Retirement? No thanks. In 'graying' Japan, these women are just getting started

Women in Japan often feel forced to choose between motherhood and a career, keeping many out of the full-time workforce for decades. For these entrepreneurs, though, 'retirement age' presented an opportunity to start a business venture.

Takehiko Kambayashi
Yoshiko Zakoji stands outside Waraku, the shop she began in 1992, at age 60, in Iida City, Nagano Prefecture, Japan. Today, she encourages other elderly people to open their own businesses.

In this sleepy, mountainous city, 85-year-old Yoshiko Zakoji starts her day with exercises before cooking rice and simmering vegetables for pre-ordered boxed lunches – as she has done for more than a decade.

“I need to keep myself fit to continue my business,” says Ms. Zakoji, who owns a shop in Iida, located 110 miles west of Tokyo. She calls it Waraku: a name that evokes opening up to each other, and having a good time.

Zakoji opened the shop in 1992, after her husband’s retirement. She was a homemaker with no work experience, and 60 years old – just when her generation was starting to rely on the pension system.

Before opening day, she recalls, some people rolled their eyes. “What on earth are you going to start?” they asked.

Female entrepreneurs are not the norm in Japan, which, despite a push for “womenomics” from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, has one of the biggest employment gender gaps among developed countries. About two-thirds of women now work, but more than half of their positions are part-time or “irregular,” and many women are expected to stop working after they become mothers.

But before long, Zakoji had built more than shop: she’d created a community. Waraku sells traditional food, boxed lunches, and handcrafted goods made by locals and acquaintances, including disabled residents. She set up a nonprofit, too, offering classes on pottery and flower arrangement. And when some locals started to frown at newly-arrived foreign residents – whose experiences reminded her of her own sister’s difficulties after moving to Canada – she was inspired to start an international exchange, where volunteers help tutor Japanese, math, and other subjects.

It’s a benefit for Iida and some of its most isolated residents. But Zakoji’s adventure also highlights that of a number of older women forging new paths through entrepreneurship – ventures that often bring isolated neighbors together, and are redefining what a rapidly "graying" society can look like.

She encourages other elderly people to start their own business, or play a larger part in their local communities.

“When people get together, something will start to happen, and something will be created,” Zakoji says. 

Uneven playing field

In Japan, people aged 65 or older will account for 38 percent of the total population in 2065, up from nearly 27 percent in 2015, according to the Tokyo-based National Institute of Population and Security Research. Statistics like that concern many economists, particularly paired with the country’s birth rate, one of the lowest in the world. They are an underlying impetus for “womenomics,” as low-immigration Japan considers how to boost its workforce.

But “women in the 60s these days have more strength than the same age group a decade ago,” says Atsuko Arisawa, the director of non-profit organization Rokumaru 60 – a play on the words for “six” and “zero.” The organization helps women, especially those in their 60s, improve job skills and find work or start their own business. 

Traditionally, Japanese mothers have most responsibility for child-rearing, while “salaryman” corporate culture keeps mostly-male workers at the office into late evening hours. But even when kids are older, or have left home, women seeking a career face an uphill battle. Last year, the World Economic Forum ranked Japan 111 out of 144 countries on gender equality.

“It’s still very difficult for women to reenter the country’s workforce following the birth of a child,” says Fumie Kuratomi, director of the Fukuoka Gender Studies Institute. “If you are a married woman over 35 in Japan, it’s hard to find even a temporary job.” 

Abe’s government is “far from serious about creating work-life balance for working mothers,” adds Ms. Kuratomi, who is also a sociologist at the University of Teacher Education Fukuoka.

In the autumn of their lives, many women “finally reach a point where they can do what they want to do after staying at home to raise children and take care of their husband,” says Ms. Arisawa, a former editor of a community newspaper. “They want to make their desire a reality.”

For many of these entrepreneurs, Arisawa says, making profits is not the first priority.

“So many women want to contribute to a community and bring pleasure to others,” she says.

Helping neighbors connect

In an area called “Hill of Hope” in the city of Yokohama, near Tokyo, Maki Gomi, who has long volunteered to help local elderly people, opened Café Heartful Port at her home three years ago.

Since its opening, the 300-sq.-ft. cafe has drawn more than 10,000 customers, from teens and parents with babies to elderly people, and holds seminars and small concerts to help residents interact with one another.

“We need to make community-building more interesting,” says Ms. Gomi.

With a community turning gray, and the number of nuclear families rising in a Tokyo suburb like Yokohama, such interaction is important. Elderly people and a family member looking after them can be isolated, says the mother of three grown children. Isolation is a problem for many young families, too: intense schedules that send kids straight from school to extra tutoring classes are common, leaving less time for activities that bring the generations, or the neighborhood, together.

Gomi had their first floor of the house renovated in order to launch the cafe, where she had cared for her aging mother-in-law until her death in 2011.

In September, the cafe will start a program to serve those with dementia and their family members, while they have already had a monthly program for children in low-income families.

“We need a framework in which residents can help each other,” Gomi says. “Building a community starts by raising local awareness of issues. A community problem should be solved within the community. It’s not a good idea to turn to authorities instantly.”

Time for second chances

Some women who have already built their career also embark on later-life businesses. In fact, “womenomics” may have benefited this group most of all: since Mr. Abe came into office, workforce participation rates for women between age 55 and 64 have jumped more than for any other age group. Many of those positions are part-time or irregular, however, and labor experts say it is particularly difficult for this demographic to secure regular jobs.

Ryo Tsunoi had a hard time getting rehired after resigning her job as a public school teacher for health reasons. After she had found nothing but menial jobs, she decided, in her 50s, to start her own business. Ten years ago, she set up her bagel shop in Saitama City, a suburb of Tokyo. It’s called Koharubiyori – a balmy autumn day.

The former primary school teacher stresses she has enjoyed her business “because I’m the one who decides everything.”

Ms. Tsunoi’s shop and her family’s support was even featured on national television.

“These days, more women want to become financially independent, so I’m often asked for advice,” she adds.

On the southern island of Kyushu, Hisako Takada’s dream also had to do with food. And now, in her early 60s, it has come true: she and her daughters have just launched their own restaurant, Hidamari, in the city of Taku, and a natural food store in neighboring Ogi City.

The family had to rent a space in a public building to run an eatery for 3-1/2 years. Today, they have their own: a converted 106-year-old home.

“My daughters have been inspired by other female entrepreneurs around here, and have become very serious about running this business,” says Ms. Takada, who used to be a product development manager of a major sushi chain restaurant. “We’ve received big support from locals as they think they have to revitalize this depopulated area.”

For Zakoji, whose business is marking its 25th anniversary this year, slowing down does not seem to be an option. She says there are still many more things to do, especially to keep up with the times: “I want to make a big change.”

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