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Kimono in the Boardroom: the Invisible Evolution of Japanese Women Managers

Author(s):Renshaw, Jean R.
Reviewer(s):Hinz, Christienne L.

Published by EH.NET (September 2001)

Jean R. Renshaw. Kimono in the Boardroom: the Invisible Evolution of

Japanese Women Managers. Oxford, England and New York: Oxford University

Press, 1999. x + 289 pp. Illustrations, notes, bibliography, glossary, and

index. $35.00 (Cloth), ISBN 0-19-511765-4.

Reviewed for EH.NET and H-BUSINESS by Christienne L. Hinz, ,

Department of Historical Studies, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.

Jean Renshaw’s Kimono in the Boardroom, the Invisible Evolution of Japanese

Women Managers, attempts to bring to light the lives, character traits,

motivations, and methods for success found among a small but growing cohort of

Japanese women managers who are struggling to make or find a place for

themselves in a society in which the very existence of the female managers is

oxymoronic. Renshaw, a self-described “manager, business owner, and professor

of management,” clearly states that her research goal is an applied one. Her

work attempts to create a concrete number of suggestions to help Japanese

businesses tap the human resource potential represented by underutilized

Japanese women. Renshaw argues that the presence of Japanese women at the very

highest levels of management would both necessitate and drive the

transformation of Japanese managerial techniques and Japan’s business world,

giving birth to a more holistically human, more humane corporate citizen.

Renshaw’s research questions are timely, apt, and yet deceptive in their

simplicity: who are Japan’s female managers? In which industries do they tend

to congregate? How have they negotiated cultural, institutional, legal, or

personal barriers which typically exclude the vast majority of Japanese women

from managerial hierarchies? Why are Japanese women managers invisible? What

character traits, organizational or institutional environments, laws, or

cultural trends help Japanese women managers to succeed in their chosen


The crux of Renshaw’s argument is that Japanese women managers do, indeed,

exist despite the assertions of Japanese nay-sayers, most of whom are male.

Moreover, these women share certain traits and experiences; and these

predispose them for non-conformist behaviour and life-choices. For example,

Renshaw argues that birth order is an important variable. Supporting her

argument with the secondary work of Frank Sulloway’s Born to Rebel,

Renshaw observes that eldest daughters without male siblings and youngest

daughters are disproportionately represented in her interview sample. Another

common experience that Japanese women managers share, according to Renshaw, is

a relatively permissive, achievement-oriented, gender-neutral socialization as

children. Successful female managers also seem to share non-sexist, foreign,

or otherwise strong childhood role-models such as the cartoon character Sailor

Moon. Renshaw cites post-secondary education or considerable experience

abroad, and bilingualism as experiences common to successful women managers.

Perhaps most interesting, she finds that Japanese women managers tend to fall

into one of two age cohorts, either the 20 to 30 year cohort, or the 40 to 50

year cohort. She theorizes that both 20 to 30 year old and 40 to 50 year old

women experienced a Japan whose dominant paradigms were in flux, either as a

result of the devastation of the Second World War, or because of the

unprecedented wealth of the 1970s and 1980s or because of new and popularly

held notions of basic gender equality, as represented by the 1986 Equal

Employment Opportunity Law. Women between the ages of 30 and 40, however, were

not similarly influenced. Although Renshaw does not interview broadly among

non-managerial or unsuccessful managerial women, she nevertheless argues that

their conformity to traditional gender roles is the result of having been

raised by parents who “lived through the difficult war and postwar years and

wanted the ‘good life’ as they remembered it, for their children. Part of that

remembered good life had included homemakers, full-time wives and mothers,

taking care of the house and children while men, the samurai economic

warriors, went off to battle the corporate world” (p. 100).

Kimono in the Boardroom also attempts to classify the methods by which

Japanese women succeed in management. Renshaw asserts, although she does not

supply supporting evidence, that “[w]arlords and samurai provided the models

for current management in Japanese male-defined corporations” (p. 157). Making

liberal use of the exotic image of feudal Japan, Renshaw sustains the analogy

between modern managers and the samurai class of the medieval period when she

explains the paths by which women seek the exclusively male-defined world of

business: “Family-business warriors” are women who inherit businesses from

their parents. “Warrior entrepreneurs,” are women who begin their own

businesses after repeatedly encountering “glass ceilings and sticky floors,”

that is, institutional barriers preventing female career advancement.

“Warriors taking over,” are women who find means to purchase defunct

businesses and revive them. “Warriors breaking out” are women who choose to

seek upward managerial mobility in foreign corporations, within Japan or as


Renshaw argues that Japanese women managers have remained invisible despite

their slowly increasing numbers because of social and cultural norms which on

the one hand, deny their existential reality, and on the other, force them to

manage from behind a “shoji screen,” in low-profile positions. As marginalized

people, Japanese women managers, respond to their circumstances by engaging in

a range of coping behaviours (adopting, adapting, and transforming) which mask

the reality of their power from male peers, from society in general, from

other women seeking access to the upper echelons of management, and even from

the women managers themselves (p. 139).

Kimono in the Boardroom is a timely study. Renshaw’s research questions

have been only inadequately, if at all, answered by scholars of Japan,

scholars of Japanese business, scholars of Japanese women, or scholars of

women in business. However, as an academic work it stumbles in a number of

critical areas. The most fundamental is, perhaps, its uncomfortable and

unresolved treatment of audience. Exactly to whom Renshaw intends to read her

work is unclear. It hovers awkwardly between serious academic scholarship and

the popular journalism that is more commonly consumed by the

quasi-to-uninformed Japanophilic and Japanophobic reading public.

Because the reviewer is an academic speaking to a largely academic readership,

and because certain aspects of the work are explicitly structured as

scholarship, the reviewer has chosen to frame her commentary accordingly. It

is to preface the reviewer’s more critical remarks by underscoring her

awareness of the many technical, linguistic, and hermeneutical difficulties

that a study like Ms. Renshaw’s presents. Kimono in the Boardroom is a

bold transgression of the quite arbitrary boundaries separating the

humanities, the social sciences, and applied business administration.

Renshaw’s questions cannot be answered from within the boundaries of any

single academic discipline. Such work requires no mere familiarity with the

relevant secondary literatures; rather it requires a real fluency across the

total range of related fields. The reviewer hopes that all scholars with

broad, multi-faceted questions would be encouraged by Renshaw’s study; and

that they would also come away from it with a heightened awareness of and

respect for the complexities and problems inherent in doing cross-cultural,

multi- and inter- disciplinary research.

In the opening chapter of the work, Ms. Renshaw minimizes the importance of

statistical sampling in the following way: “In the course of my travels within

Japan and Korea, I found successful Japanese women managers in every

industrial category, and I interviewed over 160 of them. The interviews were

conducted in English with a Japanese speaker at hand to clarify if necessary.

While this approach introduced the danger of a biased sample, it also had

advantages. Most Japanese women at management level understand English, and as

an evaluator on scholarship committees in Japan, I observed that the same

person spoke more freely in English than in Japanese, an observation

corroborated by other Japanese” (p. 5).

It is common for scholars in the humanities to demonstrate their discomfort

(generally disguised as contempt) for the social sciences by drawing the

weapon most easily drawn, cocked and fired: the dreaded criticism of

“unrepresentative sample.” This reviewer has little patience with the typical

historian’s cheap and easy slander of the research method basic to social

scientific inquiry. Nevertheless, it must be stated that Renshaw’s inadequate

statistical sample deals a critical blow to the remainder of the project.

Renshaw’s core informants were drawn from “a preselected sample of successful

women managers … found in the members of Keizai Doyukai, the Association of

Corporate Executives, which is one of four powerful industrial organizations

in Japan” (pp. 97 – 99). Based upon these contacts, she then expanded her

informant pool through series of cascading personal introductions.

Apparently neither Ms. Renshaw nor her editors appreciated the painful

circularity of the work’s introductory arguments, which are the result of the

aforementioned methodological errors: 1) the project was based upon women

informants belonging to an elite and extremely discriminating organization; 2)

the informants were all, to some degree, bilingual; and 3) the author was

referred by these informants to others who were also bilingual. From this

incestuous sampling, Renshaw reports that “[s]eventy percent of the women

managers… interviewed went to school or lived abroad at some time in their

lives. Many had gone abroad as children with their families when their fathers

worked or served in the military in another country” (p. 123). She continues,

“[a]nother route to the awareness of alternative culture is language. Women

said they seemed to learn second languages more easily than their brothers,

and research substantiates this tendency for girls. The learning of a second

language is related to expanding thought patterns, creativity, and innovation”

(p. 124). That Renshaw concludes that Japanese women managers share similar

family cultures and formative childhood experiences should surprise no one.

After all, she interviewed people who were friends and colleagues. The only

surprise is that despite her apparent awareness of the dangers inherent in

statistical sampling, Renshaw failed throughout the text to match her analysis

to the extremely narrow scope of her data.

Secondly, Renshaw neglects to rationalize her statistical material with a

cogent definition of the manager. She asserts that a “manager focuses the

energy of a group and mobilizes resources of money, people, information,

plant, equipment, and markets to accomplish goals…. The Japanese women

interviewed for this book meet the definitions of manager as they successfully

direct organizations, carry on business within the national and international

economy, and handle affairs of state, of corporations, of small home

businesses, and of families (p. 97).” However, her statistical treatment of

female managers by industrial category is based on data drawn from labour and

gender studies published in the International Labor Organization’s Yearbook

of Labour Statistics, and in the Japanese Census. She does not investigate

the standards which produced these data, or offer even the briefest commentary

upon whether or not (or to what degree) they reflect Japanese managers as

defined in the study.

Furthermore, Renshaw’s research sample does not adequately represent the range

of managerial roles included within her definition. Small home businesses are,

for the most part, absent in her qualitative analysis because so many of her

interviews seem to have been conducted with executives in national,

international, or multinational firms. The Japanese definition of “success” in

business no more reflects Japanese women’s participation in the economy than

would Western definitions of “success.”

Even more problematic than her management of statistical sampling, Renshaw’s

project is crippled by her inability to speak or read Japanese. She breezily

minimizes this problem by claiming that Japanese scholarship interviewees tend

to speak more frankly in English than in Japanese (p. 5). She does not

question the meaningfulness of such frankness, nor does she problemetize

Japanese self-representation to a foreign interlocutor. She does not consider

the impact of the Japanese translator’ s presence on her interviews. Finally,

Renshaw seems completely unaware of the fact that the problem of translation

is not whether or not her informants can understand her, but whether or not

she can understand as well as correctly interpret their utterances in English.

There are many places in the text where, in this reviewer’s experienced,

informed, and carefully considered opinion, Ms. Renshaw has incorrectly

understood the intent and nuance of her informants’ utterances.

Among the most damaging flaws in Kimono in the Boardroom is the

author’s failure to correctly contextualize her subject matter within the

greater history of Japanese women, and within the history of Japanese

business. She seems unfamiliar with current secondary scholarship on Japanese

history, the changing roles of Japanese women, and abundant anthropological

and sociological studies of Japanese culture. She repeatedly and inaccurately

interprets national mythology as historical fact. For example, in chapter

three, titled, “Sex Roles, Creation Myths, and Worldview: Japanese and Western

Historical Perspectives,” Renshaw mixes and matches mythology and history to

create a narrative intent on locating powerful female role models for modern

Japanese women:

“Evidence of prehistoric society in Japan indicates that, like most

prehistoric societies, it was probably matriarchal…. The temple at Ise is

still honored as the temple of the supreme goddess, Amaterasu …. The Goddess

of Creation, Amaterasu Omikami… survived as the ancestor of all Japanese….

[T]he gleam of feminine possibility hides in the dimmest recesses of the

memory bank for both men and women…. In the West,… collective societal

memory of feminine goddesses had been buried and denied…. In the Japanese

memory bank, there is more recent knowledge of women as leaders.” (p. 60 –


The only primary historical evidence provided to support this extravagant

psycho-mythology of the Japanese is Hiratsuka Raicho’s oft-quoted essay which

begins, “in the beginning, woman was the sun.”[ ] Furthermore, the secondary

works upon which Renshaw’s analysis rests are two: a single quote by Motoori

Norinaga, as translated and reprinted in deBerry and Keene’s textbook

Sources of Japanese Tradition, Volume II, and Marija Gimbutas’

controversial monograph The Civilization of the Goddess: the World of Old

Europe. Ms. Renshaw either did not know or failed to mention that Motoori

Norinaga’s construction of Japanese history served his own intellectual

objectives, as well as those of the Tokugawa Shogunate; his work is not

understood by contemporary historians as being “factual,” as representing

anything approaching an “objective” truth. And while this reviewer was

spiritually stimulated by Gimbuta’s theory of primeval European matriarchy and

matrifocality, this work is of debatable applicability to the Japanese case,

to say the least.

In fact, Renshaw’s control over the basic secondary literature behind her

subject is painfully inadequate. Although she drops the names of several

well-respected Japan specialists, like Takie Sugiyama Lebra, Takeo Doi,

Kathleen Uno, and Mary Brinton, she seems unable to actually incorporate such

scholarship into a coherent theory within her own work. Furthermore, the truly

interested reader will be continually frustrated by the paucity of footnotes,

and by faulty bibliographic citations which chronically omit the actual page

numbers corresponding to referenced arguments and data. It is, therefore,

almost impossible for readers to utilize this text as a research tool, to

corroborate, correct, or even to enter into a stimulating dialogue with the

author about her interpretation of the academic works with which her own

research is engaged.

Indeed, Renshaw’s theoretical analysis relies far too heavily upon the writing

of popular Japan commentators like Norma Field (In the Realm of the Dying

Emperor), Masao Miyamoto (Straightjacket Society), and Christopher

Wood (The End of Japan, Inc.). She also supports her theoretical

analysis of Japanese culture using such New York Times Best-Selling books as

John Gray’s Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, and Leonard

Schlain’s The Alphabet vs. the Goddess. Some of Renshaw’s analytical

examples are based upon her own primary interview data, but also includes

disorienting cameos from Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barbara Bush, and Connie

Chung. The overall result is a somewhat surreal mixture of Japanese culture,

fantasy, stray facts, and shocking historical error, such as “feudal Asia was

roughly parallel in time to feudal Europe, but the Asian form of feudalism was

more complex and highly evolved, and it continued into the nineteenths

century, deriving structure from the sophisticated and hierarchical Chinese

civilization,” or “Japan officially abolished the class system with its

postwar constitution of 1946.” Unfortunately, Renshaw’s hard work in the field

is imperfectly, and inappropriately supported by this veritable mosh-pit of

half-baked information, misinformation, and blatant oriental exoticism as

generated in popular literature.

In Kimono in the Boardroom Ms. Renshaw has asked a series of pertinent,

potentially paradigm-challenging questions. She has brought quantitative and

qualitative research methods together despite the mutual hostility that has,

at times, informed the relationship between their proponents. Lastly, she has

attempted to move beyond theory into applied research in order to offer

concrete solutions to the cultural barriers which deny Japanese women access

to managerial leadership. Although this particular work does not succeed in

achieving its goals, Ms. Renshaw has nevertheless set worthy guideposts for

herself, and for others who are working in the field.

Christienne Hinz is assistant professor in Asian history at Southern Illinois

University, Edwardsville. Her research interests are modern Japanese history,

comparative business history, and the history of Japanese women. She has just

completed her dissertation, entitled “Dismembered Remembrance:

Entrepreneurship Among Japanese Women and the Creation and Marketing of

Japanese National Identity,” which she hopes to publish soon. She has also

reviewed for several hard-copy journals.

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):Asia
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII