Now Reports

Joëlle Sambuc Bloise

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Joëlle Sambuc Bloise
Hometown: Geneva, Switzerland
In Japan: 4 years 3 months
Identity: Co-president of Nishinippon Business Women Association, General Manager of IT & IP Strategy Advisory Group SA

The Nishinippon Businesswomen Association (NBWA) is a Fukuoka-based discussion and networking platform, run in Japanese and English, for women working in the male-dominated world of business. The organisation’s co-president, Joëlle Sambuc-Bloise, is also at the helm of a successful company that offers consulting and investment opportunities, including in sectors such as renewable energy as well as medical and biological technology. She spoke to us about her experiences of working in Japan, the issues that face women pursuing a career on a local or international scale, and her opinion on Prime Minister Abe’s recent claim that powerful women are key to Japan’s future economic success. She believes that women should not always “settle for the second best choice”, and that the association’s events can help working women to break down cultural barriers, exchange ideas and make inspiring connections. For more information about upcoming NBWA events and how to join, see their website at

First things first: what brought you to Japan, and why Fukuoka?
I’d been to Japan many times and fallen in love with the country. My husband and I weren’t satisfied with our jobs at home and decided to come here around 2009. We started in Tokyo and established a branch of our own consulting company whilst I was doing postdoctoral research at Todai. Just before we arrived in Japan, our son was born, which changed the plan a bit! We were working closely with another company in Fukuoka, and moved the branch office here after the earthquake in April 2011. We love the place and it’s a great environment for a kid to grow up.

In your opinion, what are the main issues facing women working in Japan today?
There’s an array of issues, but they are not limited to Japan. There are more working women in Switzerland than Japan, but they are mostly part time and it’s hard to continue a career after you start having children. Politics is important, as is the work of large corporations, but NBWA, the association which we started this year, tries to work at an individual level. This type of organisation already exists in Tokyo, but here in Kyushu, there are more long-term foreign residents, whose goals, aspirations and commitment are different.

Are there any problems specific to the Japanese context?
A real difference is the long hours that colleagues or the corporation expect you to work, which may not be best for productivity. They make it very hard for both women and men to have a good work/life balance: this is a problem for both parents and single people, as it’s harder to create good social relations. The issue of women in the business world is a social, political and economic issue that should be addressed by everyone. Of course I would like to talk about rights, equality and non-discrimination, but some people shut their ears when you start talking, so you have to discuss economy, profit and growth. If there were as many women as men in the workforce, there would be an increase of 20% of the country’s GDP over 20 years. For me, the math is easy.

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How has the situation for women working here changed in the last 20 years?
It has evolved, but not necessarily in the right direction. Maybe the best indicator of this is the low birth rate: it may be hard to make a scientific correlation, but it strikes me as very paradoxical that we live in a society where many women don’t work, yet they don’t have more children. There is something not satisfactory there for everyone involved. It’s not that a big victory will be achieved when a certain percentage of women are on the boards of large companies in Japan. This can only be supported, but most women would just like to have a balanced life and not so much pressure to be perfect at everything they do – this is not only in Japan!

What can we expect from NBWA events?
I hope we can achieve good, open discussion, especially in panel sessions between professional members and the public. At our first event, I want to know if our members are interested in the idea of shared workplaces, as there is a very low use of them by women and what exists at the moment mostly fits the needs of men or those without children. There will also be coaching sessions, with women talking about their own experiences – many women today don’t have enough examples to take ideas from. It’s about creating momentum. It’s our first year, so we want to see what the possibilities are and hear the feedback from local people.

In a recent speech to the New York Stock Exchange, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said, ‘“If these women rise up, I believe Japan can achieve strong growth,”. He also promised to increase childcare facilities for around 400,000 children. What is your reaction to these statements?
This is very good news and definitely part of the solution. I hope it will be followed by very specific actions, because it requires a budget, and I remember that before his party came to power, they were very opposed to some of the budget proposals by the Democratic Party. We definitely need more public day care for very young children, as currently only 28% of children have access to the service. It is very hard to get a spot – you have to prove you work a certain number of hours per week, which is particularly difficult for independent entrepreneurs.

Do you think that “Japan is back” from its recession as Abe claims? In your opinion, will further deregulation help or hinder the Japanese economy?
There is no black or white answer. I strongly believe that more competition and deregulation of some industries, such as the energy sector, would be a very good thing – in Japan’s economy at the moment, you go nowhere fast if you don’t have the right connections. But we must be careful. It’s very hard to make an informed opinion about the pros and cons of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, because on one hand, it would help the Japanese economy to integrate more foreign technologies into the domestic process, but I can understand Japanese farmers’ reluctance to accept lots of GM American products, for example. In Europe free trade has helped consumers in some areas, but there has always been a need for some control and checks. I wish that Japan had entered negotiations on the TPP much earlier and had a stronger hand in it.

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What do you think about the upcoming VAT hikes in Japan [to 8% in Apr 2014 and 10% in Oct 2015]?
I understand the need to clear the national debt – it’s a real problem. From a personal point of view, a price increase is… well, eurgh! But it’s not the end of the world. In Switzerland tax is at 9%, and other European states have an average of 20% on sales tax, so there is still a margin. I just hope that it will not mean a too heavy burden on lower income families, usually elderly people and single mothers with children, because in Japan there is no true safety net.

Do you think that there is a difference between the experiences of Japanese and foreign women working in Japan?
We share the problem of being taken seriously and unfortunately the reality is that we have to work harder and make more effort to be even better than our male colleagues. As a foreigner, I have problems with the language, which is common. I cannot rely on Japanese to do business; I need someone to assist me. Local connections and networking are a challenge, as is not having my family around me to help me with my child. Yet as I am outside the usual circles, I can build my own path, whilst maybe Japanese women have to make stronger efforts to break free of social expectations and pressure. NBWA would like to bring these ladies together – everyone is welcome to our events.

What more general issues are there for women living in Japan? Can business help to overcome these problems?
Maybe it’s my cultural background speaking, but I think the main obstacle for women in Japan is themselves. They think it cannot be done, or that everyone expects them not to. In my own experience, there is sometimes a gap between what you think people think and what they actually think and say. There is also a degree of perfectionism here, in that everything must be very neat and proper, which is not so good for efficiency. It could also be to do with lack of exposure to other kinds of examples and of foreigners in general. I’m not saying they should revise their current way of life, but when you encounter something else, you can become better aware of your own situation. At NBWA, we laugh a lot at how we see things differently. This cross-cultural communication is very refreshing for everybody involved.

If Japan was looking to other countries for advice regarding support for businesswomen, which ones do you think would be best?
The best examples are Northern European countries, but they didn’t get there overnight. I think it’s possible to take a bit of this and that from different countries depending on what seems to work or what would maybe be easier to adapt to the Japanese model. It is also important to understand that your own model is not perfect: there are so many good things from Japan that I would not change and I miss when I’m back home. My only big piece of advice to any Japanese woman would be: don’t think that you should always aim for the second best choice. It kills me when, at a big event, the boss cannot even say hello in another language, but his female secretary can speak French and English, and maybe Italian too. This is maybe what coaching is about: we hope that at NBWA, with all our competencies added together, we can help other woman be confident in their skills.

Are you an advocate of positive discrimination?
I hate this question! The problem with quotas, for example, is that the credibility of the women who benefit from them is undermined even if they are the right person for the job. However, it can take so many years for the current status quo to change by itself. There are situations involving other discriminated groups where maybe quotas can help, as the law puts them at such a disadvantage that there is no way they can break down barriers by themselves. But I believe that naturally you will have more women on the board when there are more women in management, and more women who climb the ladder as men do. If there is no solution for women in entry-level jobs, who at some point have to wonder if they should stop working or manage their family, the top will never be solved. We need examples of women both with and without children at the top, who don’t necessarily come from big powerful families.

You do a lot of work in the fields of renewable energy and sustainable development. Can women lead the way for an increase in ethical business models?
Yes, women have a key role here, because simply most of the time they are still in charge of daily life, families and organisation. Professor Yunus famously empowered women in Bangladesh by starting micro-lending. He chose women because he said they were more trustworthy and would not spend the money on drinks. It’s not that men cannot do this, but I think that for one reason or another, for better or worse, women tend to think about others before themselves. Social business and sustainability are clearly related, as it’s all about investing back into your company, and working on a long-term goal – not just profit for the sake of profit, the capitalist model which is killing the world. My business is organising a large international event in December in Fukuoka including for cleantech industries. European companies in that industry are coming here to meet partners, and propose foreign technologies and solutions to help the current energy situation in Japan. I cannot avoid thinking about Fukushima and the energy crisis – not because I have to pay more at the end of the month, but because it’s a simple necessity.

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Is the competitive nature of business in conflict with the idea of women working together for mutual benefit?
Among our members at some point I’m sure there will be competitors. But in the coming months, our website will feature details of our entrepreneur members, with discounts offered for NBWA members. It’s about pooling resources – If you have a legal question, there are female lawyers who can help you. If you need to make a website, there are web designers. All associations try to help each others’ businesses, this one is just focussed on women.

What positive experiences, stereotypes or setbacks have you experienced during your career?
The biggest challenges are related to my relative lack of Japanese skills. Every time I have to fill in a form, it takes hours! However, every single person I have met has been extremely helpful. If my husband and I had been non-French-speaking foreigners back in Geneva, and needed the same help, we would have been told straight away to come back when we could speak French. There are always stories around racism and discrimination in Japan, but come on – of course Japan has its problems, but are you a Latin American in the US? Or a Swiss guy from African descent in Geneva? No, you have no idea.

What are your goals for the future?
To stabilize our business here, be able to live in Fukuoka as long as possible, make sure our kid grows up happily in a balanced way, and maybe have another. I would like to continue my activities with NBWA, make new friends and relations, and try to have a meaningful impact on my immediate environment.

How do you spend your free time? Do you have any favorite places in Fukuoka?
We love cycling at the weekend at different beaches – just two or three weeks ago, we were swimming, whilst in Switzerland, it’s snowing! One of our biggest pleasures is cycling, around the suburbs or to Imajuku, or taking the train to Shingu Area. In the city itself, we really love Nishijin area and Brooklyn Parlour in Hakata. I don’t have time to go out much though!

Thanks Joelle. Do you have anything else to add?
If people are interested in the issue of women in the workplace, whether they are men or women, they are welcome to come to our events and if they are women they are welcome to join us. The entrance fee is very low and we want to create more opportunities to share ideas and projects and to create some positive energy.

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Interview by Katie Forster for Fukuoka Now

Originally published in Fukuoka Now Magazine (fn179, Nov. 2013)

Fukuoka City
Published: Oct 25, 2013 / Last Updated: Jun 13, 2017

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