers. At Toyota, fewer than 2 percent of the company’s 9,977 managers are women.
“Kako-san is a role model,” said Tatsuo Yoshida, an auto analyst at Sawakami Asset Management Inc. in Tokyo. “There are a lot of young women engineers in the company who can look at her career path and say, ‘I want to be like her.’ ”
Toyota’s diversity push suffered a setback in 2015 when its then-highest-ranking female executive, head of communications Julie Hamp, was forced to resign after she violated Japan’s drug laws by illegally importing painkillers. Hamp was hired away from PepsiCo. Inc. in 2012.
Kako is the first woman to reach the rank of managing officer by climbing the corporate ladder inside Toyota. She joined in 1989, the same year the automaker made women eligible for career-track jobs.
After a stint in Belgium, where she worked on refining vehicle interiors, Kako became Toyota’s first female chief engineer. Her first assignment, in 2013, was overseeing a refresh of the Lexus CT hybrid hatchback.
Now she’s the second-in-command for the entire Lexus division, an important business that’s lost a step lately. Lexus hasn’t led luxury car sales in the U.S. since 2010, and last year the brand slipped below the industry average in a closely watched study by J.D. Power of new-car quality. This week, Lexus notched a victory by scoring first in the researcher’s survey of long-term dependability for the seventh consecutive year.
“We need a broad vision for Lexus,” Kako said. “We want to be a distinctive brand. Trying to cover everything is not our style.”
One thing hasn’t changed in the almost 30 years since Kako started at Toyota: she’s still single.
“I just didn’t have a chance to get married,” she said. “Maybe in the future, why not? I don’t think it’s good to just focus just on your job and not have any experience outside work.”