Sara Blakely’s story is inspirational. The 41-year-old Floridian began her working life as a door-to-door fax-machine salesperson. Then one day she looked in the mirror — but not at her face.

She realized that she needed underwear that didn’t show lines and held in her wobbly bits. This led to her investing a few thousand dollars and launching, in 2000, her Spanx brand of undergarments. Fast forward 12 years and her business is worth $1 billion.

This is not just a story about securing, if you will, your bottom line. It is a template for female entrepreneurship. Women don’t need empowering; they empower themselves with their insight into human needs and their perseverance in fulfilling them.

The Blakely example came to mind when considering a new — at least in name — model of business ventures for women in Japan. Called puchi kigyō, where “puchi” stands for the French petit, this therefore translates as “small startups.”

Japanese corporations and established businesses have traditionally not welcomed women into their upper echelons. The corporate culture here is decidedly male and clubby, although some companies are making great efforts to change this. Long hours that include after-work schmoozing, requirements that place company loyalty over family commitment, and the dominance of the old-boy government-industry network stand as de facto barriers to female advancement.

Many women today are opting to start their own enterprises, creating businesses whose direction they can control. The potential for women to latch on to ideas and turn them into profitable ventures is enormous — so much so that last month this model was called “an engine for the expansion of domestic demand and economic growth” on the popular NHK news program, “Closeup Gendai.”

The employees at Yuka Mitsuhata’s company, Mo-House, are all women. They are allowed to bring their babies to the office and it is not uncommon to see an employee breastfeeding in front of a computer.

Mitsuhata — one of whose mottos is “Working mothers can save Japan!” — realized there was a need for practical and stylish junyū fuku (clothes for breastfeeding). Mo-House now does ¥2 billion of business annually and hasn’t seen a single year in the red in 15 years. In the past year, she has dedicated time to helping young mothers in the northeastern Tohoku region hit by last year’s Great East Japan Eartquake and tsunami on March 11, then the ongoing crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. If there’s a breakdown in electricity supply and powdered milk is not available, it is vital, says Mitsuhata, that mothers continue to breastfeed their babies.

Meanwhile, it wasn’t breastfeeding that inspired Eri Kikunaga, 32, but earrings for pierced ears that had a tendency to become loose and fall on the floor. She came up with the idea of a “pierce catch” that was easy to use and utterly reliable. Well, the catch caught on; and she is now president of the very successful company named Chrysmela.

When she started her company up, Kikunaga needed to find somewhere her idea could be turned into a product. She went to Nagano Prefecture and found a metal-working factory going through tough times. So, in the process of generating Chrysmela’s income, she also became the medium for rescuing a business that, without her, may well have gone to the wall.

Both Mitsuhata and Kikunaga found success by putting their finger on a genuine need and devising the right strategy to satisfy it. This has been the case with women who have started up successful nonprofit organizations (NPOs) as well. Women who found puchi kigyō or NPOs do so with respect and compassion for their customers and employees alike.

The role of women’s businesses in welfare, health care and related services is growing. Seeing as this is certain to be an expanded area of concern in Japan and many other countries, the ageing society presents a major opportunity for women to prosper and for Japan to create new ventures for exporting.

Yoko Kihira, now in her early 60s, runs an NPO that provides meals for the elderly. “I want to see a society where people can live in old age without cares,” she says, “a place where the elderly can meet and have a laugh.”

For startup funds, Kihira borrowed money from 50 friends, since many older people in Japan have money that just sits in a bank garnering minuscule interest. Interestingly, almost all the people who lent her money were women. “The men,” says Kihira, “were too interested in making money; the women weren’t. They gave because their instincts told them (the business) was interesting.”

Founded in 1999, her community restaurant for old people took off, and she branched out into delivering food to care centers for the disabled. She now also mounts events and runs computer classes for the elderly.

Setsuko Yanagita, a woman in her 50s, has spent five years in Hong Kong and four in Thailand and has published books on children with speech difficulties. She has also appeared on television as an expert on these matters, having in 2004 founded an NPO to support people with the language disorder aphasia and families with children who have child-development disorder.

As Japan makes the inevitable post-industrial shift away from manufacturing and toward service industries, there is a crying need for female ingenuity and drive in every aspect of lifestyle design — from housing, education, pet care and clothing to advertising and whatever. If Japan is to become a caring, innovative nation, it will be thanks to its women joining the workforce and them taking charge.

This is the message of author Mayumi Abe in her book “Sakutto Puchi Kigyō” (“Your Own Little Business Now!”), published in 2009 by Index Communications. Written for “women who want to work but can’t get into the workforce,” this book, says Abe, gives women the know-how “to acquire power to earn by yourself and to protect your family and your way of life.”

Thanks to the countless Japanese women who have taken the initiative to form their own companies and channel their ideas and energy into money-making ventures or NPOs, the nation is being shown a new path to growth and development that bypasses firms of the past typified by their grandiose, aggressive manufacturing schemes. Although many such industrial projects once worked miracles, Japan can no longer rely on them in the face of heightened competition from other Asian countries.

Finally, lest we forget, all of this was made possible by the Japanese women who have fought over the years for women’s rights in the workplace, the home and society at large. In fact a wonderful book titled “Women Pioneers” that was published last year by the Osaka Gender Equality Foundation presents a portrait, in interviews translated superbly by Seth Yarden, of 10 pioneering Japanese feminists. I recommend this bilingual book to anyone who wants to acquire a vision of what a Japan with truly equal rights will look like in the future.

“I would like both men and women to understand women’s perspectives and cooperate with each other,” the eminent chemist Kimiko Anno (1910-2009), a former president of the Society of Japanese Women Scientists, declared. “I feel very strongly that our old social customs, our ways of thinking about gender roles, which tell us that men are to go to work and women are to stay home, have got to be changed.”

Sadly, those sentiments that Anno expressed in the mid-1970s are as true today as they were then. And it is Japanese women like those mentioned above who are helping change the perspectives of women and men by their brilliant example.

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