The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

Many companies in Japan still believe that change is too risky. They don’t realize that if they don’t change, they’ll die.

This is what women in business champion Satomi Fuluya told The ACCJ Journal when asked why workstyle reform moves more slowly in Japan than many would like.

And when companies here try to change their work environment, she said, the focus—more often than not—is on workplace optimization tools or educational programs designed to modernize mindsets, especially in pursuit of boosting women’s participation in the workforce.

“But, if companies do not really believe that change is needed, then there will be no buy-in or understanding of the necessity. And so, lifestyles will not change.”

For Fuluya, a transformation is needed in the way current and prospective employees view their career choices. They need to focus more on how work will affect their lifestyles and less on salary and brand recognition.

Conversely, companies must change what they offer workers by prioritizing employee wellbeing instead of simply demanding loyalty or perpetuating traditional workstyles.

To help make this happen, Fuluya established Clarity K.K. in 2018. The data-driven human resources platform is used to analyze the lifestyles of women and match them to employers that offer compatible corporate cultures.

“We offer an original survey based on eight indicators focused on women’s workstyle. Employees and job seekers provide answers that we analyze and use for matchmaking with companies,” explained Fuluya, the company’s chief executive officer.

As of December, the pre-revenue startup was among the graduates of 500 Kobe Accelerator, a partnership between US-based early-stage venture fund 500 Startups and the City of Kobe. The accelerator supports new ventures such as Clarity.

Born in Tokyo and raised in a traditional household where men went to work and women looked after the home, Fuluya is an unlikely candidate for shaking up the status quo—let alone championing women’s empowerment.

And yet, it was precisely in that traditional cauldron that her entrepreneurial, risk-taking, status quo-upending mindset was forged.

Fuluya spent her formative years in Tokyo’s traditional Asakusa district, an area renowned for traditional wholesalers and small and medium-sized enterprises.

There, her father successfully ran a generations-old printing company that doubled as the family home. The Fuluyas lived at the top of a several-storied shop-house and wanted for very little.

“So, everything—the printing shop, office, and family—was in one building.”

The Fuluya home ran like clockwork, with the roles of men and women as distinct as the minute and hour hands of a clock. And so was the way you had to behave.

“My dad would say: ‘Girls should have long hair and wear a skirt,’” she recalls, laughing.

With business booming and the family ticking along predictably, it came as little surprise that Fuluya was enrolled in private, girls-only schools from kindergarten through high school.

“They expected girls to study tea ceremony, cooking, and things like that—very traditional.

“So, everyone—both at home and at school—believed that, if you were born as a girl, you had to be attractive so that you could find a rich husband. That was the way to happiness for a woman.”

And that was the way in the Fuluya home. At that time, Fuluya believed it to be her future as well.

But misfortune struck in the early 2000s and the family went through a period of uncertainty when their business struggled and then filed for bankruptcy. However, misfortune may well be the catalyst for reinvention.

In a reversal of roles, her mother trained herself to understand design and established a graphic design business while her father became the homemaker.

“When I talk about this, it sounds like it was a nice family time; but there was a lot of drama,” Fuluya confessed. “Reality was more chaotic.”

Despite the drama, seeing her mother go into the working world and her dad stay at home was a watershed moment. It made her reassess her future and the role of women—and men—in the workplace and society at large.

“It’s a common thing these days that both parents work. But at that time, and in that community, it was considered shameful that a mother had to go out to work. That had a positive effect on me.”

Not only did the family’s misfortunes and role reversals pro­foundly affect the way Fuluya saw herself and her community, it also changed her view of the world, opening up previously unseen vistas.

“I already knew that, as a woman in Japan, I had fewer opportunities than men—especially if I joined a big company.
It would be hard for me to move up the career ladder.”

“But I also realized that, if I studied hard, in English at least, then I could have more opportunities in the future.”

That path led Fuluya to the United Sates. While she was a student at Seijo University in Tokyo, she enrolled in a year-long study abroad program at San Diego State University. Even at that age, Fuluya was thinking strategically.

“I decided to go to a Japanese university, but it had to have a one-year exchange program.”

Studying abroad was a dream come true, allowing her to experience a new culture and way of life. She also improved her English. But it came at a high cost—especially when she returned to Japan and had to think about a career.

Japan’s job-hunting window for third-year college students runs from spring to summer each year. When Fuluya returned from her year abroad, that window had closed.

So, she spent the first six months after graduation as a NEET—a young person not in education, employment, or training— doing minimum-wage jobs in the restaurant industry.

In her first full-time position, she worked as a consultant and an executive assistant for a global fashion brand in Tokyo.

In her next position, she worked on the human resources team of a global tech company. There she was introduced to new ideas, including concepts for workplace diversity.

“Even then, in 2012, there were already diversity and inclusion programs. But many Japanese companies then did not know what diversity meant.”

That said, Fuluya thought the idea of empowering employees—especially women—was merely “a cool thing.” Her real interest was communication design.

So, it made sense that she sought work at an international advertising agency, where she supported a number of brand campaigns as an account executive. Interestingly, many of these were centered on women’s empowerment.

Learning the ropes of brand communication and empowering women using inspiring messaging was educational for Fuluya. But she felt that there was something missing.

“No matter how much you inspire people via creative communication, that cannot, in itself, be a direct solution to social issues. I wanted to create a direct solution for empowering women, but I didn’t know how.”

That was 2016. Driven by an ideal and yet not knowing where to start, she took the bold step of quitting her job and creating Clarity. It was a scary move, she recalls, but sometimes you must take drastic measures.

For about two years, she worked as a freelancer in branding, public relations, and marketing in the startup ecosystem, a decision that brought her into contact with other self-starters, founders, and investors.

That exposure allowed her to think more about how Clarity could affect change, and it boiled down to a few key questions.

“I asked myself: Why can’t companies change? Why can’t people in Japan change their lifestyles or mindsets?”

From job hunting while still in college to lifelong dedication to one company to sticking to traditional home and work roles, “people don’t have the freedom to choose their lifestyles.”

What’s more, “it’s all traceable to company culture and workstyle. So, I thought that it is companies that have to change.”

Is there a single experience that helped Fuluya create her own startup? Not really.

“I think it was everything: from my family experience to the experience I had with global companies and advertising agencies to working with other startups.”

Looking ahead, what are her expectations for Clarity in the near future?

Apart from seeking what most startups want—an exit—she said: “I hope that when women or mothers want to look for a job, or when they want to change jobs, or if they want to know if a company has a good work culture, the first thing that comes to mind is Clarity.”

John Amari is a writer and editor from the UK who specializes in articles on startups, entrepreneurs, science, tech, and business.