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Empowering Women for Roles of Business Leadership in Japan

By Keith Jackson
December 23, 2022
The winds from the snow-capped mountain peaks of Davos, Switzerland, continue to blow frostily for women in Japan who aspire to leadership roles in business, politics and other influential spheres of social activity. Yes, this year’s Global Gender Gap Report published by the World Economic Forum (WEF) sees Japan ranked at 116th out of the 146 countries surveyed (WEF, 2022). This is an improvement on Japan’s ranking last year: 120th. However, before national celebrations (albeit, muted) begin, we should recognize how the WEF estimates that it will take 132 years to reach full gender parity across all the societies they survey. In response, and closer to home, we can ask questions such as:

  • ·       Why do ambitious women in Japan continue to face challenges of inequity of career opportunity as they strive towards achieving leadership roles in business?
  • ·       Why do women commonly experience an absence of encouragement and empowerment as they strive towards achieving roles and responsibilities as leaders of business in Japan?

This article proposes answers to such questions. It also suggests practical solutions.
A business meeting in Japan being led by a female manager
Japan's current ranking in the Global Gender Gap report is low, but changes are taking place


We can begin by defining ‘leadership’. In contexts for international business education there are many definitions available, each of which (when we look closely) displaying something of its military origin. For now, we can draw on research published (2015) by McKinsey, a global business consultancy. Here, leadership is defined as:

  • ·       A set of behaviors used to help people align their collective direction, to execute strategic plans, and to continually renew an organization.

We should note the emphasis given in this definition to demonstrable (and thereby assessable) and observable (and thereby imitable, learnable) behaviours. With its reference to ‘people’, we should also note that the definition is gender neutral. We should note the emphasis on purpose and, by extension, on performance. According to experts at McKinsey & Company, the strategic purpose of business leadership is to continually renew.

Correspondingly, we can note outstanding behaviours that the McKinsey article identifies as exemplifying ‘effective leadership’ across countries and types of organization:

  •     ·       Being supportive
  •     ·       Operating with a strong results orientation
  •     ·       Seeking different perspectives
  •     ·       Solving problems effectively

We can each now think of our current ‘boss’ at work, or visualize ourselves as the type of ‘leader’ we aspire to become. To what extent might gender facilitate our learning and demonstration of the above-listed behaviours, how, and why? To what extent might we each feel encouraged – or, in our current work situation, empowered - to learn, improve and be rewarded as we attempt to demonstrate leadership behaviours such as those listed above? From where might we take role models, whose leadership behaviours we might have observed over time and across contexts for ‘problem solving’ and thereby draw inspiration and guidance towards seeing out opportunities for ourselves to rehearse leadership? And, having received opportunities to rehearse, what type of leadership role would we like to play, and why?

As with the term ‘management’, reference to leadership has become familiar worldwide and used freely - in English - across contexts for the study and practice of international business. However, as John Kotter (2013) argues with considerable vigour, we should make a clear distinction between processes of management and the behaviours that we can describe as leadership. For Kotter: ‘Leadership is about vision, about people buying in, about empowerment and, most of all, about producing useful change (Kotter, 2013:2 - my emphasis)

We return to the complex matter of empowerment later in this discussion. For now, we can test these definitions by reflecting on our own observations and experiences of both management and of leadership in professional life. We can visualize and attempt to explain the extent to which behaviours demonstrated routinely by our current ‘boss’ might be assessed to be ‘producing useful change’. We can ask critical questions about what might be assessed as ‘useful’, and from whose perspective. For those of us working freelance or as sole entrepreneurs (i.e., ‘being our own boss’), we can test the validity of the definitions above by applying them self-critically to our own behaviours in business.

We can draw relevant insights by imagining more widely. For example, we can speculate on questions such as: What if the current Governor of the Bank of Japan were a woman? Would we expect decisions about Japan’s economic policy to be made differently? Possibly. Would the thinking – individual and collective – that inform those decisions be managed differently? Probably.

Why ‘probably’?

One immediate answer is because gender remains a constant and reliable variable for data gathering and analysis in social, cultural, anthropological and psychological research. Biologically, women are different from men. Arguably, and as influenced through processes of human evolution, women tend to perceive and calculate risks and opportunities differently from men. For example, women tend to be more long-term future oriented while simultaneously appearing more in tune with the exigencies of the ‘here and now’. We can refer generally to these scientifically researched behaviours as distinctive expressions of a ‘survival instinct’.

With such informed assertions in mind, we can re-consider more critically what I earlier termed the ‘gender neutrality’ of the leadership behaviours highlighted in the aforementioned McKinsey (2015) article: i.e., being supportive; operating with a strong results orientation; seeking different perspectives; solving problems effectively. Referring to this list of behaviours and reflecting on how they continue to be illustrated and emphasized in a continuing range of publications on the same theme, we can reflect on our own observations in contexts where we consider that business leadership is being demonstrated; or, conversely, appears lacking. We can speculate about how the leadership behaviours listed above might be interpreted similarly and / or differently by the men and women we work with and for in Japan.

The challenges of empowerment

Every concept definition and, by extension, every theory in social scientific research is premised on arguments. During my own observation and professional experience as a manager of human resources in Japan and in countries across Europe, I can confirm that empowerment (however translated or interpreted) remains one of the most academically contented and, to many current managers appointed to positions of leadership in organizations, one the most dismissed, misinterpreted, or even misused. Thus, in the context of our current discussion the conceptual and practical premise for promoting empowerment as an opportunity relevant towards encouraging women in Japan to aspire to and assume roles of business leadership is, I contend, a priori skewed, biased, and therefore justifiably contested. However, let us proceed nonetheless.

We can begin with what we see: the written word. The Cambridge English Dictionary (online edition) defines ‘power’ as ‘control over people and things that happen’ and ‘the legal right to do something’ (Cambridge English Dictionary, 2022). On this basis, reference to empowerment can be interpreted as a process that is informed by assumptions that one party has power that might be loaned or otherwise transferred to another party, permanently or temporarily.

Invoking possibilities for empowerment suggests an established social hierarchy: i.e., the recognition that some individuals in society have (over time) accumulated – or laid claim to – more resources of power than others. Correspondingly, one illustration from the aforementioned ‘misuse’ of empowerment occurs when senior managers delegate responsibility to subordinates for task or project failure while simultaneously denying these ‘empowered’ employees any meaningful benefits or rewards for task or project success.

As a non-Japanese working in Japan, it is tempting to draw on texts such as Bushido and note how Nitobe (1969) explains – from a samurai warrior perspective – dominant social expectations informing The Training and Position of Woman. We can learn how the stable social order expects women to accept social roles and responsibilities that – through modern eyes, perhaps – appear domesticated and servile. We can dig conceptually more deeply and learn from non-Japanese scholars about how the kanji (original Chinese character) for ‘woman’ [女] might be interpreted as representing ‘a kneeling woman with arms crossed’ (O’Neill, 1991:34).

Consequently, discussions of who might empower whom in Japanese society and business continue to be framed using established assumptions and discourses of social hierarchy, and thereby of male superiority. As such, discussions among men and women about a ‘gender gap’ in Japan begin from points of reference that are embedded in tradition. Indeed, and recalling the neighbourhood that Japan the nation continues to occupy in the aforementioned WEF Global Gender Gap rankings, these embedded conceptualizations might be assumed to explain the current social status of who strive, professionally and personally, to move beyond the embedded social expectations of so-called ‘Japanese tradition’.

For, in Japan as in other societies worldwide, women are socialized through and grow up with the recurring experience of being defined biologically in relation to their ‘sex’ and by extension, socially, in comparison to ‘men’. Can this be justified today? To illustrate, in English language the descriptor ‘female’ has until recently been by default contrasted against ‘male’: the concept of male appears twice in this either / or distinction. There have been moves to challenge this by default distinction. For example, surveys designed by social scientists and by government agencies still include profile questions about an individual’s ‘gender’. However, choices of response have been extended to include answers such as ‘other’ or ‘prefer not to say’. In responding to such surveys, women, men and individuals of diverse genders can participate more on the basis of what they each have to say and otherwise contribute to society rather than in relation to what others pre-define as their ‘gender’ or ‘sex’. Legally, socially, bureaucratically, and by international comparison, such freedom of individual response in Japan appears still uncommon.

For those in power, such changes might be regarded as ‘cosmetic’. For, in Japan as elsewhere in the world, women of all ages and ethnicities continue to encounter expressions of social, cultural and biological identification that are reinforced and, commonly (albeit, tacitly) justified by those currently with the power to empower. In terms of individual professional or career advancement, women in Japan continue to encounter social, cultural and legal classifications, and in some cases, social exclusions, the bias of which may have become less explicit but whose impact remains discouraging. In short, whatever the quality of attempts to justify – or underestimate - the challenges of low social expectation that continue to discourage the professional aspirations of women in Japan, the starting position for discussion and debate about empowerment linked to leadership is partial and, as I argue elsewhere, unfair (Jackson, 2020).

To illustrate: we can choose to identify Osaka Naomi as ‘a female tennis player’. We can also identify Osaka san as ‘a talented athlete who competes professionally in women’s tennis’? Which formulation would you (the reader of this article) consider more ‘normal’, more acceptable, fairer, and why?

Rehearsing business leadership

In my work teaching MBA and PhD students and mentoring mid-career professionals in Japan, I frame discussions about outstanding individuals such as Osaka Naomi with reference to social scientific theories along with models of management and leadership. For example, Social Role Theory attempts to describe, explain and – important to the future-orientation of our discussion - predict how each individual (‘social actor’) expresses a variety of social and cultural identities by performing (playing, acting) multiple roles: e.g., as boss, employee, parent, friend, project team leader, project team member.

The concept of social role derives from theatre and becomes manifest as social actors respond to the expressed and / or inferred expectations of other social actors. Thus, the professional expectations of actors collectively influence each individual actor’s choices of behaviour, of role interpretation and, thus, of individual (team member / leader) and collective (team) performance.

The predictive power of social role theory can inform the styles of communication and other behaviours that leaders might choose to demonstrate in specific task / project environments and with particular individuals. Project team leaders might ask: Which team members would benefit from (physical / psychological) ‘arm-around-the-shoulder’ encouragement when they appear to be performing below expectations? Which team members perform most effectively in response to the responsibility that comes with working unsupervised: e.g., the ‘remote working’ experiences that many of us have lived and worked through during the Covid-19 pandemic?

Within the established hierarchies of theatre and film production we can observe how a director commonly assumes and enacts responsibility for empowering the actors by assigning them to their respective roles. The director guides and encourages (directs) them individually and collectively through the interpretation of their roles during rehearsals. Like concert musicians and professional tennis players, individual actors are expected to manage their own physical and psychological practice sessions such that, during rehearsals, they do not negatively impact on the performance of the collective. Reflecting on such examples from professional activity highlights how leadership can be interpreted as a form of individual self-discipline, of taking responsibility for oneself and (predictively) others in order to share results-oriented responsibility during performance to a live audience or (re-invoking bushido) to society generally.

Film directors are known to demonstrate differing styles of leadership, and, thereby of empowerment. Some directors allow space and encourage feedback and self-interpretation by and between actors. Other directors are more controlling: literally, more directive. In settings for live performances, each actor empowers other actors in order that the collective performance satisfies and perhaps exceeds the expectations of the audience. Thus, the spectacle on stage might encourage individual members of the audience to identify ‘role models’ and then by observing and reflecting on their chosen character’s behaviours learn more about how to gain and lose the support and trust of others: in short, to learn more about effective leadership.

In contexts for business education and leadership development, case studies can serve as storylines comparable to the plots of film and theatre production. Correspondingly, a recent and interesting development distinctive (though not unique) to business education in Japan is the use of o-shigoto manga in settings for professional and individual career development. Early results from observed practice suggest that using o-shigoto manga in contexts for leadership development among women in Japan can be effective; not least, because the representations of women in the manga genre commonly reflect the type of ‘traditional’ and, indeed, commonly stereotypical depictions and low performance expectations that women in Japan experience so often in the workplace (Jackson and Suzuki, forthcoming).

Enacting business leadership

In my professional view, leadership describes a set of behaviours that each actor can aspire to, and do so regardless of individual age, gender, or length of acting / working experience. Each actor and director can demonstrate leadership by allowing space and opportunity for other members of the team to express and develop their individual talents, including behaviours we defined earlier as leadership (Jackson, 2011).

In my professional experience, each currently empowered director (appointed leader) can decide to take a risk of setting up open-ended performance expectations (e.g., allowing for actor improvisation) while simultaneously acting supportively and communicating a clear and ‘strong results orientation’. Accepting the inherent social bias in the empowerment process, this approach is gender-neutral in relation to what might be argued to ‘really matter’: the end result, the performance, and the enduring impact of members of an audience, or however else an organization describes its key intended beneficiaries: e.g., customers, clients, stakeholders.

Overall, my observations of people at work prompt me to conclude that leadership is demonstrated when those currently and socially empowered to be ‘leaders’ allow spaces of encouragement for others to express diverse perspectives on what the work-group or -team can achieve. As with rehearsals in the preparation of theatre plays and musical productions, leaders in their roles as directors and conductors can make these spaces safe: i.e., each participant can contribute, experiment and generally ‘do the job expected of them’ without fear of social exclusion. To deny these spaces is to (potentially) miss opportunities for learning, for self-development, for being surprised by what little we knew previously of our fellow actors’ talents of interpretation: e.g., problem solving. Through the spaces created for rehearsing our collaborative performance, men learn from observing the leadership behaviours of women and other men, and women learn from observing the leadership behaviours of men and other women.

On this basis, we can argue that a common experience of women in Japan aspiring to act in leadership roles in business is too often one of being overlooked and of thereby being – and feeling – undervalued by the organizations they seek to improve, and renew. As the WEF and other similarly designed international ranking systems suggest, the missed opportunities experienced by individual women in Japan suggest strongly that, in aggregate, business leadership in Japan continues to allow missed opportunities for improvement and renewal. This embedded propensity towards denying and missing opportunities for creativity generates negative outcomes for the development of Japanese business and society, now and in future.

Practical steps towards renewal

Within existing organizational and other social hierarchies, there are practical steps that organizations, government agencies and educational institutions can take to avoid the loss incurred by allowing missed opportunities for social renewal and, as a corollary, frustrating the professional aspirations of talented women in Japan.

As highlighted in the aforementioned McKinsey article, these steps include investing in opportunities for leadership development. Re-invoking our theatre metaphor, women and men together can be guided (directed) through rehearsals for business leadership. These rehearsals can be assessed as low risk investments in the form of enacting simulations, performing role plays, shadowing successful women business leaders and entrepreneurs. The investments can be formalized as sponsorships for further (external) courses in professional development (e.g., MBA programmes), apprenticeships, or (internally) by setting up mentor-mentee arrangements and internships. To illustrate practically how these investments might be framed, the Eruboshi certification approach reported (18th November 2022) in ‘Japan Up Close’ represents an initiative designed to make public and valid targeted investments in creating career development opportunities relevant to the empowerment of women working in Japanese organizations.

Recognizing that bias against the professional aspirations of women exists and might well be (for now) embedded, the spirit of enterprise guiding these investments should be ‘creating opportunity’; or, as a minimum, reducing current levels of opportunity loss to organizations in Japan and to Japanese society generally. Echoing John Kotter and his appeal for ‘genuine’ business leadership, our orientation should be towards our shaping our many possible futures rather than preserving our (evidently) less-than-ideal pasts.

Saving Japan?

William Shakespeare in his play As You Like It (Act II Scene VII) reminds us how:

  • ·       All the world's a stage
    And all the men and women merely Players;
    They have their exits and their entrances;
    And one man in his time plays many parts.

That last line reminds us that Shakespeare was ‘a man of his age’. Today, theatre directors and film producers worldwide can make arguments for a Jaques (the character cited above) and also a Hamlet or a Macbeth to be played by a woman. In this way, familiar scripts (’same old, same old’?) can be rendered more vivid, intriguing, memorable, and (potentially) inspiring.

Critically re-imagining what we as members of society consider ‘normal behaviour’ through demonstrating leadership can inspire members of audiences in Japan - and here I include future generations of women and men – to re-assess their individual expectations, biases and prejudices about what is considered normal by those currently empowered in Japanese society.

Why not?

And, what if?

With these questions in mind, we can conclude this discussion by recalling how, one (now, seemingly long!) decade ago, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) published a working paper entitled Can Women Save Japan? (Steinberg and Nakane, 2012). Given the then demographic trends emerging across Japan, the authors emphasized the potential of women as economic actors, applying measures such as labour market participation. Today, the demographic challenge becomes ever more acute, and not only in Japan (Jackson and Debroux, 2016).

In response, the imagined and rehearsed leadership roles as theatre directors and producers proposed in this discussion illustrate how we each have increased opportunity and incentive today to add more colour and diversity to our visualizations of what might or might not be regarded as normal; or, in terms of improving business and economic performance, what might be sorely needed.

Overall, this article represents an attempt to re-think what we can expect of business leadership in Japan; and, indeed, leadership in other spheres of social and economic activity such as politics and administration in public sector organizations. As I did in when drafting this article, we can begin by framing our thinking – critically, I would add – and thereby our responses to influential voices such as those communicated to us in the WEF’s Global Gender Gap Report. In direct comparison to Steinberg and Nakane’s IMF paper of one decade ago, we can recognize how the WEF report takes a more nuanced approach and highlights measures (‘pillars’) that include ‘economic participation’ while further directing our attention to measures of opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment.

In theatrical terms, these signals from transnational institutions such as the WEF and the IMF can be compared to voices emanating from ‘off-stage’. On stage, in Japan, we can together look closely and critically at such measures and apply them to the current state of gender equity and business leadership. Paraphrasing from the aforementioned McKinsey definition of leadership, we can ‘align our collective direction’ and together formulate and apply other measures relevant towards creating a future Japan that we would each choose to live and work in.

In short, we can all rehearse our lines and prepare actions that indicate how we recognize that there is still much to be debated and achieved on the long road towards empowering women in Japan. We can begin immediately by encouraging these women to identify, express, rehearse and develop their individual and collective talents in roles of business leadership.

The play goes on; the journey continues. Towards a renewal that might secure the health and survival of Japanese business and society, they each genuinely must continue.


Cambridge English Dictionary (2022) Power. Available at: https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english-japanese/power, accessed 24th November 2022.
Jackson, K. and R. Suzuki (forthcoming) Guiding individual career planning through the medium of manga. In Business and Accounting Review, Vol. 30 (Nishinomiya: Institute of Business and Accounting)
Jackson, K. (2020) Women and business leadership in a fragile and unfair world. In Asia Pacific Business Review (2nd September) 27 (5) pp. 1-10
Jackson, K. (2011) Talent management. In Rowley, C. and K. Jackson (Eds.) Human Resource Management: The Key Concepts (London: Routledge) pp. 206-213
Jackson, K. and P. Debroux (Eds.) (2016) Ageing societies: Comparing HRM responses in Germany and Japan. Management Review Special Issue (Dieslingen: Rainer Hampp Verlag)
McKinsey (2015) Decoding leadership: What really matters. McKinsey & Company, available at: www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/leadership/decoding-leadership-what-really-matters, accessed 20th August 2022
Nitobe, I. (1969) Bushido: The Soul of Japan (Tokyo: Tuttle)
O’Neill, P. G. (1991). Essential Kanji (New York: Weatherhill)
Steinberg, C. and M. Nakane (2012) Can women save Japan? Washington (DC): International Monetary Fund (IMF) Available at: www.imf.org/en/Publications/WP/Issues/2016/12/31/Can-Women-Save-Japan-40048, accessed 20th March 2022
WEF (2022) Global Gender Gap Report 2022. Geneva: World Economic Forum (WEF). Available at: www.weforum.org/reports/global-gender-gap-report-2022, accessed 22nd November 2022
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