In early April, Yoshiko Karigome was admiring the cherry trees in full bloom at Shiba Park in Minato Ward, Tokyo. As president of the air-conditioning company Aircon Service, she hosts an annual cherry blossom-viewing party to welcome new employees. This year marks her tenth such event as president.
"The years went by just like that," said Karigome, 66. "Sometimes I wanted to call it quits, but I just threw myself into my work instead."
Karigome's husband Yasumi, 57 at the time, collapsed at their home in April 2005 and passed away from lung cancer the following August. The founder of Aircon Service, where Yasumi had been president, visited Karigome as she was busy preparing for his funeral and asked her to take over his job.
Despite her initial refusal, the requests continued until Karigome, then 56, became president that September, with around 60 employees in her charge.
Karigome had worked at Aircon Service for four years in younger days. She first met Yasumi there, but she had never once stepped foot back in the office after they married.
Taking her new seat as president, Karigome felt ill at ease and unsure what she should do. For the first two weeks, she routinely left work in the late afternoon to care for her elderly mother at home.
Around this time she attended a seminar of the National Conference of the Association of Small Business Entrepreneurs, held in Nara Prefecture. As she was leaving at the end to go straight home, a fellow association member - a female construction company president several years her senior - called out to her.
"You know, all workers look up to their boss," she chided Karigome. "Go back to the office."
Her words came as a wake-up call. "I can't keep going like this," Karigome thought. "I have to do my job right."
Leaving her mother in the care of a home helper, she started working longer hours at the office. She listened to employees' opinions of the company while eating lunch with them every day. Hourlong commutes were spent reading books on management, gathering topics for her morning meetings.
As orders from private companies were slowing down at the time, Karigome started making the rounds at public offices to drum up more business. Encouraging employees to acquire job-related licenses, she had study sessions held every week, and sometimes participated herself.
Karigome's experience caring for her elderly mother made her want to "help others avoid the same ordeal." This led her to establish a reduced-hours work system that allows female employees to continue working while caring for children or elderly parents.
Just when she found her rhythm as company president, Karigome's mother died.
"I couldn't be at her side when she passed," she said. If only Yasumi was still around, she thought, if only I had never become president. But "thanks to my job, I had no time to sit around feeling sad," she said.
"Every day is a joy, and I've been able to meet so many people." With a sly smile, Karigome added, "You never know what can happen in your life until it's really over."
Broad perspective a boon for management
After surveying 1.14 million companies throughout Japan at the end of 2014, private credit research company Teikoku Databank found that only 7.5 per cent had female presidents. By age group, female presidents aged 80 or older made up the highest proportion with 13.4 per cent. In many cases, it appears they took over for their husbands who had passed away.
There are about 2,100 members of the Tokyo Doyukai, an association of small business entrepreneurs, but only 300 of them are women. Hiroko Mori, 74, head of the association's Female Department, has seen many women become presidents in circumstances similar to Karigome's.
"It can be quite confusing at the start," she says, "but most are unafraid of being embarrassed, and tackle company issues head-on.
"Compared to male presidents, they communicate better with employees and are good at listening to their opinions. They have broad perspectives fostered from their experiences raising children, caring for elderly parents and being active in their community. That can come in very handy in management."