From budding female entrepreneurs to established executive superwomen and every badass woman in between, For Empowering Women (FEW Japan) is a Tokyo-based network that supports Japan-based women in their professional and personal goals. Celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2021, the volunteer-run, not-for-profit association hosts meetings, workshops, social events, an annual career strategy seminar (CSS) and more.
When she’s not busy running her own education services and tutoring business QUEST Tokyo, Kirsten O’Connor stands at the helm of FEW as its current president. Metropolis spoke with O’Connor to find out more about her experiences and advice on business in Japan.
What’s the story of FEW Japan?
Kirsten O’Connor: You know the challenges women face in the workplace today, so you can imagine how difficult it must have been 40 years ago, particularly for foreign, international women in Japan. So FEW was set up to create a community and connection. Empowering is our core mission. There’s also lots of expertise within the community in a wide range of fields; it’s important that we share this amongst us. The community itself is very diverse. We’ve got members in their early 20s and also in their 50s, 60s and 70s, of all different nationalities. The only requirement is that you speak English because we’re an English-speaking group.
How has FEW evolved so that it’s relevant for women in Japan today?
We’ve just started a new program called “Peer to Peer Support” which is in response to a bigger, biannual event, our “Career Strategy Seminar” (CSS). [At CSS], high profile speakers talk about different aspects of work and life in Japan. But we’ve found that you can gain a lot of help and support through informal conversation with peers. So we now also have bimonthly meetings on weekends where women can talk about what they can offer each other support-wise.
We’ve also been online since March [due to COVID-19] and, interestingly, attendance at events and meetings has increased. People are sometimes unable to attend [in person] because of childcare, work or because they live outside of Tokyo. We’ve also become more accessible in that we can implement closed-caption subtitles for meetings, so people who are hard of hearing or have English as a second language can read the subtitles.
Why would you encourage people to start their own business in Japan?
Well I wouldn’t recommend doing it now because business is tough for everyone at the moment [because of the pandemic]. Last week, FEW had Tessa Sanderson CBE do the closing speech [at our event]. She’s a famous Team GB Olympic athlete who won a gold medal for javelin in Los Angeles, 1984. She said — and it resonated completely with me — that you need to find your core interests and passions and hone your skills. Then, find diverse ways to use them to employ yourself, and deliver that to a community.
“Having the ability to be flexible and pivot in what you’re offering to meet the needs of your client or the market is important.”
— Kirsten O’Connor, president of FEW Japan and director of QUEST Tokyo
In Japan, it’s not difficult to set up a company here; in fact, it’s straightforward. Of course there are lots of legal ramifications, so it’s much easier to open a company than it is to actually close one — so I’d encourage people to think about that as well. You obviously need to do all of your due diligence and research, but there’s opportunity out there.
What other useful resources would you recommend to young Japan-based entrepreneurs?
Well, FEW is definitely at the top of the list! But if you’re looking for more formal advice on how to start a business in Japan, you can’t beat the place called TOSBEC (Tokyo One-Stop Business Establishment Center). It’s linked to JETRO (Japan External Trade Organization), which is the place where you can get advice on opening businesses, but TOSBEC is in English.
“[Y]ou need to find your core interests and passions and hone your skills. Then, find diverse ways to use them to employ yourself, and deliver that to a community.”
Before I started my business, I went to one of their workshops and got advice on everything you need to know — like the legal registration, insurance and tax ramifications, all the different sectors of local authority responsibility that you have, etc. If the person doesn’t speak English, they’ll provide a translator. If you want to keep your costs down, you can register your company through them. Honestly, I wouldn’t recommend that the first time because it’s a bit nerve-racking, but once you’ve done it once and you’re familiar with the paperwork, it’s cheaper than if you hired a lawyer.
What has been your biggest learning curve while building your business here?
Good question. Learning the systems in Japan is a challenge. Depending on who you’re looking for, the recruitment pool is also challenging because of the visa restrictions. There’s not many [foreign] people without jobs or looking to move jobs. The other one is pivoting. Having the ability to be flexible and pivot in what you’re offering to meet the needs of your client or the market is important. COVID-19 has shown that one hundred percent. I’m talking particularly about small businesses, who have had to completely change their offer to maintain not only relevance, but also their existence.
This interview has been edited for brevity.
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Feeling inspired? Here’s a list of helpful career resources in Japan:
TOSBEC – Tokyo One-Stop Business Establishment Center
Provides administrative procedures at one place to start your business, covering articles of incorporation, company registration, taxation, social insurance and immigration.
JETRO – Japan External Trade Organization
Government-related organization to support foreign investments into Japan. Helps small to medium-sized Japanese firms maximize their global export potential.
Tokyo Entrepreneur Networking “TEN” Meetup
A public group that hosts discussions among non-Japanese entrepreneurs in Japan seeking consultation in legal, accounting, tax or HR-related matters.
CWAJ – The College Women’s Association of Japan
Not-for-profit volunteer organization providing scholarships for women wanting to further their studies both in Japan and overseas.
APT Women – Acceleration Program in Tokyo for Women
Tokyo Metropolitan Government program supporting women by providing knowledge and skills to start a business and improve their capacity as business managers.
Aiming to create successful, cutting-edge Japanese startups and empower Japan’s startup ecosystem.
Women Who Code Tokyo
An international nonprofit dedicated to inspiring women to excel in technology careers.
NAP – New Active Players: Career Development Support Network for International Students
Experienced consultants help international students with job hunting and career development in Japan.
JEPA – Japan Entrepreneurs & Presidents Association
A membership organization founded in 1977 to support small and medium-sized businesses snd to create opportunities domestically and internationally.
JWLI – Japanese Women’s Leadership Initiative
Brings emerging women leaders to Boston to receive four weeks of hands-on experience and training in nonprofit management and leadership development.
Startup Lady Japan
International community promoting gender equality in the business world through active training and education for women in business.
YEG Japan – Young Entrepreneurs Group
YEG Japan facilitates exchange and cooperation throughout Japan.
American Chamber of Commerce in Japan: Women in Business Summit
The ACCJ WIB Summit is an annual event widening the dialogue on workplace equality and diversity.
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