Ayako Totsuka

Ayako TotsukaWhichever way you look at it, sexism is still an institutionalized part of Japanese business culture. ' ladies' have, until the last fifteen years, had to cope with their presence in the workplace being merely to provide something pretty for the male customers and clients to slyly admire. The term 'careerwoman' is still used, by certain people, as an insult its implication being that the person described so is somehow unscrupulous, having forsaken her traditional obligations to stay at home and take care of the men.

It's still a hard struggle for equality, but the fact that careerwomen exist in Japan at all is partly due to the efforts of Ayako Totsuka, who became the first - and only - female employee of a major Japanese company, during one of the most repressive periods in the country's history.

She was born in Tokyo in 1913, and graduated from Japan Women's University, the English Department, in 1936, the year when the militant sections of the Japanese government were increasing their grip on South-East Asia. Totsuka entered Japan Travel Bureau in that spring and became its first female employee. The fact that she was able to do so, and to keep her position during World War Two, was due to the influence of her father - a cabinet minister - and her mother, who provided the young Ayako with the courage and inspiration to go forward into new territory. Despite the connections, however, Totsuka proved her worth by consistently working harder than her male colleagues, determined to disprove the idea that only men could handle important jobs.

In 1947, JTB launched a monthly travel magazine called Tabi, with Totsuka in the post of chief editor. Ironically, at this time it was almost impossible for ordinary Japanese to go anywhere, but Totsuka made the magazine a success through concentrating on domestic locations and writing in an informative, but very poetic style. Totsuka steered the magazine through the 1950s when the country's economy began to grow dramatically, and helped promote the first big travel boom, the featured locations becoming further and more exotic.

In 1961 she left JTB and became a full-time author, concentrating on what had become her greatest love - travel. Her yearly routine came to be spending four months of the year abroad doing research, another four months travelling around Japan, and the rest of the year writing and discussing business in Tokyo. She remained defiantly single; her rootless lifestyle, she knew, was no one that could be shared with - or compromised by - having a husband. She was a prolific author, with several books - such as Shokko no Kanara and Tzuiso Kurao becoming bestsellers. One of her biggest successes was the strangely titled Dry Mama - a biography of her mother.

In her 70s, she decided to leave Tokyo permanently and move into a private nursing home in Kanagawa, which held a stunning view of the sea and surrounding countryside. She continued writing, and travelling; her articles were published regularly in magazines and newspapers in the early '90s, and she made what was to be her last journey in 1991, on a cruise ship to Hong Kong. She passed away at the nursing home in August 1997, but in accordance with her will, the funeral was not publicly announced. "Everyone's destiny is to die," she was reported as saying shortly before her death, "I want to live quietly, not making a nuisance of myself."

Women around Japan, even if they don't know it, owe a great debt to Ayako Totsuka and her achievements.

John Paul Catton

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