Thursday, January 23, 2014

Memories of Japan: Mrs. Ishihara

Today is Thursday, January 23, 2014.

Mrs. Ichiko Ishihara was well-known in the Japanese corporate world back in the 1970s and 80s, because she was one of very few women to make it to anywhere near the top of the Japanese corporate ladder.   Since there still aren't that many women in upper echelons of Japanese businesses, I would have to say that Mrs. Ishihara didn't really break the glass ceiling; she only managed to bend it for a little while.  Rather than being a pioneer, she seems to have been an outlier.

For such a well-known outlier, though, there is precious little written about her on the web, and there are no photographs to speak of.  How I wish I had taken a photograph of her as a memento!  All I have left to remember her by is her business card and a pearl necklace she presented to me as a gift.

Mrs. Ishihara (Her business card specifically says Mrs. on the English side.) was probably in her fifties or sixties by the time I met her.  She was one of my students at the Yaesu Branch of the Berlitz School of Languages in Japan.  She came to the Yaesu Branch school because she worked for Takashimaya Department Store, a very high-class store that strove to emulate Macy's in every way possible.  Her business card says she was a managing director of the public relations department, but she described herself as a "buyer" for the store.  Takashimaya's flagship store was located only about a block away from the Yaesu branch school, in the Nihonbashi district of Tokyo.  I used to laugh to myself a bit, because the Chinese character they use in their logo means "high."  It also means "expensive," and I couldn't even afford to breathe on some of the stuff in that store.

Takashimaya flagship store in Nihonbashi, Tokyo,
about a block away from Berlitz Yaesu School
According to its own website, Takashimaya started business as a store in Kyoto that sold only kimono back in 1831.  By 1840, the store was beginning to spread throughout Japan.  I was shocked to realize, however, that there are only 20 stores currently doing business in all of Japan.  Apparently, they have continued to sell only high-end goods, regardless of the fact that fewer and fewer Japanese can actually afford to shop there.  I remember that there was a Takashimaya store in Sakai, when I lived in the Osaka area, not that I bought much stuff there. 

Like other department stores in Japan, Takashimaya sold high-end food items in the basement, and one of its upper floors was always dedicated to year-end and midsummer gifts.  They had an upper floor that had exhibits of various kinds, and a top floor that had some restaurants for shoppers. 

As a minor celebrity in the business world, Mrs. Ishihara got click-heel service at Berlitz, and she was permitted to more or less cherry-pick her teachers.  Most people just scheduled a lesson with whoever was available to teach during that time slot, and there were no guarantees about which teacher you might have, although I suspect that some students figured out who worked when and scheduled their lessons accordingly.  In any event, I was one of Mrs. Ishihara's favorites, and I was regularly invited out to have dinner with her, both individually and with a few favored others.  She told us that she was doing it because she appreciated us, but I also realized that she was probably also trying to get in a little more English conversation practice.  I started calling her "Mrs. I" and others at Berlitz followed suit.  I got the impression that she thought it was cute when she found out.

In the late 70s and early 80s, when I knew her, Japanese department stores had just figured out that even though women didn't work outside the home after marriage, they still made many of the purchasing decisions, and Mrs. Ishihara's claim to fame was to bring a feminine perspective to Takashimaya's business. Her other contribution to her company was finding items from foreign countries that the upscale Takashimaya customers would want to buy.  When I knew her, she was still actively on the lookout for foreign products to import.  She used to ask me, "What do you miss about home that you can't get here?"  It became a bit of a game, after a while, because if I said I missed something, then it would appear at Takashimaya as if by magic a few weeks later, especially food items.  Bagels and cream cheese?  Rhubarb jam?   New York-style cheesecake?   You asked for it, you got it!  

A pearl necklace like the one Mrs. Ishihara gave me.
I remember another lady student who came into the school once for a lesson wearing a Chinese-style cheongsam dress, a form-fitting silk dress with stand-up collar and cap sleeves. With the dress, she was wearing this pearl necklace that was actually multiple strands of seed pearls strung on a nearly invisible wire in such a way that it resembled a cloud of small pearls of various sizes.  I remember telling Mrs. Ishihara about it, and sure enough, a few months later, I got one as a gift.

Mrs. Ishihara was a creature of habit.  She enjoyed Chinese food or traditional Japanese, but rarely ate at Western-style establishments.  At a Chinese restaurant, she always ordered everything, and her order always included shark's fin soup, which she insisted was good for the bones.  Maybe it was, but it was not my favorite thing to eat.  Nor was the abalone, but she always ordered it. 

I do remember having some French-style cuisine with her, one time.  Nouvelle cuisine, it was called, and it featured small portions of light, healthy, seasonal food, just the sort of thing the Japanese like to eat.  I remember that the bottle of wine she bought to accompany the meal cost more than my monthly salary.  You have to understand that at the time, I was making a lot more than many Japanese men.  The restaurant was located in the lower level of the building where the Ohara School of Ikebana had their headquarters.

Another foreign restaurant she introduced me to was an Italian place in the Aoyama area.  One of the Berlitz secretaries and I decided to take our boss out when we heard he was going to be transferred to another Berlitz school.  We decided to go to this restaurant, and I tried to warn her that the meal was going to be expensive.  I remember bringing several hundred dollars in cash with me, knowing what the bill was likely to be, but when the waiter sang out the total, I could tell that the secretary was shocked.  I think she was a little mad at me for suggesting such an expensive place, but I only made her pay for the amount she had originally agreed to, meaning that I paid for well over half the meal.  I didn't tell her that I was surprised at the amount, as well.  Mrs. Ishihara had made it seem like no big deal, and I was determined to do the same.

If we ate in the evening, she always provided a private car for me to be driven home in.  It wasn't a cab, exactly.  There was no fare meter.  It was a private car she hired, and she told me that Takashimaya would pay for it.  All I had to do was tell the driver where I wanted to go. 

Another thing I got to do because of Mrs. Ishihara was attend some really high-end fashion shows.  I remember shows by Thierry Mugler, Emanuel Ungaro, and Hubert de Givenchy, attended by the designers, themselves.  My tickets were always complimentary, but that didn't mean I got a seat right by the catwalk.  I remember watching the Givenchy show with a small pair of field glasses.

Mrs. Ishihara had a personality that was pretty much like a steam locomotive.  She had more drive than I saw in many men, and I knew she had overcome many obstacles to get where she was.  In one American newspaper article, Mrs. Ishihara was briefly interviewed as a participant in a member of a buying team that came to the United States looking for products.  She told the reporter that when she was in school, her teachers told her that she could leave two hours early because women don't need as much education as men.  She refused.

When she started working for Takashimaya, she would clock out right at 5 p.m., but continue to work for free.  She wanted to prove to her bosses that women could be just as productive as men, but she didn't want them to have to pay her overtime in order to find that out.  She never told me that particular story, but I wasn't surprised when I read it online.  It sounded just like her. 

Mrs. Ishihara's motto – and this she did tell me in person – was "Think like a man, act like a lady, work like a dog."  I remember being very impressed by this advice, and resolving to follow it to the letter.

She always made it a point to say that she was a "Mrs." and now I understand a bit more why she did that.  She wanted to convey to people that it wasn't necessary for a woman to renounce marriage and family in order to be a success in the world of business.  Unfortunately, the weight of opinion said otherwise, and even today, there are many young women who are "desperate" to marry and have kids.  Very few, if any, are "desperate" to get ahead in the corporate world.    :-)

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