We begin our special Women in Japan-US Business Profile series today and I am very pleased to be launching this year long interview series that will tell stories of Japanese and American women (and women of other nationalities too), who work in the Japan-US Business arena.
Someone with experience of Japan like myself, knows of the challenges that women face in the Japanese business world. In the past and still to too large a degree today, women are generally not utilized to their full potential in a Japanese company. That is of course changing and although slow, there are successful women out there who deserve to be spotlighted.
These women are trailblazers in business in a society that doesn't always support or encourage working women to reach their full potential.
My goal for this series is many- fold but mainly, I want to use Japan-US Business News to 1.) Spotlight talented women in Japan – US business and give them the recognition they deserve 2.) Show that the path to success is very varied 3.) Let the success of these women inspire and encourage other women, and Japanese women in particular, to keep striving.
We start with Yuko Shibata, Executive Director, ALC Education Inc in Japan. Read her story today and tomorrow and stay with us throughout the coming year as we tell more inspiring stories of successful women in Japan-US Business each month.
Part 2 of this interview will appear tomorrow.
Japan-US Business News: What was your educational experience? Was it helpful?
Shibata-san: During my elementary and junior high school years, I was always among the top three students in the class, and always in a leadership position such as class president or captain of the volleyball club. But, looking back, I’m not sure if I was popular among friends. I was a typical straight-A student from a rich family.
After a time, my family suffered major business setbacks. In junior high, I started to worry about saving my family the cost of continuing my education. I knew my family would not be able to afford the expensive tuition of a private high school, so I applied to only one public high school.
I remember feeling a little scared about whether I would be accepted, and that perhaps I would end up with no school at all. Fortunately, I was accepted, and this high school was ranked among the top five in our area. That meant I could get a great education without costing my family any money. This was a big relief for me. My concerns about my family’s hardships helped me become a better person, or at least inspired me to be a better person.
Although I was certainly capable of it, I was not a good student in my high school years. Instead, I spent those years as a drama queen, using my family situation as an excuse for not studying. My original desire was to become a medical doctor, one who could help as many people as possible. Then I found out I was not doing well in chemistry and physics, so I gave up all hope on that dream, and any thought of going into any career related to science in any way.
Unfortunately, my attitude slump continued through the end of high school. Although I’ve since become a very successful business executive, at that time it didn’t look like I was going to have much success in my life. Thankfully, I was wrong!
After graduation, my thinking was: “Too bad I can’t go to university, because we don’t have any money. I’ll just have to work after graduating from high school in order to save money for college.” And that’s what I did. I worked 14 hours a day in a jazz club for about two years in order to save enough money to go to college in Japan.
College in Japan is generally quite relaxed and enjoyable for non-science majors—not at all the tough challenge it can be in some countries. Most of my friends from high school were enjoying their college life, and I started wondering if it would be worth spending my hard-earned money for that kind of college life.
I was extremely tired most of the time, and feeling very negative about everything. Working so many hours a day left me exhausted and in a perpetual state of self-pity. Even saving every yen for school still wasn’t going to be enough to get me into a good Japanese university. It wasn’t just the cost; I was too tired to study for the extremely challenging entrance exams required by good universities.
A New Direction...
I’d never thought about leaving Japan, but I was feeling very stuck and wanted to change my life dramatically. One night a friend at the jazz club where I worked mentioned the idea of studying English abroad for a couple of months. That got me thinking about going to an English language school in the US, and I soon found myself applying for a student visa.
The language schools I checked into didn’t care about entrance exams. In fact, there didn’t seem to be any requirement at all except a copy of my bank statement to prove that I’d have enough money to pay them, and a promise that I would return to Japan after my studies. I decided to do it. I would start changing my life by changing where I lived. But it turned into quite a bit more than just a couple of months studying English abroad.
After giving up my dream of becoming a medical doctor, I had considered being a psychologist to help people with mental problems. As I contemplated studying in the USA, I remembered this dream.
At that time, the field of psychology was much more advanced in the West, so it made sense to study abroad. America seemed to be a way to get unstuck and change my life. With very little research, I selected Seattle as my new home because the living expenses there were relatively low at the time (this was 1977). I arrived in the U.S. just after the end of the Vietnam War and in the midst of the women’s movement.
I attended an English language school for six months. My English proficiency was low because I didn’t study English at all after graduating from high school. I am very embarrassed to say that my English test results were so bad that I had to start at the lowest possible level. But I applied myself diligently to my studies, and was able to skip a few levels, leaving at the end of the six months at almost the highest level.
Lack of money continued to be a major factor in my decisions, so I applied to a community college, where the quarterly fees allowed me to take as many classes as I could handle for a fixed price. Continuing without a break from quarter to quarter, I sometimes took as many as 27 credits at a time.
Through a combination of good planning, lots of studying, and a clear goal of getting into a good university as quickly as possible, I managed to accumulate over 90 credits in just 5 quarters with an excellent GPA.
Less than two years after my arrival in the US, I applied to the University of Washington, Seattle—one of the best schools in the region. Equipped with my lofty GPA, an impressive TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) score, my SAT results, and a “slightly adjusted” high school transcript, I was accepted as a junior in the Psychology Department. It wasn’t any easier than working in the jazz club, but at least I felt like I was doing something with my life and was going somewhere.
Education Doesn’t Just Happen in School...
Living in the U.S. was a valuable experience for me and enabled me to explore a totally different culture and meet people from all over the world.
Getting to know veterans of the Vietnam War in the shared housing where I lived opened my mind to the realities of the broader world. Many curious people asked me about the culture of Japan, which sparked thoughts about aspects of my own culture that I’d never previously considered. Meeting people from many different countries inspired me to study the history of Japan in relationship to the world.
This was a time of great change for the women’s liberation movement. Women were aggressively demanding their rights. I was aware of the necessity of this movement because of the situation in the business world in Japan -- men dominated the business world, and women worked for lower salaries for the same jobs, were unlikely to be promoted, were expected to leave after a few years to get married and have children, and were assumed to be working merely to find a husband anyway.
But I had mixed feelings about the way in which some of the more radical feminists were going about it. While I was of course supportive of the concept of women having the same rights as men, I didn’t want to become a man to achieve it.
My study of history had convinced me that the aggressiveness of men had been responsible for much of the strife in the world, and I felt strongly that women should not adopt the ineffective strategies of men in order to succeed in business.
My studies in behavioral psychology helped me to put all this in perspective. In school I was learning that people can experience the same thing in very different ways. For the next few years I had a heightened awareness of the different perspectives of other people, and I took great care with how I communicated, preferring to listen to others rather than to freely share my own somewhat naïve ideas about life.
These experiences had a huge impact on my life, and influenced me to do the work I am doing now, which is to bring people together in the business world from many different cultures to work together to solve the problems of our world.
Japan-US Business News: What was your professional experience?
Shibata-san: Working and studying at the same time left me feeling uninspired about going to graduate school, so I returned to Japan with my B.A. in psychology and no money. At that time, someone with a university degree from another country was not considered an attractive candidate for a Japanese company.
In the 1980s, Japanese businesses sought employees who would fit into and conform to the existing culture, and someone with my breadth of worldly experience certainly didn’t show promise in conforming to current norms.
Initially, I took a job with a company funded by a wealthy Libyan businessman. Frequent visits from the owner convinced me that his goal was less business related and more on a personal level, so I left after one year. The job wasn’t interesting at all, so I didn’t mind moving on.
Although I knew that I wasn’t likely to enjoy the financial industry, I found a good-paying job with an American financial company, Solomon Brothers. After one month, I realized that I wanted to do something with human beings, so I started searching for a job in the education industry.
A New Path...
The economy was very difficult at that time, but I managed to find a position at an English-language school in Tokyo where my work and life experiences were considered a plus.
Although I was supposed to be a counselor, my real job was to sell the programs to the people I was “counseling.” I didn’t know it at the time, but I am a born salesperson, and my sales skills would become extremely valuable to me as my career progressed.
The work was demanding, but that would have been okay if only I had believed in the services we were offering. In fact, people were paying us just to have a conversation with one of our good-looking native English speakers, for whom we loosely used the term “instructor.” But just chatting with a native speaker doesn’t make you a better communicator in English. I quit within two years.
This wasn’t what I had expected after getting a college education. After all those years of hard work to obtain an education, I had hopped from one job to the next without much to show for it. Little did I know that this kind of career experience was a terrific preparation for what would become my life’s work.
It was time for another trip abroad to catalyze another big change in my life, so I escaped to the U.S. on a tourist visa. I made my way on tips from jobs in Japanese restaurants owned by Korean people who kindly overlooked the fact that that I wasn’t supposed to work while being a tourist.
For all of my education, I was making more money than ever by being a waitress! But that quickly wore thin, and I returned to Japan and resurrected my career in the education services industry, where I’ve been working ever since.
In the beginning, I was most interested in English language skills and cross-cultural awareness, but I grew to realize that a set of core human skills unites us across linguistic, cultural, and other boundaries.
English and cultural awareness are tools, but true breakthroughs in communication, and in building relationships, occur when people can walk in another person’s shoes and connect on a heart level.
Over the next two decades, I built my career and experiences working for different companies. For six of those years, I worked for one of the biggest companies in the education industry at the time where I was responsible for establishing alliances with educational institutions outside of Japan and sending thousands of Japanese business people (mostly men) overseas to experience first-hand what it meant to be an international business professional.
I was quickly promoted to manager and received a dizzying series of raises—most of which were kept secret because they came much faster than was typical for a person in my position.
To be continued ... Tomorrow in Part 2 of this interview, learn how Shibata-san's education and professional experiences takes her to the top.
For more information about Yuko Shibata and ALC Education, Inc. and their Global Management Programs, please visit:
ALC Education (English)
ALC Education (Japanese)