The Japanese Women's Leadership Initiative on Empowering Women and Promoting Social Change

September 27, 2016

Atsuko Fish

In celebration of the 10-year anniversary of the Japanese Women's Leadership Initiative, read about the journey of JWLI from dream to reality, and the number of community partners who have contributed to its success.

Written By Associate Dean Patricia Deyton and Mikaela Feroli.

In 2006, three visionary women in Boston—Atsuko Toko Fish, Mary Lassen, and Catherine Crone Coburn—established an innovative program designed to empower current and future generations of women leaders in Japan to be effective change agents. The Japanese Women’s Leadership Initiative’s Fellows Program is an intense four-week training provided in the greater Boston area that provides direct experience and training in nonprofit management and leadership development to Japanese women in areas of importance to women and Japanese society. After its 2006 pilot year, Atsuko Fish approached her family foundation, the Fish Family Foundation, to fund an expanded program and sought an institutional partner. The Center for Gender in Organizations (CGO) at Simmons School of Management (SOM) became JWLI’s institutional and academic partner, working since then in close collaboration with the Fish Family Foundation to design, deliver, and continuously improve the JWLI Program. The JWLI Fellows Program takes place in Boston in the fall of each year. Four Japanese women are selected to participate through a process that includes self-nomination to the program, with supportive documentation and recommendations. The program’s annual cycle begins early in the year with external promotion in Japan. Self-nominations are received by April and are screened to select finalists. Finalists are interviewed in person in Tokyo in June by personnel from the Fish Family Foundation and Simmons College. After selection, finalists are officially invited to the program as Fellows, and prepare to come to Boston in September. Upon return to Japan, they begin their work as change agents, engaging with the JWLI Association (JWLIA), an organization of previous JWLI Fellows that offers mentorship and emphasizes development and execution of strategy. The JWLIA also assists in the recruitment of self-nominations, provides orientation to newly selected Fellows, holds workshops and events to promote the role of women as leaders of social change, and promotes the program in Japan. 

Through the course of the program, Fellows develop a vision and plan for making change in Japanese society. The program assists the Fellows with in-depth training in the development of strategic plans for the vision of change that each Fellow wishes to bring about. Taking the approach that hands-on, experiential learning is highly effective for adult learners, the four weeks of the JWLI Fellows Program consist of intensive on-site training with CEOs and senior staff of several nonprofit organizations. The opportunity to work closely with each of these nonprofit organizations prepares the Fellows by exposing them to a variety of approaches in the areas of fundraising, financing projects, sustaining nonprofit organizations, strategic planning, and leadership. One week of the program is dedicated to participation in the Simmons Schools of Management Executive Education Program, Strategic Leadership for Women. Weekly academic sessions covering basic areas of nonprofit management, opportunities for cultural events, and meetings with inspiring women leaders round out the program. 

JWLI and CGO Representatives with a class of JWLI FellowsThe international collaboration grows stronger every year through JWLI and the CGO’s partnership, and underscores the brilliance of women’s programs that cultivate women’s leadership skills. The combination of JWLI’s ingenuity and the CGO’s expertise provides a platform from which the JWLI program has been able to adjust and adapt to the quickly changing global environments, and has empowered Japanese women to create change and contribute through the nonprofit sector. The direct success and necessity of the JWLI program shines through in the tragic aftermath of the 2011 earthquake. On the morning of March 3, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake destroyed the Tohoku region, triggering both a tsunami and a nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. From the rubbles of destruction, Japanese society was presented with the opportunity to restructure itself, and to break down the institutional and cultural barriers that prohibited Japanese women from holding leadership positions in Japan and engaging in the Japanese economy. As a patriarchal society, many expected men would dominate all major decisions concerning the rebuilding of Japan. However, it was seen in many cases that officials recognized the importance of giving women a voice. Official Kitakami Ward of Ishinomaki City was one such official who provided space for women-only meetings. The women-only space compelled the women to speak openly about their fears and ideas. The resulting conversations opened the eyes of many individuals, both men and women, to the importance of gender equity and diversity in strategizing solutions to complex problems. 

JWLI founder Atsuko Fish seized the opportunity to strengthen women’s voices by establishing the Japanese Disaster Relief Fund–Boston (JDRFB) in collaboration with The Boston Foundation and the Japan Society Boston. The JDRFB supported immediate and mid-term recovery in the affected region in Tohoku. Fish visited Tohoku several times after the disaster to assess and evaluate the needs of the people and community. JDRFB raised approximately $1 million and distributed 24 grants to 19 organizations and projects working directly in the affected Tohoku area. 

Fish’s actions demonstrate the kind of leadership the JWLI and CGO aspire to build in its Fellows. The required networking and collaboration aspects of the JWLI program encourage the Fellows to share their learning; to promote volunteerism and strengthen the nonprofits they manage; and empower more and more women through the initiatives they undertake. There are many success stories to share. To name just a few: 
  • Yuka Matsushima is the co-founder and chief operation officer of Cross Fields, an organization that operates an international volunteering program, sending Japanese corporate employees to nonprofit organizations throughout Asia. Since its inception in May 2011, the organization has expanded its partnership to 10 Japanese companies. Matsushima has managed approximately 30 projects in three years. 
  • After JWLI, Kiyono Yagami established the Work Shift Program to create space for mothers to work by offering sitters for their children. Yagami encourages and supports women within and outside Japan, and helps develop women’s nonprofit organizations with her expertise in marketing, program development, and capacity building to advance equality within the business sector. 
  • Former Fellow Yuko Nakaoka stated that “During the JWLI program in Boston, I learned the successes of nonprofit organizations in Boston through tutorials on operation and management. As a result, I can now help our partner nonprofit organizations work more effectively toward their successful futures. I want to contribute to a positive cycle of change in Japan through empowering working women.” 

JWLI has proven to be the right program for the right time. No one could have predicted the changes that would come about in Japan after the earthquake and the resulting cultural shifts that have opened doors for women leaders. JWLI has been successful well beyond its initial expectations. With the generous and consistent support of the Fish Family Foundation and program founder Atsuko Toko Fish; the commitment of the women who became JWLI Fellows; the commitment and expertise of faculty and staff at Simmons College; the generous gifts of time and expertise from the Boston nonprofit partners, and numerous others who have seen and embraced the program; this program has had all of the elements to succeed and it has, indeed.

Please join the SOM on Tuesday, October 4th for a celebration of the 10-year anniversary of the Japanese Women's Leadership Initiative from 4:30 p.m. - 7:30 p.m. in the Linda K. Paresky Center, located on the 3rd floor of the Main College Building. Click here to RSVP!

Click Here to Read the Full Article in the Spring 2016 Issue of Management Magazine.