How Yoshiko Shinohara Became Japan’s First Female Billionaire

How Japan’s First Female Billionaire Yoshiko Shinohara Shattered the Glass Ceiling

Yoshiko Shinohara is one of a kind. And that’s not using the phrase colloquially, as in ‘she stands out amongst her peers’. By becoming Japan’s first female self-made billionaire, there is literally nobody else who fits that description.

Her entrepreneurial journey as the founder and Chairman of Temp Holding, an employment staffing company, is the stuff of legend. She founded the company in 1973 to help place women in the workforce at a time when it was not socially acceptable for women to work after getting married. Despite the long odds against her succeeding, she managed to build it into the $4.5 billion behemoth it is today.

Inspiration Found Abroad

Yoshiko Shinohara was born in 1934 to a school headmaster father and a mother who worked as a midwife. Her father died when she was only eight and she was raised in post-war Japan by her single mother. She married in her early 20’s but divorced soon after.

“After the divorce, I said, ‘I have to do something with myself,’ Shinohara told the Harvard Business Review in 2009. “At the time, most women in Japan were relegated to boring jobs such as serving tea, and unlike my mother, who was a midwife, I did not have special skills to live as a professional. So I felt I had to leave Japan.”

Shinohara’s travels would take her to Europe and Australia where she found work as a secretary in various office settings. This experience opened her eyes to the possibilities that could be explored back in Japan.

“It was very impressive for me to see women breezing through their work in Europe and Australia,” she said in a 2004 interview with Bloomberg News.

The Dream That Clashed With the Law of the Land

When Shinohara returned to Japan with her dream to start a temp staffing business for Japanese women, she had to contend with more than just cultural norms. Japan had a law on the books that prohibited businesses from hiring temporary workers. Even still, this did not dissuade Shinohara from moving forward.

“I soon ran into opposition from the Ministry of Labor,” She told the HBR. “Lifetime employment was the norm in Japan, and temping by private companies was banned under law, so I was often summoned by the ministry. I couldn’t understand why it was illegal to provide temporary employees to companies that desperately needed them. I used to say to myself: ‘I wonder what it’s like in jail. How big are the rooms? Is there a toilet or a window?’ Subsequently, after I spent years lobbying alongside other temp agencies, the law was changed.”

Buoyed by The Age of Stagnation

Shinohara’s Temp Holding grew steadily through the 70’s and 80’s but it was a combination of factors in the late 1980’s and 1990’s that would help it reach a new level. The first was the rather controversial decision to hire men into a company that had previously only hired women.

“Japanese female executives are somewhat different now, but back then, they weren’t always willing to go out and seek new business. They tended to take more of a defensive posture, protecting the company’s gains rather than moving forward. That is not healthy” she says. “So in 1988, I said, ‘How about if we put some men in here?’ The managers said, ‘No, thank you, we don’t need any of those creatures.’ But we did need them. A branch happened to hire a man as a part-timer, and wow, did sales increase! That was the turning point.”

The other driving factor was Japan’s stagnant economy in the 1990’s. This led companies to start looking to replace full salaried employees with temps in an attempt to help the often hurting bottom line.

Retiring as a True Business Pioneer

At the time of Shinohara’s recent retirement, Forbes reported in a January 2017 article that Temp Holding boasted “…revenues of $4.5 billion last year. The Tokyo-listed stock popped 11.5% in the past month – making Shinohara’s 25% stake, in addition to dividends accrued over the years, worth just over $1 billion.”

The Asian female self-made billionaires club totals 25 with most of them coming from China and Hong Kong. As a Japanese woman who changed the culture, the business laws, and built an empire where none stood before, Yoshiko Shinohara certainly remains… one of a kind.