The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan



Asking the Tough Questions

Interview with Sakie Fukushima

By Brandi Goode

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has set a goal for Japan to have 30 percent of its executive and managerial positions filled by women by the year 2020, from the current 10 percent level.

Sakie Fukushima, president and representative director, G&S Global Advisors, Inc., is a trailblazing Japanese executive who became the first woman to serve on the board of directors of many high-profile, conservative companies.

She also serves as vice chairman of the Keizai Doyukai (Japan Association of Corporate Executives). The ACCJ Journal spoke to Fukushima about her experiences at the top.

ACCJ Journal: What challenges did you face while serving on boards?

Fukushima: My board experience started in the United States with Korn/Ferry, where I worked for 20 years, including 12 years on the board.

Altogether, I have served on the board of directors of nine Japanese companies. The first was Kao, followed by Sony.

In the United States, many boards are composed entirely of external members except for the CEO.

In Japan, however, 90 percent of companies have an auditor system, where the majority of board members are internal. I was an external member in all nine Japanese boards I served on, so I felt I should represent the view of outsiders.

I never really felt different because I was a woman; the challenges had more to do with learning quickly about new companies and industries.

What assets can women bring to the boardroom?

A male colleague and fellow board member once told me that women are often quite perceptive and point out things that other people hesitate to ask.

Women have a way of asking challenging questions that require complex answers.

Male board members, even external ones, may feel compassion for people on the other side of the table, because they have been in that seat on their own company boards.

As a result, they may not feel as free to ask the tough questions.

But I don’t have any vested interests, so I ask what I think are important and relevant questions.

Many women also have a strong sense of morality, so if something’s not consistent, women will often point it out. In the United States, it’s been shown that the more females you have on boards, the fewer compliance issues arise.

What best practices can the United States and Japan share?

I do not fully subscribe to the typical US corporate governance model because it tends to put too much emphasis on shareholder value, which can lead to an excessively short-term view.

Corporate governance in Japan has tended to be internally focused. Only recently have companies started taking shareholders’ interests into account.

When I attended business school in the United States, I was taught that the CEO’s most important task was to maximize shareholder value.

In Japan, an ROE (return on equity) of 5–6 percent is acceptable, but in the United States you are expected to show double-digit returns. In Japan, shareholders, even institutional investors, have long been ignored, and they have been silent.

The Japanese system, however, maximizes the interests of all the parties—internal, suppliers, and communities—it’s all-inclusive.

How can we sustain the Womenomics momentum?

We just need to keep at it. For example, we need to continue the Keizai Doyukai survey every year to evaluate where each company stands on the promotion of women.

The results should be shared widely, so the survey participants can see what is working for others.

Japanese companies feel very competitive and typically don’t want to be seen as falling behind. The view is, “Look at how well others are doing; aren’t you ashamed you’re so far behind?”

In the United States, it’s been shown that the more females you have on boards, the fewer compliance issues arise.