Interview: In Conversation with Abigail Friedman
“Building a Society Ideal for Working Women and Families”

As developments promoting the social advancement of women gather momentum, we have begun to hear the voices of women active in many fields of enterprise. Yet the workplace environment in Japan is still not easy for women and families. Abigail Friedman worked for over 25 years as a career diplomat, including experience in the US Embassy in Tokyo, while raising three children. She continues to contribute to women’s empowerment today, serving as CEO of an international consulting firm and participating as an expert in a variety of symposia, including the World Assembly for Women. We spoke with her on a recent visit to Tokyo.

[December 2016]

Abigail Friedman Former US foreign service officer; Founder and CEO, The Wisteria Group
Founder and CEO of The Wisteria Group, an international consulting firm; senior advisor to The Asia Foundation. She had more than 25 years of experience as a US diplomat and was twice posted to the US Embassy in Tokyo. In 2000–2003 she was the head of the arms control unit, coordinating US and Japanese policy toward North Korea, and served as a member of the US delegation to the Six-Party Talks on North Korea, and later as US Consul General in Quebec. Her other pursuits include writing haiku, and she is the author of several books, including The Haiku Apprentice: Memoirs of Writing Poetry in Japan (Stone Bridge Press, 2006).


How did you first come to Japan?

My first visit to Japan was in 1986. I’d never been here before, knew almost nothing about the country, but my husband grew up watching samurai movies and was fascinated with Japanese culture. He happened to find a job in Hiroshima teaching English, so we both decided to move to Japan. At the time I was running a small immigration law firm, but I thought, “Let’s go! That will be interesting.”

When we started living in Hiroshima I was 30 years old and one month pregnant. There were very few foreigners there, and I didn’t speak any Japanese, but local women really helped me out during my pregnancy and childbirth. I love new challenges and learning new things, so it was a great experience. Then for a while I was a full-time housewife, because as an American who couldn’t speak Japanese, it was very difficult to find work. Also, my American law degree was useless in Japan, and I was pregnant.

When I was growing up I was always sure I was going to work. I had no thought of getting married and having kids. But it’s not like you plan these things—I fell in love, I got married, I had children. And it was in Hiroshima that I had my first experience with being a housewife and taking care of a newborn baby. But one day my husband came home, and I was having a hard time with the baby, and he said, “I don’t think you’re very happy not working.” He understood me better than I understood myself. I had already passed the foreign service exam before we left the US, so I made up my mind to apply to become a foreign service officer when we returned to the US.

Was it hard to combine being a diplomat with raising children?  

I was lucky because my husband put taking care of the children first, before his own career. When I was accepted into the foreign service my husband said, “Look, why don’t you accept the job and I will follow your career.” So he stayed home as the primary caregiver, which was unusual even in the US in those days. To reduce the burden on my husband I would look for assignments where I thought my husband would enjoy living.

Raising kids is hard work. One of the things he would say to me is “I can’t believe women put up with this for so long!” But he also enjoyed doing it and that was a great help. One thing I found interesting is that for some reason, even though my husband was the one who was with the children all the time, in the middle of the night when they were sick they would still call for me. Also, even though everyone seems to focus on working women with small babies, I have to say that when my children were teenagers, I also really sensed the need to spend more time with them. Without my husband’s support it would have been totally impossible to balance all this with my work.

Did you have to compromise at times?

When I was working as a diplomat, I had a chance to serve in Iraq and I spoke with my husband about it, but we had three children, two of whom were teenagers, and it simply wasn’t the best time for me to go. So I decided not to do it then, but three years later I had an opportunity for an assignment in Afghanistan, and we decided the timing was better, so I went there for a year. I was embedded with the US military in Afghanistan away from my family, and it was a great experience for me. When you have a family you can’t just go and do whatever you want. On the other hand, you also try to figure out ways to make things work for everyone in your family.

What are your impressions of the work environment in Japan?  

In the 1970s, when I was in high school in the US, women had two options: you were either an independent career woman or a mother and housewife. But then the economy started getting more difficult and more and more women really had to work outside the home—similar to what seems to be happening in Japan today. There are many reasons why women join the workforce. Sometimes it’s because we really want financial independence; often it’s simply to contribute to the family finances.

In the late 1980s when I began working as a US diplomat, the trick was to act as much like a man as possible just to fit in. There were the career woman clothes, and you would wear a dark suit with a white shirt and little bow tie, maybe. Now women wear whatever they feel like wearing professionally, but in the ’80s that was a serious issue.

Nowadays in the US, for instance if a child is sick, it is much more accepted that working people—men or women—are going to need to do something, balance their need to care for the child with the demands of their job. And I think this will happen in Japan as well. There are lots of Japanese people who have prioritized their jobs and sacrificed time spent with their families, but as more women join the workforce, the environment is changing. With more women in the workplace, organizations must respond, which should make it easier to move things in a direction that is better for working women and families. This is why we talk about creating a “family-friendly” work environment. It isn’t just so that working women can take care of children, but so that men and women can both meet their family responsibilities.

What is needed for women to be more active in the workplace?

One of the important things is to have allies and mentors and supporters— and these can be either men or women. Many organizations still have more men than women, so having male allies is important. When I came to Japan again in the 1990s as a young diplomat, I was working with Ambassador Walter Mondale, and he did something very important for me that I did not even realize until later. When we were at a reception everyone wants to be around the ambassador, right? And at some point he’d find time just to stand next to me and talk to people. It was amazing because it was not something that had occurred to me. He was just a very perceptive and thoughtful man, and he understood that by standing next to me and bringing me into the conversation, he was signaling to people that I was important. That’s a really valuable skill for managers and leaders to learn. It’s not enough just to have training for women or empowerment efforts for women. I think one also needs training programs for male managers who surely want the women they hire to succeed.

What can women do, for their part?  

Often in Japan, women I speak with think that the challenges they face are unique to Japan, but the question of how to care for aging parents or how to raise children while you are working are issues women and men are struggling with everywhere. My company has established a blog series on women’s economic empowerment in which I interview women from around the world who are running businesses. My goal is to get these translated into Japanese because I think it’s really important for Japanese women to see the range of what women are doing around the world and discover the range of options open to them.

What do you think of the efforts of the Japanese government to promote women’s engagement in the workforce?  

I think things are moving in a positive direction. If you had told me 10 years ago that this was going to be a top priority for the Japanese government, I would have thought you were kidding. But times have changed. I do think it’s important to note that for the government this is an economic priority, but for women and families it’s a human rights priority as well. We should never forget that everyone should have the right to choose their work and live up to their potential, and that governments have a responsibility to make that possible for everyone, regardless of gender. That’s important because we want to keep this pressure up to allow more choices and options for women in Japan.

I also think this is not a change that can be simply announced by the government. There has to be effort by women, by men, by work environments. We’re talking major cultural change, and that takes time. It takes commitment, but it’s happening.

Why are women necessary in the workplacee?

If you look around the world, one of the great accelerators of change is numbers. Some countries favor targets to increase the representation of women, while others set quotas. Quota systems have been shown to be effective in making change happen. I think anxiety about quotas is because people haven’t really asked themselves, why do we want more women? If you don’t really understand the value of a diverse workforce, then it feels like these are artificial tools just to make some people happy. That’s not what it’s about.

The reason diversity is necessary—whether it’s in a workforce, a company, or in government and politics—is because you have better decision-making. You have decisions that reflect the perspective of all the society, not just half the society. A diverse workforce brings in diverse solutions to problems. In government, it becomes a question of how you make decisions that are good for all of Japan.

That’s why I mentioned Ambassador Mondale, because he understood that he needed to help strengthen my ability to have influence. Think about it: for me to have influence was for the embassy to have influence. This is why it’s important in an organization or a business. You want your employees to have influence.

At a conference on leadership in 2016 (Photo courtesy of GLOBIS Insights)

It’s important to have women in leadership positions, but there are three things that we want to have when we talk about giving women a seat at the table. One is to have sufficient numbers— enough women in an organization for their voice to be heard. The second is to have women in key management positions, whether it’s leading a country, in parliament, or in senior positions in companies or on company boards. The third thing that is important is giving those women power. Women may have managerial positions, but if they don’t have the support of their organization then their voices are not heard.

What message do you have for young people?  

If I look back at my own life and my career, I think it would be “Just do it.” I always tell young people that the important thing is to do what you love because if you love what you’re doing, you’re a happy person and that is a very attractive quality. When we are young, we think that a decision is forever, but in fact as we get older we realize that we can do something else and if it stops working then we can adapt or change. So don’t be afraid of following your path. As you follow your path, people will come along the way to help.

This interview was conducted on December 9, 2016.
Interviewers: Ozawa Miwako, Sasayama Yuko (Program Department, International House of Japan)
Photographer (interview): Aikawa Ken’ichi
©2019 International House of Japan

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