Ichiro Suzuki At the end of June, eleven men and women were elected as trading house Mitsubishi Corporation’s board of directors at the company’s annual general shareholders meeting. Six out of eleven are Mitsubishi’s executives while five are independent outsiders. Of the five outsiders, two are women: Ms. Sakie Akiyama and Ms. Mari Sugaya. (The company is called a trading house due to their origin of peddling made-in-Japan products, beginning with textiles, to overseas markets, in the late 19th century when Japan opened up the country to the rest of the world. They have built an extensive businesses network since then, and are more like a merchant bank today, with equity investments in a variety of industries, but most notably in mining and energy explorations.) On a booklet for shareholders, Mitsubishi kindly lists all the names of 46 executive directors, 41 of whom are not board members. All 46 of them are, perhaps not surprisingly, (middle aged) Japanese men, with zero women judging from their names. Yes, women can be appointed to the board on a top-down decision by chief executive, for the purpose of adding some flavors of ‘diversity’ that is lately a popular buzzword in the corporate world and the investment community. Appointing women can be considered as a cosmetic move to show the world that they care. It is a great deal harder for Japanese companies to let women move up the ladder of bureaucracy all the way up to top of a division, let alone top of the entire company. Perhaps, what’s even more surprising about Mitsubishi is the absence of foreign names either on the board or the list of executive directors, despite the company’s sprawling operations that reach every corner of the world. No cosmetics is applied to executive directors. The list shows what Mitsubishi makes feel comfortable at. Qualified female candidates for a board are few and far between. Female lawyers, CPAs, professors, business executives are fiercely sought after. It is not uncommon that same familiar names are found on a number of boards. Ms. Akiyama sits on the board of Sony, Japan Post and Orix, a financials firm, on top of Mitsubishi. Ms. Sagiya serves three other boards, too. At Toyota Motor, Japan’s largest company, a woman was recently made top of a division, Ms. Tomomi Otsuka as chief sustainability officer. She came up through the corporate ladder of operations. James Kaufner, American and former Googler is chief digital officer, who heads Toyota’s mobility project, based in Silicon Valley, that was created in an attempt to close the gap with Tesla. In the past, an American woman sat on the Toyota board. So Toyota is a step ahead of Mitsubishi and many other leading Japanese corporations. Nonetheless, Toyota still needs to be compared with General Motors that has been led by a woman, Mary Barra, for almost a decade. In addition to Ms. Barra, an Indian woman, Dhivya Suryadevara, was GM’s CFO at one point. While Ms. Suryadevara was brought in from Price Waterhouse, Ms. Barra is a career GM person who rose through the ladder of what could be perceived as one of the most masculine companies in the U.S. Mitsubishi, and Corporate Japan, has lots of catch-up to left to do, and the rest of the world keeps moving on regardless of what Japan does.
About the author: Mr. Suzuki is a retired banking executive based in Tokyo, Japan.