The lack of women in high-ranking positions has been an unfortunate yet prevailing trend in Japanese corporate climate. While half a decade has passed since Prime Minister Abe launched a “Womenomics” initiative for the inclusion and promotion of women in the workplace, the numbers still prove unconvincing; recent reports from the International Labour Organization hold that the ratio of Japanese women in management or otherwise leadership roles was 12% in 2018 – a figure that has stayed relatively stagnant since 1991, and far below the current global average of 27.1%.
This is why internationally acclaimed clothing chain Uniqlo made headlines this week after appointing the enterprise’s first female CEO, Akaida Maki (赤井田 真希).
Akaida first entered Uniqlo in 2001, working from the ground up to become shop manager for outlets in Ginza, Tokyo and Shanghai. Her seasoned resume in business management, human resources, and personnel training accumulated in her eventual role as manager of the Kichijoji store, which became one of the most successful Uniqlo branches in the country under her leadership.
Tenacity to Win, Drive to Grow
An interview posted on Ameba on Akaida’s earlier career leaves no doubt that she had her eyes on success from the beginning. In her first few months at the Nagaoka Uniqlo branch, she took on any work she could find to climb her way up – overseeing sales, merchandise, and customer service from open to close, going home only to study the company manual and get three hours of sleep for the next day.
I copied those manuals down like a sutra. It was something that most Uniqlo employees went through. There were four candidates vying for shop manager including myself, and every night we scrambled for who got to take home the sole copy.
But it was this self-described “tenacity to win” (勝つことへの執念) that pushed her from new hire to store manager in just half a year, and now to CEO at the relatively young age of 40. Akaida was also keenly aware that being a woman in a Japanese corporation meant there were additional obstacles for her to overcome, and was prepared for the task early on.
Of the four new hires assigned to the Nagaoka store, I was the only woman. I hated to lose, and I knew I had to aim a bit higher than the others if I was going to make the cut. We all pushed each other to succeed, and as a result three of the seven newly appointed shop managers in that period came from our Nagaoka store, including myself.
Given her corporate fervor, readers might be surprised to learn that Akaida’s aspirations were not initially in the corporate sector, but in education. While chasing her dream of becoming a teacher and helping students succeed, Akaida realized that personal growth was not something limited to the classroom.
Growth can happen not only at school, but in business, too…. I wanted to work for a company that was growing faster than I could keep up. Not to say a school was not that sort of place, but I knew I wanted to keep pushing myself further. That’s when I decided to take the employment exam for Uniqlo, which was rapidly taking off at the time. If I was going to work at a company, I wanted it to be the best company in Japan.
Akaida’s words seem to foreshadow the incredible success that Uniqlo and parent company Fast Retailing would continue to foster – including that in the fight for gender inclusion in the Japanese workplace. Nikkei Asian Review reports that women held 36% of Fast Retailing’s managerial posts in 2018, exceeding the government’s 2020 target of 30%.
Given Uniqlo’s recent push towards international markets, it seems natural that Fast Retailing and its affiliates would take a more proactive approach in realizing global trends in gender equality. With the torch being passed to trailblazers like Akaida Maki, we might just begin to see a shift in Japan’s corporate climate.