Japan knows trains.
From the super-fast Shinkansen “bullet trains” to local rail connections across the nation, trains provide critical connections for daily life in Japan. Founded in 1987, the East Japan Railway Company (JR East) has been operating for over three decades. It was born during the famed bubble economy, weathered the “lost decade” after the bubble burst, and is now transforming in the age of digitalization.
But as well as Japan knows trains, it’s still got a lot to learn about gender diversity. Companies like JR East, however, are showing growth.
Yukiko Ono is an executive helping to drive JR East’s digitalization efforts as deputy general manager of the MaaS & Suica Headquarters. Since joining the company in 1991, she’s also been at the forefront of expanding roles for women. GLOBIS Insights spoke with her about her career at JR East, as well as her four key lessons for women in leadership.
A Career in Changing Times for Women
Insights: How did your career begin at JR East?
Ono: I joined JR East in 1991 as an engineer. At first, I worked at ticketing offices and other places. Later, I was assigned to the Planning Department, which is in charge of conductor training and operational services. I was in a division that oversaw trains at the Tokyo branch, and I was the first woman working in that division at that branch.
Insights: As the first woman, you must’ve had quite a hill to climb. Did the lack of diversity shape your career with the company going forward?
Ono: It was a factor, if not a focus, in many of my roles, yes. In 1999, I was transferred to the Marunouchi conductor section as a field assistant to conductors on the Shinkansen, as well as several local lines. This was two years after the Japanese labor law changed to eliminate so-called “protections” for women that had prevented us from becoming train conductors. I didn’t become a conductor myself, but I was in charge of improving the work environment and training so that more women could take that path.
After that, in 2002, I took charge of research work at JR East Marketing & Communications,Inc., an affiliated company, and two years later, I joined the Frontier Service Development Lab and the Management Planning Department of JR East. My focus there was reflecting customer viewpoints in various management policies. Finally, in 2009, I transferred to what is now the MaaS & Suica Headquarters, which is responsible for data utilization projects involving our Suica digital payment platform. In addition to data marketing, I’m currently developing mobility as a service (MaaS) platforms and new products such as the MaaS application “Ringo Pass.”
Insights: The railroad industry has a reputation for being male dominated. Has that changed since you joined JR East?
Ono: When I first joined the company, there were very few women. In fact, we didn’t even have enough women’s restrooms. When I moved to the Marunouchi conductor section as a manager, customers who saw me on the Shinkansen would ask me if I was a trainee and wish me luck! (laughs)
But we’ve come a long way. Nowadays, female drivers and station managers are fairly common. There are many women in our planning department. Although the percentage is still lower than it should be, I feel like working side-by-side with women has become the norm for everyone. That’s a fundamental change.
Lesson #1: Try anything that looks interesting.
Insights: Someone said your motto in college was “try anything that looks interesting.” How has that impacted your career?
Ono: For as long as I can remember, I’ve been the type of person who tries interesting things—or rather, things that I’m interested in, but not capable of doing yet. That’s the kind of choice that motivates me.
It’s generally believed that people with outstanding talents in one area should focus on excelling in their fields. But that wasn’t me. Instead, I asked myself how I could get stronger in order to climb more difficult mountains. At university, I joined a statistics program—not because I was good at it, but because I didn’t understand statistics! (laughs)
I think it’s good to move forward one step at a time while enjoying as much of the situation and experience as you can.
Lesson #2: The best challenges are the ones you’re not ready for.
Insights: Women in Japan are often hesitant to take on management positions even when offered one. What advice would you give to women who are struggling with difficult career choices?
Ono: Whether you’re in management or not, you’ll always run into obstacles at work. In those situations, it’s best to tackle the problem head-on. If you feel like you’re being too blunt, you’re probably doing it right.
Overcoming obstacles changes your perspective. When you become a manager, that perspective changes again. In my case, I learned to enjoy the growth that I could see in my subordinates and other coworkers. I think it’s good to experience a fresh point of view like that.
Insights: So women should constantly strive to challenge themselves?
Ono: Yes, but not to the point of burnout. The point is to take on challenges that are a little beyond your abilities, but not too much. If the wall is way too high, you’ll just be discouraged. But if it’s just a little too high, you’ll be motivated to think of a way to climb it. And if you climb these walls repeatedly, eventually you’ll be able to climb a mountain.
Building up your career skills is a lot like weight training to build physical muscles.
Lesson #3: Let the young take the lead.
Insights: You manage complex, long-term projects on a large scale. What’s the secret to success?
Ono: I’d love to know! (laughs) I think it’s all about sharing a vision with your team and being user oriented. We call it “building a hypothesis” in engineering. We need to observe and listen to customers to confirm whether an approach (or hypothesis) makes sense.
But I’d also say that in the digital age, young people have a higher level of knowledge and know-how. It’s unconventional, but I’ve found there’s a lot of value in respecting them—even putting them in charge. That works for projects inside and outside the company.
It is not that older people, including myself, are evil. But it’s not good to simply impose our experience and wisdom on things.
Lesson #4: Evolve your personal mission.
Insights: At GLOBIS, we place a lot of importance on personal mission—kokorozashi, in Japanese. A personal mission can start very small and develop gradually. When we achieve our goals, we look for new ones. Do you have a sense of what your future kokorozashi will be?
Ono: For a long time, I’ve had a dream to do things that will make people smile. I want to cheer people up. JR East is a very visible company. I believe that if we can become a truly good company, we can contribute to the happiness of everyone in society. It’s this aspiration, I think, that motivates me to be a lateral thinker in all the work I do.