Chino Mitsuru Claire: Leading Japan's Sōgō Shōsha
from Asia Unbound, Asia Program, and Women’s Voices From the Indo-Pacific

Chino Mitsuru Claire: Leading Japan's Sōgō Shōsha

Itochu Corporation Managing Executive Officer Chino Mitsuru Claire shares about her path to corporate leadership.
Chino Mitsuru Claire, Itochu Corporation Managing Executive Officer
Chino Mitsuru Claire, Itochu Corporation Managing Executive Officer

This guest article from Chino Mitsuru Claire is part of the Asia program’s Women’s Voices from the Indo-Pacific Project. John E. Merow Senior Fellow Sheila A. Smith features influential women in Japan’s political, economic, and social fields.

A Transnational Life

My father was an international businessman, and I was born in the Netherlands. From there, our family went to the UK, and so it was that I went to Japan for the first time as a four-year-old. At a Japanese kindergarten, I had my most vivid experience of how gender norms are taught in Japan. 

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One of my first days in kindergarten, a boy snatched a toy that I had been playing with and said, “otoko ga saki,” or “boys first.” That was a great shock to me, and looking back, I wondered where this bias came from. It was not an independent thought from this young boy, but rather it was learned behavior – an idea taught by society, by his parents, or perhaps even by his own mother. 

I think I have always been a feminist. This is important, because from an early age, I was aware that boys and girls were equal. I credit my mother with this awareness. She was a working parent and modeled the importance to women of a profession. This led to my sense of my abilities and potential. A women’s education at Smith College helped deepen this awareness. 


Being Japanese in 1980s America

As a teenager in the 1980s, I was exposed to the legal challenges faced by Japanese companies in the United States. My father led Honda and testified frequently in various cases at the height of the competition between the U.S. and Japan over auto trade. The U.S. legal system became familiar to me, and the trade disputes between the U.S. and Japan influenced my decision to go to law school. 

I was one of many Japanese who lived in Southern California as Honda and Toyota opened their branches there. Many of us lived in Palos Verdes or Rolling Hills, affluent middle-class and largely white communities. I went to Rolling Hills High School, and there was a fairly sudden influx of Japanese, Taiwanese and Iranian students, whose families for various reasons had moved to the area. I was often asked why we were there, why our families were making money and then leaving. These were the days of intense trade disputes, and on television, Americans were seeing Japanese cars being burnt in Detroit. 


Joining a Trading Firm

I joined a legal firm in the United States, and for years, practiced law with many Japanese corporate clients. Itochu was one of my favorite clients. It was a sōgō shōsha, or trading company, so had a global range of activity with a comprehensive range of projects. When Itochu invited me to join their legal team, my U.S. colleagues were surprised. I would have no title, no office, and no assistant, and my salary was 30 to 40 percent lower! However, I was excited at the prospect of working on the ground around the world in so many different sectors.  

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Early on, I was working on an international shipping project and had a meeting with an Itochu executive responsible for the project. One of the first things he said was, “I want an otoko no tantosha,” or in other words, a man in charge. I had been so focused on the professional environment of the United States that I didn’t even comprehend what he meant. I wondered what he was talking about and went to the head of the legal team to report that Mr. X was asking for a man. My boss was horrified and reassured me that I was in charge. In the end, this was a fascinating project in Indonesia, and the executive and I got along well. I saw him recently, and he remembered all of the hard work that went into making that project a success.

A second revelation during my new profession within Itochu was the significance of the corporate hierarchy. After two years or so, the head of the legal team came to me and told me it was time for me to join the corporate ladder. I was happy with my professional credentials in law and so had not sought out a title, but he advised me that to advance my career, I would need to join the organizational structure that organized the company. Once I did that, I realized that my voice carried far greater weight. I was not just an individual providing legal advice, but rather the leader of the legal department making a recommendation. I point this out to many women to ensure that they understand how important this identity is within the company. Companies are hierarchical by nature, and if you want to be taken seriously, then that corporate title needs to be embraced – not avoided. Professional credentials are important, but they do not allow for leadership opportunity.

I became a senior executive at Itochu at the relatively young age of forty-six. The average age for an Itochu employee to become a member of the executive board of directors (shikko yakuin) was fifty-two, so I was promoted five or six years ahead of schedule. Okafuji Masahiro, the CEO of Itochu, announced my selection in the annual report. His message noted that I was not promoted because I was a woman but because of my qualifications, which had been recognized by global institutions. The reactions to this announcement were mixed, especially among women.  Some were excited to see the first woman rise to the board, but others wondered whether the CEO needed to make a statement about my gender. I definitely think I was selected in part because of my gender, and I was not offended. Rather, I saw this as recognition of the need for diversity in Itochu’s leadership.


Career Mobility and Leadership Diversity

As the first woman to rise to the board in corporate Japan, I have thought deeply about what kinds of changes are needed to ensure diversity at the top of Japan’s private sector. Other trading companies noted that the elevation of women to leadership was unlikely in their company, because age was the primary requirement for promotion. Thus, it is important to recognize the structural factors that shape not only the opportunities for women but for others as well. Several characteristics determine who can climb the corporate ladder. 

The first is age. Advancement in companies is largely determined by how long a person has been in the company. Since companies were not legally required to recruit women to the private sector until the Equal Employment Opportunity Law was passed in the later 1980s, the cohort that would naturally emerge as executive positions.

When I joined Itochu in 2000, only 2 percent of the career track employees were women. Now that share is 11.3 percent, but that took 23 years. It is progress but it is not a groundswell of change. The Japanese government has now pushed corporations to have women comprise at least 30 percent of their board of directors by 2030. This too will motivate change. 

At the board level, we have more women than ever before. In Japan, our executive leadership includes a board of directors (torishimari yakukai), the board of audit and supervisory board (kansa yakukai), and finally, the board of executive officers (shikkou yakukai). This is a far different system than in the United States, as many inside career track employees populate Japanese boards, whereas the United States invites outside independent directors who monitor the company executives. 

The second is mobility. Japan’s corporate sector has traditionally rewarded longevity within the company rather than a skill set that can translate between companies. Diversity in hiring thus is the first step to building a diverse leadership, but it cannot be the only pathway as we look ahead. Already, more outside appointments to the various boards are taking place. In Itochu’s case, we have a ten-member board of directors. Out of the ten, six are inside directors, and four are independent outside directors. Of those four, two are women. Similarly, our Audit and Supervisory Board has five members – three outsiders, and one is a woman, and two insiders, one a woman. Together, we have fifteen board members, a number similar to U.S. boards, and of these, four are women.

However, we also need women coming up through the company if we are truly to increase the impact of women in our corporate sector. The Nikkei recently reported on this, noting that Japan has made progress but that there should be more female board members that come up through the ranks.


Changing Norms in the Workplace

Promotion is the Key Performance Index (KPI) for corporate Japan, but the norms of work life need to change to allow for diversity to be realized in the workforce. To be promoted, executives have had to work late, socialize with clients, and go beyond the normal work hours to demonstrate achievement. This is just how we worked. However, the Chairman of Itochu, the very same person who promoted me as CEO a decade ago, realized these long working hours were wrong. After the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011, he was shocked into realizing the effect of this norm. The earthquake happened on a Friday, and on Monday, Itochu employees showed up at their normal working hours. As he noted, the world was in chaos, yet people were coming in as if their priority was tending their company’s clients. He began to change the norms. First, no more drinking late. At most, employees could socialize if needed after work but only until 10:00 p.m. rather than until after midnight in the past. 

Second, the Chairman provided the opportunity for morning overtime between 5:00 a.m. and 8:00 a.m. Pay for morning overtime became higher than evening overtime. He also provided a free breakfast! As long as your work was done, you could leave the office at 3:00 p.m. for any reason. This is the part that was most important, as it allowed people to do what they needed without rationalizing it, whether it be childcare or other sanctioned reasons for not being in the office. This eliminated the guilt people had for leaving early to take care of their families, or the resentment that others had towards those with childcare obligations. Everyone was entitled to leave early if they finished their work. When we consider how to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion, this is the part I believe needs to be appreciated – the equity piece of the equation. 

Fast forward to 2023, and our efforts to change people’s work norms led to a very surprising result – the birth rate of our female employees increased dramatically. It was 0.60 in 2012, prior to these reforms, and now it is 1.97. This is not to advertise our policies as increasing Japan’s birthrate, but rather to highlight the fact that those women who want to raise families are able to do so and stay with the company. They are able to work and raise a family. 

There is also a significant generational shift as well. In 2001, our male employees in dual income households were only 10 percent, but by 2023, it had risen to 43 percent. For those in their 20s today, 90 percent are in dual income households. Male employees are coming in early and leaving early just as our female employees. This is a policy that benefits everyone, not just one that helps women. 

Ultimately, we all have many layers of identity, but which identity surfaces at any given moment depends on the environment we are in. Had I grown up in Japan, I doubt that my sense of being Japanese would have been highlighted the way it had when I was growing up in Southern California. Similarly, when I returned to Japan to work for Itochu later in life, my identity as a woman came back to the fore.  Now, I find myself as a corporate leader, thinking more broadly about how to strengthen our confidence in our various identities as we build diversity in Japanese society.

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