Before I begin, I’d like to say that it has been years since I took on the essay format, and self-publishing here on my blog, I will take full advantage of my editing abilities to rethink and update the issues touched upon below. I welcome comments and contributions to this discussion; forming an opinion much less a policy for a business is a learning process that should continue to evolve.
~Ian Chun, Yunomi Tea Merchant
Solving Social Issues
Yunomi.life began out of an interest and concern for Japanese agriculture when Matsumoto Yasuharu, VP of Kyoto Obubu Tea Farms, first hired me to help launch Obubu’s international business in 2010. He told me about the declining agriculture population due to aging farmers and the lack of younger people in the industry. Helping small scale producers find new markets internationally as a contribution to stemming the industry’s decline is the primary reason Yunomi.life is less of a tea brand and more of a platform featuring thousands of products from hundreds of small scale producers.
We are now launching the Women in Tea program to tackle another social issue that has been a personal interest of mine for more than a decade—the advancement of women in the Japanese workplace. Yunomi.life’s program will seek out and feature tea products made by women who own farms and factories, who plan to inherit their family’s production business, and who hold primary management positions in their companies.
The tea industry in Japan, and agriculture in general, is still very much a male-dominated sector of the economy, but women have always played a significant role. In fact, today, there are more women make up just over 50% of the agricultural workforce in Japan. Yet just 6% of farms are managed by women officially. Our vision for the Women in Tea program is to put a spotlight on the women who have stepped onto the center stage as leaders their family businesses. We believe the international nature of our business, with the support of the international tea community, can help tear down the social barriers preventing women from taking leading roles.
A Personal Interest
The role and status of Women in Japan has been a personal interest of mine for over a decade, beginning when I decided to support my wife in her effort to obtain an Ivy League MBA degree. This was before I entered the tea industry, and I had my own budding career in product marketing at a large IT company in Tokyo. However, I had always enjoyed my independence as a freelance writer, so it was not a difficult decision to give up my corporate career to support hers. My personal situation was a catalyst; it sparked my interest in learning how I could support the advancement of women in Japan.
Since then, I’ve learned that the issue is complex, involving government as well as corporate policies, attitudes by men and women alike, social pressures from parents, pop culture, and biases the lie deep, deep within Japanese culture, society, and history. I decided to pursue my own career in a way that gave me maximum flexibility of time—becoming a freelance consultant, then owner of my own business—allowing me to become the primary caregiver in our family.
Japanese Tea & Society
This personal interest has continued with me though the Japanese tea industry over the past decade. Japanese agriculture is very conservative with men representing over 93% of farm management, and yet, women make up half of farm workers. Most often we see wives working along side their husbands, doing much of the same work—as one of our long-time partners, Ayumi Kinezuka, puts it, “There is very little agriculture work that men can do and women cannot.” But societal norms are hard to change, and women in agriculture—as in broader Japanese society—continue to take the lead role in managing the family and household while their husbands take the lead in the workplace.
The status of women in agriculture is a reflection of broader Japanese society. According to 2020’s Global Gender Gap Report issued by the World Economic Forum, Japan ranked #121 in gender equality among 153 nations despite women representing 44.5% of the workforce. Japanese women make up 8% of management (a little better than the agriculture sector). Work culture in Japan often requires workers to sacrifice their personal and family time. So women, despite 71.3% between the ages fo 15 and 64 holding jobs, often choose to forgo careers depending on their spouses to be the family’s primary breadwinner.
But the statistics hide a more nuanced and complex situation. Within the context of a single family, the conservative traditional gender roles in a family are thought to be practical and realistic; Japanese men are likely to have higher earning potential, and they are not raised to think of prioritizing household chores and childcare, though the more progressive “help out” as they can. This is a reason why so many women choose to stay single as well as a reason why women continue to seek out men who earn higher salaries than themselves (since they may have to put their own careers on hold after starting a family).
Within the context of the Japanese tea industry specifically, these social and societal dynamics tend to force women out of leading roles, particularly in family owned businesses passed down from father to son...and in cases where there is no son, the husband of the daughter.
The issues here are much too complex for a single blog post, and there are certainly darker elements of sexism and harassment. But along with my own personal experience, these issues are the background for our decision to feature women on Yunomi.life.
As I learn about efforts to challenge the status quo (including a government effort to encourage young women to become involved in farming - 農業女子), and as we search out and recruit more women producers, business owners, and key managers to Yunomi.life, I hope you’ll show your support for this effort and theirs. I leave you with this Tedx talk by a woman who entered agriculture in the USA...so much more to think about.