Japanese Association gets new leader

Japanese Association gets new leader
Ms Satsuki Ikegami wants to reach out to Japanese people in smaller firms and personal businesses here as well as attract more Singaporeans to the Japanese Association's activities and events.

For the first time in a century, the Japanese Association here has a woman in charge.

Last Tuesday, Ms Satsuki Ikegami, 54, became the new secretary-general of the organisation - which represents the Japanese community in Singapore.

When she was appointed deputy secretary-general last year - with a view of taking the helm after a year - it came as a surprise to some in the community, including Ms Ikegami. However, she said it is a sign of the changing times.

"Our prime minister Mr (Shinzo) Abe always mentions that more women should be leaders," she explained. "A lot of Japanese ladies are very educated - if you stay at home, it's kind of wasted. His message is getting more and more to our level, so a lot of Japanese companies have now started promoting ladies."

Her appointment came after a report in The Economist two weeks earlier stated that the "bamboo ceiling" in corporate Japan has cracked open slightly.

Women made up 4.5 per cent of company division heads in 2011 compared to just 1.2 per cent in 1989.

Ms Ikegami spent a decade each at two Japanese companies here - one construction, one manufacturing - where men dominated the managerial positions.

She rose to a position of controlling the administration and finances of a factory in Tuas.

Last March, she began shadowing the outgoing secretary-general, Mr Kazuo Sugino, until his retirement last month. Now her role is even busier, overseeing the day-to-day running of the association, which currently has about 15,000 individual members.

She put her achievement down to "the right timing and opportunity", adding: "Sugino-san did well for so many years, so there was no need to change. And before that, 30 years ago, we didn't talk about women being in charge."

A permanent resident, Ms Ikegami moved to Singapore in 1989 after studying in the United States, where she met her Malaysian Chinese husband, Mr Michael Liu, 51. They now live in an apartment in Tanah Merah.

After their daughter - their only child - went to study in Tokyo, Ms Ikegami found herself with more time on her hands to get involved with the community.

The association organises events and volunteering opportunities for the Japanese community and Ms Ikegami's job has proved time-consuming. Although official hours are from 9am to 6pm on weekdays, she is usually at the Adam Road office from 7.30am till 8pm. On weekends, she has to make sure all events run smoothly.

"Luckily, my husband is very independent and can have his own dinner while I am working," she said.

The past year has given her more confidence. Gone are the days when she would sit uncomfortably in all-male general committee meetings.

"They were not just (regular) guys, they were the top managing directors of leading companies," she said of the committee members.

But, over time, she found them to be friendly and learnt a lot from their experience.

Current deputy secretary-general Alan Wong has been impressed by her determination.

"She is humble and always respectful to whoever she is working with," he said. "But, at the same time, strict with the results to be achieved."

Ms Ikegami's soft-spoken demeanour belies ambition and a desire to succeed - both in caring for her family and making a success of her career.

"I don't wait for something to drop in front of me, I must go and catch it," she said.

She remains coy about her plans for the organisation, but hopes to continue the work it is doing.

She also plans to reach out to Japanese people in smaller firms and personal businesses that are setting up shop here alongside big corporations.

Ms Ikegami also wants to attract more Singaporeans to the association's activities and events, such as the regular Japanese-speaking corner and the Summer Festival - an annual celebration with food, performances and traditional dancing.

Having a woman in charge is not going to diminish the strength of the organisation, she believes. "I don't see a difference, I can do the same as a man can," she said. Asked if she could do more, she smiled: "I'll try."


This article was published on April 7 in The Straits Times.

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