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JCCC Business Forum: Calbee’s Yumiko Kamada Talks about Women’s Role in the Workplace

• One of the leading business women in Japan, Yumiko Kamada of Calbee Inc., discussed the role of working women in Japan, sharing her experience of work and gender in Japanese business culture, during a business forum in the Chicago suburb on September 27.
• The forum titled “Work Style Reform: Promotion of Women’s Role in the Time of Labor Shortage” was hosted by the Japan Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Chicago (“JCCC”) and held at Harper College in Palatine.
• Kamada, Senior Executive Officer and General Manager of the New Business Development Group at Calbee Inc., is known for her successful career at East Japan Railway Company (“JR East”) and subsequent invitation to join Calbee to take over new business development.
• Following her talk, Kamada was joined by Mari Yamamoto of Barnes & Thornburg, Kumiko Watanabe of Grant Thornton LLP, and Hiroshi Miyamori of Beam Suntory, Inc. for a panel discussion on working women and gender diversity in the workplace.

Kamada’s Career at JR East

• Kamada was one of the few female college graduates that JR East hired for the first time in 1989. The work environment there was such that there were even no restrooms for women.
• With a strong desire to work outside the office, Kamada started her career as a ticket gate attendant, and moved on to an assignment at a major department store and then at station buildings. In 2001, she was assigned to lead a project to change the space inside a train station to a space for new, commercial facilities. This new concept, called “eki-naka (in-the-station),” proved to be a success as part of JR East’s mid-range business plan, creating new destinations for shopping, eating and entertainment and attracting many visitors other than commuters.

• The project (“Tachikawa Station and Omiya Station Development Project”) aimed to change the two train stations as the places for commuters to go through to the places for people to “come together.” Kamada stuck to her idea of creating a new space within the station, something consumers might dream as an ideal train station, but it wasn’t easy to get the concept across.

• Kamada began with changing the physical environment of the stations: the ceiling and the floor inside the station were replaced to match with the new lighting scheme; cluttered spaces were cleared; the vendors’ outdoor units sitting inside the station were moved to the rooftop so that the public would no longer feel the unpleasant heat blasting out; and public restrooms, notorious for bad lighting, uncleanliness and lack of safety, were remodeled into bright, clean places with an aromatic smell of air freshener. The existing regulation for commercial vendors – only the JR East group companies could do business in the station premise - was also changed, allowing all other private businesses to open shops.
• In order to implement such changes, Kamada had to fight the company’s traditional “vertical” decision-making structure. She had to spend the majority of time and effort in coordinating internal consensus on matters such as matching the color and materials of the ceiling and the floor. For example, while she was trying to change the stations from the standpoint of interior coordination, the department responsible for floor installation was only concerned about the floor’s slipperiness, wear resistance, ease of cleaning, etc.

• Kamada said alluring commercial vendors to the remodeled stations was the hardest external hurdle to clear. Nine out of 10 companies she contacted turned down the invitation, saying that it would hurt their brand image to have a store at a train station. It was only after the shops that accepted the invitation began showing good results that a slew of vendors started to ask to join.
• Kamada thinks the space inside a train station is still a fairly new market for businesses.
• For example, currently 60-70% of the people who use a train station are male in Japan. As part of Kamada’s eki-naka concept, a vending machine selling bouquets of flowers was introduced to catch male commuters’ attention, and it was a big hit. On March 14 “White Day” – the day for a man to give a gift to a woman, a reverse Valentine’s Day - stores in the station were filled with male shoppers searching for proper gifts.

• Kamada remembers, after the success of eki-naka, when many men said to her: “Oh, so this was what you wanted to do? Why didn’t you tell us sooner? We could have helped you this way or that way.” Actually, she did, many times – they just wouldn’t understand it.
• “It’s not a new concept if other people easily understand it. It was hard when I couldn’t explain [the concept] by showing them something that already exists as an example,” said Kamada.

• Kamada became President and CEO of JR East Station Retailing in 2005. Subsequently, she returned to JR East Headquarters and was engaged in local business development. In 2013, she was assigned as Deputy Manager of Frontier Service Development Laboratory, Research & Development Center of JR East Group, before joining Calbee in 2015.

Workplace Diversity Policy of Calbee

• According to the Gender Gap Index published by the World Economic Forum, Japan is the 114th place in 144 major and emerging economies in gender equality. This reflects Japan’s extremely low ratio of female participation in management compared to other countries, while its education and health conditions are of high level.
• Calbee’s CEO and Chairman since 2009, Akira Matsumoto, is known for his campaign for diverse work environment. It was his and his company’s imperative to support women in the workplace, as well as foreigners, individuals with handicaps and others. Calbee’s well-known policy statement “Without diversity, Calbee cannot grow” indicates it. Kamada was invited to Calbee as part of this commitment.
• In order to improve women’s participation, Calbee has introduced a variety of systems and programs to help the employees’ life and work balance, including flexible work hours and the “free address” system. This is a system where employees have a choice to stay home and, when they choose to come to work, the online system appoints them a random workspace. This allows employees to interact with different coworkers, away from a close watch of their supervisors.
• Female participation in management at Calbee rose to 26.4% in April 2018 from 5.9% in April 2010. The company’s goal is 30% by 2020. Many of Calbee’s female managers (currently 38%) are working mothers, while only 20% of them are choosing to work shorter hours.
• Calbee’s commitment to workplace diversity remains intact after Matsumoto’s resignation in June this year.
• Rather than waiting for its female workforce to grow to qualify for managerial posts, Kamada says the company takes a chance on them first, stepping back and trying again when it doesn’t work out. Calbee believes that’s the best path to take to boost female participation in management.
• “In the advent of changes as characterized by the arrival of AI, what’s most important for business is how to handle the changes,” Kamada commented. “That’s also the strength of a company to grow.”

Panel Discussion

• Following Kamada’s talk, she was joined by Yamamoto, Watanabe and Miyamori for a panel discussion on the role of working women, with Yamamoto moderating the discussion.

• Grant Thornton LLP, Watanabe’s employer, has been listed as one of the best 100 U.S. companies for working mothers for 13 years in a row. Its female employees account 44% of the entire workforce, and the ratio of female employees in managerial positions is 47%, 20% of which are in executive positions.
• The company introduced the flexible time off (“FTO”) system two years ago, where employees are allowed to take paid time off any time under certain rules.
• Watanabe said a system like this encourages employees to think about their work responsibilities and commitment from a different angle, allowing them to have a sense of ownership of their work and plan their work more responsibly. It’s a fairly popular program among the employees, Watanabe said.

• Beam Suntory, Miyamori’s employer, has the female manager ratio of 30%, while that of Suntory in Japan is 10% at present.
• To push for women’s further participation in management, Beam Suntory has the following goals:

・ To increase the ratio of female employees in managerial positions to 40% by 2020.
・ For top management to declare the policy of gender diversity and cascade it down to the rest of the company.
・ To ensure the implementation of the diversity policy at the time of hiring and employee promotion for managerial positions. To ensure that the policy is implemented for the next generation of managers so talent pooling can be ensured for female managerial candidates.

• The company also has flexible work hours to accommodate female employees, such as a work from home program. Not understanding the employees’ needs will prevent the company from becoming a flexible employer and the company will risk losing its employees, Miyamori stated.

Flexible Work Hours and Telecommuting

• For Watanabe, it is critical to be flexible at work and home as a working mom. She makes it a rule to eat dinner with her child no matter how busy she is. When she has work to do at home, she does it after her child goes to bed; and when she is away from home on a business trip, the internet helps her to connect to her child.

• One of Calbee’s programs offers its child-caring employees assistance where an emergency – such as the child’s sudden illness, need to pick up at a daycare, etc. – can be easily accommodated by switching to work at home.
• Kamada thinks no matter how good a system may be, it wouldn’t be meaningful if it’s not offered under a user-friendly environment. “An assistance program wouldn’t be effective if top management doesn’t start using it first,” she said.

• Miyamori pointed out the information security and overtime management as the major issues in telecommuting.
• According to Kamada, overtime work in Japan is increasingly becoming a taboo (karo-shi, or death by overwork, has contributed to the increasing criticism). More employers now require their employees to make an overtime work request in advance.
• Miyamori feels that the people in Japan must change their traditional attitude toward overtime work – “labor is sacred” – and start thinking about how we can work more efficiently.
• Citing the data of Japan’s low productivity, Kamada pointed out how to interpret it – whether it’s an indicator of inferior productivity or a reflection of Japanese culture’s sensitivity and attention to detail – and if it warrants further examination.
• As workplace environment is becoming more accommodating to working women, women workers also need to be more proactive, expressing their desire to advance and challenge harder tasks, Miyamori said.
• “Gender diversity in the workplace will improve further as the employer’s systematic backup continues to advance while women express their will to step up at the same time,” he concluded.

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Profile of Yumiko Kamada

• After joining JR East in April 1989, Kamada was on assignment at a major department store and station buildings before she was assigned as a project leader for the “eki-naka” project in 2001. In 2005, she became President of JR East Station Retailing, which launched and operates “ecute.” Upon assignment as General Manager of the Life-Style Business Development Headquarters of JR East in 2008, Kamada was engaged in regional revitalization and childcare services, responsible for the expansion of a train station-based child care system, renovation of the Echigo-Yuzawa station and startup of A-Factory in Aomori. In 2013, she assumed the position of Deputy Manager of Frontier Service Development Laboratory, Research & Development Center of JR East Group. Resigning JR East in January 2015, she accepted the invitation and joined Calbee in the following month in her current capacity as Senior Executive Officer and General Manager of the New Business Development Group. She has also been appointed as a member of numerous government councils and committees. Currently, she is a member of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics/Paralympics Sustainability Committee and NHK International Broadcast Programs Council, as well as serving as an outside director and an Ibaraki Prefecture Ambassador.


JCCC Business Forum held at Harper College’s Wojcik Conference Center


Yumiko Kamada


Eki-naka (in-the-station) before (L) and after (R). Photo: from Kamada’s presentation