The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

“‘Oh, it can’t be done.’ ‘What if private companies go bankrupt? The daycare centers will close.’ They just told me the negatives,” said Mayor of Yokohama Fumiko Hayashi on the challenges she had to overcome to increase the number of daycare centers to help mothers get back to work.

During an entertaining speech in early July at the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan (ACCJ), where Mayor Hayashi was named ACCJ 2014 Person of the Year, she showed how to get from muzukashii (it’s difficult)—a common refrain in Japan—to it can be done.

Hayashi is bold. She is not bound by convention. She is not afraid to take risks. And she knows what she wants. She has not only succeeded in a so-called man’s world, but she has changed it.

She has empowered women, and as Mayor of Yokohama, she has paved the way for local governments across Japan to make it easier for women to gain access to childcare, and move back into the workforce.

Her stellar corporate career is well known. She worked at Honda for 10 years, and then BMW, before being headhunted by Volkswagen, where she rose to the position of president of the Japan operation in 1999. She returned to BMW Tokyo as president in 2003.

Two years later, she was at Daiei, a large Japanese retailer, as chairperson and CEO. Later, she moved to Nissan as operating officer, before being promoted to president of Tokyo Nissan Auto Sales in 2008.

Although a political novice, Hayashi was elected Mayor of Yokohama in August 2009, gaining 35,000 more votes than her nearest rival.
“Were the bureaucrats in Yokohama more worried about you being a woman or being from the private sector?” Hayashi was asked at the lunch.

With a laugh, she described how she quickly moved to instill a customer-oriented mentality—much to the surprise of some bureaucrats, who were used to being elite mandarins. She also raised dress standards to counter a culture where “some even wore white socks . . . .”

A hallmark of her tenure has been her effort to reduce the waiting list for daycare centers in Yokohama for women who want to return to work. For this, Hayashi met with city employees, talked with working mothers, and personally established a project to reduce to zero the number of children waiting for places in daycare centers.

Given the city’s soaring land prices, Hayashi hit upon the idea that, even without kindergarten yards, existing buildings could be refurbished as daycare facilities, and access could be allowed to the playground areas of nearby daycare centers. She also encouraged such centers—though privately owned—to open, a move that raised eyebrows.

Within three years, the waiting list was reduced to zero and then, as of last April, it grew to eight. “Since we successfully eliminated the list, a constantly increasing number of people have been applying for places in daycare centers,” Hayashi said.

Impressed by Hayashi’s results, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe dubbed her approach “The Yokohama Method,” and the government has subsequently given grants to other municipalities to emulate Yokohama’s success.

During the luncheon, Hayashi offered a number of interesting observations for us to reflect on, including:
In order to increase the participation of women in business in Japan, the way men work first has to change. Men have to better understand the work–life balance, she said.

Advising 20 year olds, Hayashi added that, we live in the ICT era; the young need to get off video games and mobile phones, put away the TV, get out of their virtual lives, communicate with real people, and read books. “If you don’t read books, you lose the ability to write,” she said.

On plans for Yokohama, the mayor was even more candid. “Downtown Yokohama is a beautiful part of the city facing the sea, with an international convention complex that attracts more international conferences and participants than anywhere else in Japan. Can you believe we don’t even have an opera house?” she asked.

“Plans for development of our waterfront are already in motion, including upgrades to convention facilities,” she stated, “and I wish to keep on refining our attractiveness as a location for international conferences and a destination for tourists.”

On Integrated Resorts, Hayashi said nothing has been decided and that we must think about what the people of Yokohama want.

However, we ought to look at how we can better utilize our waterfront—having an Integrated Resort with lots of opportunity for entertainment would be a viable option. “Think of the in-bound international tourism to the area,” she said.

Hayashi, the 30th mayor of Yokohama, clearly deserves to be the ACCJ 2014 Person of the Year. She is an inspiration to men and women alike. She is a true example of what can be done with some determination and perseverance.
Congratulations, Mayor Hayashi.

Deborah Hayden is co-chair of the ACCJ Women in Business Committee, and Edelman Japan regional director.
Hayashi is bold. She is not bound by convention.