Commentary / Japan

A Japanese trailblazer who wore stilettos

by Yumiko Murakami

On the Group of 20 summit stage next to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Haruno Yoshida held her head high. She was dressed in a sleek black pantsuit and her trademark stiletto. I said to her later that day, “Yoshida-san, you looked great on the stage, especially with those shoes. l wish I could walk in high heels as elegantly as you can.” With a mischievous smile, she told me that she would give me special training for walking in stiletto sometime.

It didn’t occur to me at the time that this giggly exchange of words was going to be my last conversation with her. Yoshida passed away from heart failure on June 30, the day after she presented at the G20 conference the report that she had worked on as the chair of the Women 20 committee. She was 55 years old.

A trailblazer is an appropriate description of the electrifying and vibrant force of change for which Yoshida came to be known in Japanese society.

Appointed in 2015 as the first female vice chair of the Board of Councillors at Keidanren, Japan’s powerful business lobby, Yoshida became a poster child of Japan’s efforts to promote female leaders by both government and business. She led a numerous gender equality initiatives, made policy recommendations in several government committees and spoke at public events regularly. Her tireless efforts and fierce leadership to promote gender parity made Yoshida an iconic figure to represent a change taking place in a male-dominated society that was trying to adjust itself to the realities of the 21st century.

Yoshida was born and raised in Japan at the time when it was still rare for women to pursue professionals careers. After graduating from prestigious Keio University, she married a Canadian and relocated to Vancouver. After divorcing, she was faced with the daunting task of raising her daughter as a single mother. “My survival instinct kicked in,” Yoshida later said about her intense focus on her career as a telecommunications marketing manager.

Economic necessity was her first driver but soon she found herself advancing her career at several telecommunications companies in Canada, the United States and Japan. She attributed her success to the results-oriented nature of her sales profession. After racking up an impressive track record as a sales manager, she was scouted by British Telecom as the first female president of its Japan office in 2012.

With her trademark stiletto often accompanied by her bright red lipstick and a Birkin bag in her hand, Yoshida did not project the traditional vision of what business leaders look like, particularly in the ultra-conservative Japanese business community. Yoshida once confided me that men would sometimes make comments about what she was wearing. She shrugged off such comments and said that she hoped they would someday learn not to judge a person by their appearance — an important prerequisite to understanding and promoting diversity.

Yoshida never changed her personal style. In a sea of gray suits, it was always easy to spot her in her swanky outfits. For many women, including myself, it was a breath of fresh air to see her wearing the latest Chanel jacket and Prada shoes, and sharing the stage with some of the most prominent male leaders in this country.

While Yoshida presented a dynamic and gregarious persona to the outside world, she was a sensitive and gentle soul deep inside. She generously shared her life stories with other women in an effort to inspire them. Often this meant that she would tell them about her personal failings as well. But she had a special talent for talking about her setbacks in such a humorous way that her conversations with people would always end in laughter. Even when she talked about her harsh experience raising a daughter as a single mother in a foreign country, her story would finish on a bright note.

My favorite story was her idea to invent noise cancellation microphones for working mothers. Her daughter’s favorite DVD, “Tarzan,” would be often playing when she needed to have conference calls at home. Desperately trying to conceal the roar of Tarzan in the background, she came up with the idea of noise-cancellation microphones. “You see, how women have tons of great ideas. We just have to find ways to bring them to the market and make money,” she said, laughing brightly, and added that she would have been a millionaire if she had had the means to commercialize her idea back then.

Yoshida was a firm believer in women’s economic empowerment. One of the first initiatives she tackled as the chair of the gender diversity committee of Keidaren was to measure the economic impact of female labor market participation. She believed that by demonstrating the positive financial impact of womenomics on companies, business leaders would be able to embrace the true notion of diversity and promote women at the workplace.

She painstakingly collected information about products and services invented by women or targeted at female consumers. The work conducted by her and the committee was showcased at various conferences and meetings. Based on her experience as a sales manager, Yoshida knew numbers would speak much louder than propaganda.

The last time I had a lunch with Yoshida a few months ago, we were talking about what it was that motivated her to carry on fighting for women. She replied that she had a vision of a world in which women didn’t have to make a binary choice between family and work. She wanted to create a society where her daughter would not have to make the same sacrifices as she did in order to pursue a career. She believed that her vision could become a reality with the help of technology.

With her untimely death, Yoshida has left this world with many unfilled dreams, such as playing with her future grandchildren. But her aspiration to create a society in which women can balance life and work will carry on because she has touched so many men and women with this vision during her life. I, for one, have much for which to thank her for having broken so many barriers for women, including wearing stiletto in business meetings. Yoshida-san will be missed.

Yumiko Murakami is head of the OECD Tokyo Centre, where she engages in policy discussions between the OECD and governments, businesses and academia in Japan and Asia, covering a wide range of economic policy issues.