reiko nakamura
Today, riarumi meets Reiko Nakamura, Managing Director of Schawk & Anthem Japan. Reiko tells us about growing up in Kobe and the childhood events that shaped her character, her interesting journey into the advertising industry via radio DJing, her thoughts on being a female in a business leadership position, and the importance of ambition, effort and self-confidence.

Who is the riarumi?

My name is Reiko Nakamura. I’m the Managing Director of Schawk & Anthem Japan and I’ve been working in the branding / advertising industry for over 23 years.

 I like meeting people, sharing my experiences and hearing theirs as well. When I joined my first company, Kobe Shinbun Jigyousya, an advertising company in Kobe, that was in 1990 when the Japanese government started trying to promote equal working conditions, but it was still very tough for women. So, since then, I’ve been thinking “what is equality?”, including with regards to gender balance in the workplace. When I saw riarumi, I thought, “this is very interesting” and thought it was an opportunity for me to speak up and to share with young women what I’ve been doing.

What was it like growing up in Kobe?

I still believe Kobe is the most beautiful, nicest city in the world! (laughs) You have to visit! My family is there, many of my friends are there. And until I was 40, I was there. Then six years ago, I came to Tokyo. I think culture-wise, compared to Tokyo, they’re more casual and more friendly in Kobe. Even just out and about, you can tell the difference. For example, if you go to a wine bar, and you say “mantan onegaishimasu” (please fill it to the top), people in Kansai will, you know, speak up and start joking around with you and what have you, but in Tokyo, you’d be met with a very silent, plain-faced reaction. So I think I’m lucky to have grown up in that area.

I was also a very active young girl. I often used to play with my brothers’ friends, and used to like soccer and baseball. I have a brother who’s four years older than me and he’s still in Kobe. He’s a dentist there. When I was a child, I wanted to be a singer, or a movie star, or someone in the media. So I think my first dream to come true happened when I was in university. I was doing radio DJing in Kobe and had my own programme, on which I talked about weekend events and what to do at the weekend. And I remember thinking, even though it wasn’t exactly my dream, it was … something special. And it made me feel that if I dream something, maybe it can come true.

How did you go from radio DJing to being in the advertising industry?

When I was doing the radio DJing, sometimes it would get quite late and I’d have to go to karaoke together with representatives of our sponsors, or with the radio producers. At the time, I didn’t realise how lucky I was to be a radio DJ. Some people really want to be a DJ and they put a lot of effort towards it. But I would have to say I became a radio DJ without putting in so much effort at the time, almost by accident, and so I didn’t fully appreciate how lucky I was. So, when I was having to go on these karaoke evenings, I started to think I should have a more “normal” life. And so I thought about getting a job a sales person at an advertising company. This was in my final year of university, when I was 22 years old, and it was during Japan’s bubble period and advertising companies were kind of difficult to get into. But somehow, I managed to find a job at an advertising agency in Kobe. So that was the second time I felt I had accomplished a goal.

But as I said, that was still a tough time for ladies. There were 12 new hires at that time, both men and women. And I remember thinking that, as ladies, we had to make twice as much effort as the men to get the same acknowledgement. Some things were easier. It was easier for us to open the door to prospective new clients, for example. But then difficult to gain the trust of the men who were the decision-makers at the company. So, to win their business, I thought “I’m going do a lot of research and reporting and figure out what kind of advertising the client needs and exactly how it will work for them better”. So I learnt not only to sell advertising but also how to influence people to feel positive towards the service we were offering.

And I enjoyed it. I stayed there for seven years. But this was a local Kobe company, so I dealt with clients exclusively in Kobe or the Hyogo prefecture. They weren’t such big-name clients. I was able to learn a lot about media and advertising but then I felt I wanted to deal with more national clients. And so I started to look for another job. The second job I found was with Pacific Creative in Osaka, whose biggest account was Panasonic. Since Panasonic is a big, national client, I decided to join them so that I could deal with other, bigger clients as well. But again, they were mostly domestic companies and I was starting to think, “this is good but I want to deal with global clients!” (laughs)

Your ambitions kept getting bigger and bigger.

Right, but I couldn’t speak English at the time. Even though I graduated in English Literature at University, I only knew a little grammar, and I really couldn’t speak English. So after I left Pacific Creative, I started to study English so that I would be able to do more global business. I studied full-time, every day, and also did some part-time work at my brother’s dental practice. Every day, I went to school and every day I listened to NHK radio on the way to his practice and back. At the time, I remember thinking I should have studied more in high school, so that I would know more now.

Here at my company in Japan right now, there are 18 people and all of them have experience living outside of Japan, except me! (laughs) Some people believe that, to learn English, you should go to the US or UK. But I think that’s absolutely not the case. When I joined this company, I had colleagues in Singapore, Shanghai, Malaysia and Japan. So I was part of an international team. And most of them spoke English as their second language, except Singapore of course. So to communicate in English, I thought “it doesn’t need to be very fluent, it just needs to be comprehensible.” One experience at that time: an American colleague and myself needed to speak to a colleague in Malaysia about something. The way the American explained, the lady in Malaysia said she didn’t understand, because he spoke very fast and was unclear. Afterwards, he tried explaining to her via email, but that didn’t work either. And so I tried to explain everything myself and she told me my explanation was better than his! So after that, I got a lot more confidence. “Now I can do better than him!”, I thought. (laughs)

Could you tell us about how you came to be in Tokyo, working with Schawk?

When I joined Schawk, I was in Kobe, working on-site at P&G (Procter & Gamble), and also working with Vidal Sassoon, Pampers and other global projects for the Japan and Asian markets. One day, my boss asked me to step up to help grow the business in Japan. I started acquiring some other new accounts in Tokyo. Except for P&G who are in Kobe, most of the global companies are in Tokyo, right? And so my boss started to say, “hey Reiko, why are you in Kobe?” So that was the reason I needed to move to Tokyo six years ago.

What’s a typical day for you?

I come to the office, usually before 8:30. Luckily, I don’t handle day-to-day projects anymore, so I do things more related to business development. But having said that, I often go to see my clients as well, to see what other services we may be able to offer. So, because of that, recently I’ve been going often to networking events in Tokyo as well. Because I’m also in charge or finance, HR, and basically anything administrative in Japan, I also do a lot of documentation checks and whatnot to make sure operations go smoothly.

My team is still small – 18 people – so I try to be open myself, to encourage them to speak up about any issues or say anything they feel like saying. Some managers in Japan are not good at doing this. In Japan, it’s kind of difficult. If the boss says, “this is red” (pointing to a green cup), the employees are compelled to say “yes, this is red.” I really encourage my people to speak up. For example, with open questions like, “this is a new product which the client is trying to launch in Japan. How do you feel about this product?” So it’s inviting everyone to speak up, so that they become comfortable with that. I’m still learning myself how best to encourage this as well. But I think my team right now is really great and I’m really proud of them.

Schawk & Anthem team dinner.
Schawk & Anthem team dinner.

What are some of the best things about being a female in a business leadership position?

I think females are generally more detail-oriented and more organised. For me personally, some people say I have a strong heart. Maybe, during my radio DJ days, I developed more confidence to speak up and make quick decisions. Females also project a softer image to clients and can gain trust more easily. Knocking on new clients’ doors is easier as a woman and now I also have the experience and confidence to close new contracts.

I don’t really like to emphasise the fact that I’m a woman. I’ve been thinking about what equality is. It doesn’t matter, women or men, Japanese or foreign, whatever. Everyone has skills. And my strategy for hiring people here is how I can combine their collective experience or knowledge or talent. I don’t want to hire the same types of people but, rather, “this person has this skill, so next time, let’s hire a person who has a different skill”, so that our staff have a mixture of complimentary skills.

What did you study at University? How was your university experience?

I studied English-American Literature and Culture. There weren’t many opportunities to speak English during my studies. And, for me, the university period was … to be honest, I didn’t study so much! (laughs) I tried to get involved with more of the other activities and to have more experiences through my part-time work and radio DJing. I needed to come to Tokyo once a month to do a recording and, for a university student, that was great fun. I also did a lot of MC events and was an “event lady” because the money was good. So I enjoyed university life.

In that sense, I think I enjoyed the more social aspects of university. Actually, my older brother is a dentist, so he’s now running his dental practise in Kobe. But before university, he used to be really reclusive and couldn’t meet anyone. He was more like … perhaps what you might call “otaku” (“nerd”).


Yeah, yeah! Exactly that! And when I first heard that he wanted to open his own dental clinic,  I remember saying, “muri muri! (Impossible!) You’d have to deal with patients.” But during the time I was helping him at his dental clinic and studying English, I remember thinking, “wow, he has changed SO much!” He spoke to everyone, from children to old people, and he had more people skills than I’d ever realised. It was one of those amazing moments witnessing something that I’d never seen before. I was really surprised.

What are your own future personal goals and dreams?

I still want to be involved in this industry, for both foreign companies in Japan and Japanese companies wishing to be global. But nowadays, I’m becoming drawn towards a more speaking-oriented role. I did some guest speaking at Temple University last year and FCC (Forum For Corporate Communications) in February, and these types of things allowed me to share my experiences with a large audience. I find Q&A sessions very interesting, so perhaps I’d like to do something more related to PR. I’d like to help one of those companies that are really struggling to become global.

When I get to 70 or 80, I want to be back in a slow city. Maybe go back to Kobe or move to Hawaii. Just enjoy time slowly, watch sunsets, that kind of thing.

Reiko giving a speech at FCC
Reiko giving a speech at FCC

You’re fully bilingual in Japanese and English. How important do you think speaking another language is?

These days, it’s definitely a huge benefit and if you want to be successful, you have to speak English, as well as the local language. English is not just the language of the UK, or Australia, or North America. English is the global communication tool. I don’t think it needs to be very fluent, it just needs to be at a level that you can effectively communicate with people from other countries. Even when we talk to our colleagues in China, our main language is English. So it’s very useful. I encourage anyone to learn it.

What are some of the main difficulties and obstacles have faced so far in your life?

One was when my parents divorced when I was ten years old. It was during Golden Week. Suddenly, I had to leave home with my mum, while my brother and my father stayed there. I couldn’t even say bye to my brother. So my mum and I moved out and suddenly my life changed. And although now it’s relatively common, at that time, divorce was not so common. So I couldn’t explain to my new friends what my dad did. When they asked me about him, I would say “he’s dead”. That’s all I felt I could say at that time.

I then met another girl my age around that time. At the time, I was a sad girl and, to me, everyone else seemed happy with a family. But that girl I met was from an orphanage. And when I would talk to her, she would tell me every day how happy she was and that she was glad to meet me and glad to see my smile. And when I heard that, I realised I really should be much more happy. So, that time and meeting that girl also made me see the world from a different, happier perspective.

What have been some of the highlights so far for you?

For my first task with Schawk, I needed to expand a new artwork process for P&G from Japan across to all of Asia. As this was a new work project for our Asian colleagues, we needed to take a lot of time to explain the background and concept of the project to many people in different countries. But many of them found it troublesome to adapt their work processes to a new project. Initially, most felt we were kind of “the enemy”. However, the more projects we worked on together, the more appreciation we received from them for the new artwork processes and our efforts. When I heard they needed us back and wanted us on board for future projects, I felt so happy and fulfilled.

How important would you say self-belief and self-confidence are, as compared to other factors like technical ability and a university education?

Self-belief and self-confidence are the most important things. Because if I hire somebody here, I’m going to look at their personality first, and personality is something that cannot be changed. But as for knowledge and technical abilities, we can provide training for that. So I would say self-confidence and a willingness to do something are much more important than any skills.

How is home life? What do you do to relax?

When I joined Schawk, the initial six months were really intense, and I was catching the last train every day. Because of working, not drinking! (laughs) Even on Saturdays and Sundays, I’d have to go to the P&G office. That was a really hard time. But nowadays, I’m trying to achieve a good balance and I go home around 6pm or a little after. I meet with my friends and go to networking events. Also, I have a small dog. She’s a toy poodle and miniature dachshund mix, so she has slightly short legs. Her name’s Myu and she’s nine years old. I brought her here from Kobe.

At home, I play with Myu, and I like to watch some videos on YouTube. It’s perhaps a bit embarrassing to say this, but you know how Japanese people like characters, right? Well, there’s a character called Funashi. He’s very popular. He’s kind of like an entertainer, or comedian. I enjoy watching him on YouTube!


Do you feel there is a gender equality imbalance in Japan?

I think it has changed in the last twenty years, since I got my first job. But still, there’s a big gap. There’s a lot of pressure on women who are trying to juggle their professional lives with their family life. One of the many great companies who does well in this respect is P&G. They have lots of innovative employment programs and offer lots of flexibility. If a member of staff has some family matters, they can let them leave and attend to those matters, provided they make up for the work at other times of the day. They have choices to work, for example, 10 hours on one day and 5 hours on the next day. In that sense, many Japanese companies are still comparatively very rigid and inflexible. You have to be in the office from this time to this time, and even if you’ve finished all your work and you’ve nothing to do, you cannot leave because your boss is still working. This kind of attitude in the workplace is still common and it puts enormous restraints on women with families.

How do you think women can address this?

Successful women can change this world by example, I think. My thinking with riarumi is that you’re providing examples or case studies. I’m just one case study. The more case studies we show, the more we can prove that we are perfectly capable of making it happen, and then maybe that will help cause a change in mindsets.

And how can men address it?

They should be more open-minded and see what’s happening. Not only what’s happening in Japan, but also what’s happening globally, in terms of gender equality. What are the success stories in the world, and what lessons can be learned and brought to Japan?

Similarly, on a more individual or family-based level, men have to learn what behaviours work in a family environment. It’s not about what’s “men’s work” or what’s “women’s work”. Whoever’s good at it or whoever can do it, they should do it.

What advice would you like to share with other young women who are at the very start of their careers, or are yet to begin?

One thing I want to say to girls is, “be ambitious!” When I was doing radio DJing, I actually kind of decided on the limitations to what I could do. At the time, my thought process was that I became a radio DJ without really wanting to, and I just happened to be there in that line of work. And even if I continued being a radio DJ, there are so many other radio DJs and so I can’t be number one. That’s why I changed my career to advertising. And, in the end, it was fine but one regret I have is that if I’d kept it up, could I have become a famous and accomplished DJ? So that’s something: don’t decide your limitations. Explore your full potential and understand that you can be much more than your own expectations. And don’t just dream it. Make the effort for it. It won’t happen without effort.

Also, before I joined Schawk, I’d always worked in Japanese companies. So I didn’t really look into other countries. But now I regret that a little and I wonder, if I’d started to look for more international opportunities earlier, maybe I would have seen more things in life. So my other piece of advice would be to remember that the whole world is open to you. Not just Japan.

Are there any famous quotes or philosophies on life that you particularly like?

“Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.”

– John Lennon

It’s a quote that guides my daily life and I keep that quote on my desktop. Business is ups and downs, right? And if it’s down at the moment and my boss is shouting at me, and then I look at that quote, I realise it’s not so bad and I should hang in there. So it encourages me.

Karuizawa Reiko Nakamura