Helping Japan’s women back into the workforce

In the past three years, Cynthia Usui has helped many Japanese housewives return to work after a long career gap, tapping into the acute labour shortage in the hotel industry. Now, those women’s jobs are threatened as the coronavirus outbreak has battered the country’s tourism sector. 

“This pandemic has affected the empowerment of women,” says Ms Usui, author of a book in Japanese called, Eight things Full-time Housewives Should do Before Entering the Workforce. “Tourism was the one industry that was wide open for women because it was fast growing. Now that one industry is suddenly closed.” 

Before the outbreak, Ms Usui offered coaching programmes for housewives to rebuild their careers, connecting them with potential employers in the hotel and tourism industry, which was booming before the restrictions on international travel.

Now as she is confined to her home, Ms Usui has switched to conducting online mentoring sessions two to three times a week: “Everybody is in a panic. They’ve just started their jobs and they’re very disappointed.” 

In video calls Ms Usui tells her mentees not to lose sight of their objective despite the current tough environment. “Whether we have a pandemic or not, it still does not change the fact that Japan has a labour shortage,” she says. 

Even as Japan’s unemployment rate rose to a one-year high of 2.5 per cent in March as the pandemic hit the economy hard, the figure was still substantially low compared with elsewhere in the world.

In a country where there are still restrictions on hiring foreign workers, Japanese companies have addressed the labour shortage by recruiting more women, pushing up Japanese female participation in the workforce to a record high of 71 per cent — higher than in the US and Europe. 

Still, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s “womenomics” programme to redress Japan’s ingrained gender inequality has been less successful in bringing down the high ratio of those engaged in lower-earning, part-time roles, which account for 56 per cent of jobs taken by women. 

Ms Usui is convinced the glass ceiling can be broken but only if the right career opportunity is chosen in an industry that is rapidly growing so that people can work their way towards management positions. 

Before the outbreak, the obvious place to look was Japan’s chronically short-staffed tourism industry. The government has warned that hotels and inns would face a shortage of 100,000 workers in three years’ time as the country seeks to double the number of overseas visitors to 60m by 2030. 

Until the tourism industry recovers, the search will need to be expanded to other sectors that would still be hiring in an economic downturn. Some of Ms Usui’s mentees who had their contracts terminated have been introduced by their hotels to supermarkets and security companies that continue to operate even during lockdown.

“If you really want to further your career, you take whatever is in front of you and do it. It could lead to something else, or you can move back to the hotel industry when it opens up again,” Ms Usui says. 

She points to her own success in reinventing her career when she returned to work at the age of 47 after 17 years of parenting — a tale that has been turned into a television drama by NHK, the state broadcaster. 

Ms Usui, who was born in the Philippines to Chinese parents, came to study in Japan, and worked in advertising before she had a child at the age of 30. She quit her job to focus on motherhood and lived overseas for two decades as the wife of a Japanese diplomat. She reached a significant turning point in her life when her daughter entered Harvard University. 

“In raising my daughter, I believed in realising her full potential, but when I stepped back, I asked myself, what about my potential?” she says. “I felt I could not realise her full potential while I was ignoring my own. As a role model, that was kind of bad.”

When Ms Usui moved back to Tokyo in 2011, she found a part-time job at a members’ club for expats. Her career took off after she joined ANA InterContinental Hotel, where she became involved in new business development. She then moved on to become the director of public affairs at Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts before she was poached to her current position as a hospitality executive at a Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games partner, a job she has retained even as the sporting event has been postponed until next year.

Her rise over the past decade has been exceptional in a country where many companies still promote their staff based on the number of years they have worked rather than on performance. 

The blunt advice Ms Usui gives in her lectures though can be dispiriting. She constantly reminds her students to forget the achievements they had in their past career, and to be ready to start off from scratch.

“I tell them what society is like. I don’t sell a dream,” says Ms Usui, who is now 60.

Hiroko Morita, who landed a job in housekeeping and customer service at Hoshinoya hotel in Tokyo after joining Ms Usui’s programme, says she also had reservations about returning to the workforce as a contract employee. “To be honest, I felt uncomfortable in the beginning. But I realised that there is a way for me to climb up the [career] ladder within the tourism industry,” Ms Morita says. 

Hiroko Morita is confident the tourism industry will recover © Androniki Christodoulou/FT

Ms Morita quit her job in publishing after her husband was posted to China by his employer, where she spent 12 years raising her son. After returning to Tokyo in 2017, she worked briefly in a temporary position at a research institute but struggled to find a full-time job because of her age. 

“I felt left behind,” says Ms Morita, 43, recalling the years she spent in China as a housewife. But now, she feels less pressured. 

As she remains at home while her luxury hotel operates at a reduced occupancy rate, she spends her time reading up about the tourism industry — she is convinced it will recover eventually. “For now, it’s an undeniable reality that I need to juggle parenting with work so I now feel it’s OK to consider my career with a longer time span,” Ms Morita says. 

Ms Usui agrees that it is never too late to resume a career since the chronic labour shortage and longevity will force a fundamental shift in how people work in Japan. “I am leading the 100-year life. Ten to 20 years from now, I will be the norm. Society just has to change,” she says.

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