Insights and Analysis

Building a Society Ideal for Working Women and Families

April 5, 2017

This interview with Abigail Friedman, former senior advisor and current consultant for The Asia Foundation, originally appeared in the Spring quarterly journal of I-House. Read the full interview here.

As developments promoting the social advancement of women gather momentum, we have begun to hear the voices of women active in many fields of enterprise. Yet the workplace environment in Japan is still not easy for women and families. Abigail Friedman worked for over 25 years as a career diplomat, including experience in the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, while raising three children. She continues to contribute to women’s empowerment today, serving as CEO of an international consulting firm and participating as an expert in a variety of symposia, including the World Assembly for Women. We spoke with her on a recent visit to Tokyo.

How did you first come to Japan?

My first visit to Japan was in 1986. I’d never been here before, knew almost nothing about the country, but my husband grew up watching samurai movies and was fascinated with Japanese culture. He happened to find a job in Hiroshima teaching English, so we both decided to move to Japan. At the time I was running a small immigration law firm, but I thought, “Let’s go! That will be interesting.” When we started living in Hiroshima I was 30 years old and one month pregnant. There were very few foreigners there, and I didn’t speak any Japanese, but local women really helped me out during my pregnancy and childbirth. I love new challenges and learning new things, so it was a great experience. Then for a while I was a full-time housewife, because as an American who couldn’t speak Japanese, it was very difficult to find work. Also, my American law degree was useless in Japan, and I was pregnant.

When I was growing up I was always sure I was going to work. I had no thought of getting married and having kids. But it’s not like you plan these things—I fell in love, I got married, I had children. And it was in Hiroshima that I had my first experience with being a housewife and taking care of a newborn baby. But one day my husband came home, and I was having a hard time with the baby, and he said, “I don’t think you’re very happy not working.” He understood me better than I understood myself. I had already passed the foreign service exam before we left the US, so I made up my mind to apply to become a foreign service officer when we returned to the US.

What are your impressions of the work environment in Japan?

In the 1970s, when I was in high school in the U.S., women had two options: you were either an independent career woman or a mother and housewife. But then the economy started getting more difficult and more and more women really had to work outside the home—similar to what seems to be happening in Japan today. There are many reasons why women join the workforce. Sometimes it’s because we really want financial independence; often it’s simply to contribute to the family finances. In the late 1980s when I began working as a U.S. diplomat, the trick was to act as much like a man as possible just to fit in. There were the career woman clothes, and you would wear a dark suit with a white shirt and little bow tie, maybe. Now women wear whatever they feel like wearing professionally, but in the ’80s that was a serious issue.

Nowadays in the U.S., for instance if a child is sick, it is much more accepted that working people— men or women—are going to need to do something, balance their need to care for the child with the demands of their job. And I think this will happen in Japan as well. There are lots of Japanese people who have prioritized their jobs and sacrificed time spent with their families, but as more women join the workforce, the environment is changing. With more women in the workplace, organizations must respond, which should make it easier to move things in a direction that is better for working women and families. This is why we talk about creating a “family-friendly” work environment. It isn’t just so that working women can take care of children, but so that men and women can both meet their family responsibilities.

What is needed for women to be more active in the workplace?

One of the important things is to have allies and mentors and supporters— and these can be either men or women. Many organizations still have more men than women, so having male allies is important. When I came to Japan again in the 1990s as a young diplomat, I was working with Ambassador Walter Mondale, and he did something very important for me that I did not even realize until later. When we were at a reception everyone wants to be around the ambassador, right? And at some point he’d find time just to stand next to me and talk to people. It was amazing because it was not something that had occurred to me. He was just a very perceptive and thoughtful man, and he understood that by standing next to me and bringing me into the conversation, he was signaling to people that I was important. That’s a really valuable skill for managers and leaders to learn. It’s not enough just to have training for women or empowerment efforts for women. I think one also needs training programs for male managers who surely want the women they hire to succeed.


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