The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan


December 2013

Mentors can be crucial to a woman’s career

By Elizabeth Handover

I first met Mari Matthews in my role as facilitator for the TOMODACHI Women’s Leadership Program. The mentoring program is part of the TOMODACHI Initiative established by former US Ambassador to Japan John Roos and his wife Susan, following the 2011 triple disaster. The program is designed to promote women’s leadership and empowerment in the workplace.

As head of government relations in Japan for MetLife Alico Life Insurance K.K.—a sponsor of the initiative—Matthews is committed to encouraging women’s professional growth.

Further, she wishes that she could have had the benefit of this program when starting her own career.

“For success, you must know your strengths, your weaknesses, and what you need to develop. Life is easier when you are clear about yourself,” said Matthews.

Beginning her career as a compliance officer in a Japanese company—a job that required several years of resilience and application, including frequent 7:30 a.m. study sessions—Matthews mastered US insurance business law, the Japanese commercial code, and Japanese company law. As a result, she learned how to interpret and apply the law to business, and how to be strategic—skills she has applied ever since.

Further, handling two major inspections by Japan’s Ministry of Finance while overseeing six of her company’s branches ensured that Matthews developed the ability to work well under pressure.

After becoming financially stable, Matthews decided to fulfill her childhood dream and attend university in the United States. However, the learning that changed her most was not her degree, but a course on debate.

“Through debating, I learned to be assertive. Japanese women, while good at analysis, need to be more assertive and strategic in general,” she said.

During her time overseas, Matthews found her first mentor. He advised her on improving her interviewing skills and negotiating a better salary.

According to Matthews, a mentor is crucial in a woman’s career. “A mentor is not a comforter but an important sounding board against whom to test your ideas, to give you the confidence to go out and turn your ideas into action. Find a mentor you respect, someone with whom you can connect.”

Financial literacy is another topic close to her heart. “You have to build up your finances and learn how to use them at the right time, in the right way.

“This has a huge impact later on; it makes your next career steps easier, helps you to take on challenges and, most of all, gives you independence and confidence,” she said.

In subsequent jobs as assistant to the company’s president and head of strategic planning with a US financial services company, Matthews found herself in the middle of the deregulation boom. She became knowledgable on financial laws governing deregulation and created strategies for bringing in new products from the United States.

Further, she honed her negotiating skills through managing joint venture projects, establishing legal entities, and, through her role in government relations, made useful contacts.

However, Matthews decided to take a risk and move into sales after being advised to do so by her chairman. Although she had extensive experience in line jobs, she rejigged her skill set to focus less on the details and more on conveying the big picture value of the product to the client.

In addition, Matthews improved her spoken and written communication skills as, she believes, “other skills are worth nothing without excellent communication.”

“My present role in MetLife Alico came at the perfect time and brings together everything I have learned; my business skills, government relations, networking, as well as sales skills.”

Further, Matthews finds her job stimulating, rewarding and enjoyable. “Unless you enjoy your job, life is boring. We spend so much of our time at work and life is boring in a job we don’t like.

“Enjoy your job and make the most of it.”

ElizabethDividerElizabeth Handover is co-chair of the ACCJ Women in Business Committee and president of Intrapersona K.K., Lumina Learning
Asia Partner.