Gender equality, like much of the rest of the world, is still a work in progress in Japan.
It wasn’t until the passage of the 1986 Equal Opportunity Law that women were given equal employment opportunities as men. Until then, career advancement for women was virtually impossible.
This is largely due to the fact that it was the norm for women to quit their job after marriage. This meant that the only work available to them was low-level or back-office jobs. Even if they had the same skill-set as their male peers, they could not move up the ladder so easily.
This pattern still lingers today. In local government, less than 5% of the leadership positions are held by women. This is also reflected in the corporate world, with women holding less than 10% of managerial positions.
Furthermore, Japan is currently ranked 121 out of 150 on the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index. It falls below developing countries such as Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar.
However, an unexpected silver lining emerged when the vegan movement reached Japan.
The rise of veganism over the past few decades has led to an influx of female entrepreneurship.
Why is that? Well, vegans tend to be women. One study showed that 79% of vegans in the U.S. are female— and Japan sees similar figures.
And why do vegans tend to be women? According to Masako Ogihara, co-founder of sustainability company Hummingbird, one explanation could be socialization.
In general, women are allowed to show emotion and be vulnerable, while men are not. Men are not as likely to resonate with something that may be perceived as “less masculine” or “emotional.” Studies also show that women generally have more empathy than men, which could further explain their inclination to care more about topics like sustainability, health, and animal rights.
With the demand for vegan-friendly restaurants growing, women have been the ones to step up and fill that demand. Now, there is a large community of female-owned vegan businesses in Japan, and it continues to grow.
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Another restaurant to note is Tokyo’s first female-run sushi restaurant, Nadeshico. Not only is it run by a woman, but all the sushi chefs are women as well. While the restaurant is not completely vegan, it does provide vegan lunch and dinner sets.
Given the ongoing global pandemic, online businesses have also been popping up more. Trick or Treats, Viraveg, Sun Pedal, and Upbeet are all examples of women-owned online businesses selling vegan treats.
According to vegan business consultant Emika Iwata, the type of activism in the community is also starting to change.
In the past, most activism involved opening up a vegan cafe or running a vegan cooking class. Now, more women are taking the next step into product development, speaking out about veganism through blogs and social media, or starting up vegan eCommerce shops.
One example of this is California Organic House, an eCommerce shop that imports cruelty-free cosmetics products from California to Japan.
Behind the company is the sister duo Yoko and Mimi. The two curate beauty products that are difficult to find in Japan. They also only sell products from fellow women-owned brands. Women supporting women in action!
The aforementioned Hummingbird is also run by a band of sisters. Masako, Yuko, and Momoko Ogihara created it to help people take small steps toward a more sustainable lifestyle. Their enterprises include running a weekly sustainable living radio series, creating personal development workshops, and publishing a digital wellness magazine.
Tabe Choku is disrupting the farming industry through a direct-to-consumer business model.
Rina Akimoto started the company in 2016 to help farming become a profitable industry again. Removing intermediaries has proven to be beneficial for both parties. The consumer receives vegetables that are much fresher than they would be in a grocery store, and the farmer receives direct support. In 2020, Akimoto was named a Forbes 30 under 30 entrepreneur. She was one of the only Japanese women to be selected in the Consumer Technology category.
Another Forbes 30 under 30 entrepreneur in this space is Rina Ishii, founder of women-empowerment company BLAST Inc. The company makes sustainable period products under the brand Nagi. It also runs a media outlet called BLAST, which aims to raise awareness around social issues, feminism, sex, and more.
Haruko Kawano founded the NPO in 2013 to increase vegan and vegetarian options in Japan. Its work includes adding vegan certifications to products and menus, creating maps of vegan options in different cities, and providing online resources for vegan recipes, restaurants, fashion, etc.
Beyond the vegan movement, female entrepreneurship is also helping the progression of feminism in Japan, says Ogihara. In a country where one does not easily speak out or explicitly give an opinion, taking a stand as a vegan directly translates to women’s empowerment.
Saying that you do not consume animal products is inherently making an assertion. And, when you speak up about your beliefs, you empower yourself. The more women use their voice and step up in areas that were previously occupied by men, the more likely the feminist movement will move forward.
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