During her senior year of college, Kyoko Okutani felt out of the loop when she saw her peers dutifully involved in traditional job hunting.
Ms. Okutani, who is now the head of Women's World Banking Japan (WWB Japan), is at the center of a growing network of female entrepreneurs in this male-dominated country, having helped more than 1,000 women launch their own enterprises.
Her down-to-earth approach has attracted an increasing number of people, mostly women, of all ages from across Japan who have an ambition to start a business.
Okutani, who became the leader of WWB Japan in 2005, attributes the recent interest in starting businesses to changing values in Japanese society and a shift in people's perspective on life after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in northeastern Japan, which left about 18,500 people missing or dead.
"More women seek fulfillment in their lives, especially after the disaster," she says, referring to their motivation to run their own business.
Many of the women who became entrepreneurs before the disaster started their businesses after experiencing the frustration of inequality in the workplace. They were motivated by the energy from that anger.
Workplace inequality persists: Married women still have a hard time reentering Japan's rigid workforce, even if they possess the education, experience, and willingness to work.
According to the 2012 Global Gender Gap report from the World Economic Forum, Japan ranks 101st among the world's 135 countries in general equality (the United States ranked 22nd). Japan's public broadcaster, NHK, for example, has as many as 50 in-house commentators, but only five of them are women. Virtually nobody criticizes this situation.
Since the 2011 disaster, Okutani has visited a tsunami-struck region every month to help locals recover from the devastation and create jobs.
"Local residents are eager to work," she says. But there are not many job opportunities in such rural areas.
One of her destinations is Hirono, 340 miles north of Tokyo, where Shizuko Niwa is working to rebuild her business. The tsunami swept through her restaurant, and she told Okutani she really wanted to save the jobs of her employees.
The restaurant owner's words prompted the WWB Japan leader to appeal for funds – a total of 2 million yen ($20,000) – to help Ms. Niwa restart a business.
The funds were collected within days. Most came from owners of other small businesses who had taken a seminar at WWB.
Despite its name, WWB Japan provides few loans these days. In many cases, those who want to start a business obtain funds from family members or a financial institution, the group says. Instead, WWB offers training. The group regularly holds what it calls "citizens' business school."
Okutani decided more than a year ago to give up accepting her monthly salary from WWB, partly because she wanted to "stand on her own feet." She now earns money by lecturing across Japan. She is also a prolific writer.
When she was at Keio University, one of Japan's top schools, she was not as willing to undertake a traditional job search as other students, visiting one company after another wearing a business suit. She was interested in corporate philanthropy. But after going to meetings at some companies, she grew skeptical about their approach and stopped looking for a job.
Then Okutani ran into Masaru Kataoka, the founder of Press Alternative, who introduced a fair-trade business into Japan in 1985 after traveling to more than 130 countries. Mr. Kataoka, who also started Japan's Citizens' Bank and WWB Japan, had been invited to her class to make a speech.
After Okutani's professor introduced her to Kataoka, he hired her on the spot.
Unlike at most Japanese companies, at WWB Japan Okutani immediately was given important opportunities. Now she does the same with her young employees. Such early responsibilities enable them to unleash their creativity, she says, which in turn enhances the workplace.
Okutani says she sees things differently than many others in her generation in part because her male cousin had a physical challenge. He died seven years ago. "I owe Takatoshi a lot," she says, referring to her cousin.
Okutani also says experiences abroad expanded her views. She recalls being encouraged by seeing energetic workingwomen during her first overseas trip to Germany.
In recent years, Okutani has spent her vacations on a "farm stay" in European countries such as Spain, Italy, and Germany, where visitors are involved in some of the chores.
"I've found it very interesting to learn a rural lifestyle in a different country," she says. "While working together, I've learned their philosophy of life. I've been inspired by such a stay, and we have launched some agricultural projects in Japan and some other Asian countries."
Last year, Press Alternative founded Community Work for Asia, a trading company in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and also started projects in Myanmar (Burma) and Sri Lanka.
The company recently dispatched Sachiko Shirai, a former student who runs the bakery Mahl Zeit in Tokyo, to Cambodia, where she helps locals develop their own products.
"I was very pleased that they gave me the opportunity," Ms. Shirai says. When Shirai first met Okutani more than a decade ago, "she was very young, but very knowledgeable.
"She is very active, but she doesn't force her opinion on others," says Shirai, who cultivates her own wild yeast by hand for her bakery.
In Tokyo, Kumiko Iwamoto, who plays and teaches the erhu, a Chinese two-stringed musical instrument, was impressed by Okutani's effort to create jobs in disaster-hit areas, and decided to attend a WWB Japan business class.
Ms. Iwamoto found Okutani "very approachable," she says. "There is nothing pretentious about her." WWB's lectures were "very rich in content," she says. They have stimulated her intellectual curiosity and "made me think I still have potential."
Kataoka and Okutani have created a new type of community for women, says Natsu Matsui, an economics professor at Matsuyama University. "When you have some people by your side who had the same kind of experiences and troubles, that is a great reassurance to you," Professor Matsui says.
When a woman sees others with similar experiences starting a business, that makes her think she can do it, too, Matsui says.
Not so long ago, many women wanted nothing to do with starting a business, she says. Even today, especially in rural areas, women are expected to play a certain role, she adds.
"When some woman tries to start running a business, other women ask her, 'Why you?' That is one of the toughest things for women," Matsui says emphatically.
Okutani says she believes that the emerging female-owned businesses, many of which are still small, will help Japan's economy in the long run. Instead of relying on large corporations or public-works projects to create jobs, a growing number of community-based enterprises will make the country's economy more resilient, she says.
"My job has enriched my life because I've been so fortunate to be part of many entrepreneurs' process," Okutani says. "I am glad when I see them exude confidence after a series of struggles and failures.
"Some homemakers at first did not think they could do anything. But later I saw them train their staff members and think intently about a next step," she adds.
Okutani says her approach has been strongly affected by the down-to-earth entrepreneurs she has met. Many of them have a deep sense of a mission to society, she adds.
"What I have learned from them is my asset," Okutani says.
Help provide job training
UniversalGiving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations worldwide. Projects are vetted by Universal Giving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause.
Below are three groups selected by UniversalGiving that provide vocational training:
• Nepal Youth Foundation brings hope to destitute children in impoverished Nepal. Project: Rescue a Nepali girl from bonded servitude and support her education through high school.
• Develop Africa Inc. establishes sustainable development in Africa through transformational education. Project: Help provide a microfinance loan and business training.