Billboard Japan launched its Women in Music initiative last year, highlighting various trailblazing women in the music industry in a string of projects, including interviews by leading figures in their respective fields. The initiative follows the established example of Billboard’s Women in Music event that has honored artists, producers and executives who have made significant contributions to the music industry and empowered women through their work since 2007.
Akiko Nakajo is next up in the Japan Women in Music interview series. Currently, the Japan country representative of YouTube Japan, Nakajo studied abroad as a student and began her career at a TV station. Overcoming biased opinions at various points in her life, such as “Why should a woman study abroad?” and “Women can’t read the news,” she paved her way to her current position. Now that she is involved in the management of a platform for creators and artists to communicate with audiences around the world, what does she think needs to be improved and what does she feel hopeful about?
Were there any women you looked up to growing up?
Firstly, my mother was always there for me when I came home. She was that kind of mother who made me feel safe and protected. I was grateful for her love and support. Secondly, I admired female broadcasters. When I was a child, women working as broadcasters began to emerge and I was inspired by their courage and determination. I thought it was wonderful to see them using their voices to communicate and to make a difference in society. Thirdly, I also admired artists and creators. I have always been drawn to all forms of entertainment. I was fascinated by the way artists could express themselves through their work. I loved a Japanese TV music show called the Best Hit USA that was very popular in my time. Because it showcased their music, their words, and the way they express themselves all leave a lasting impression on me.
You saw the various sides women have and were impressed by those different strengths.
I believe so. I have always enjoyed creating things, too. There is something magical about being able to take nothing and turn it into something. That is why I admire artists, creators, and filmmakers so much as they have the ability to take their imaginations and make them real.
Has your idea of an ideal woman changed over time?
My respect for people who express themselves has never wavered. Creators and artists of all kinds make things despite their hardships, and they give us inspiration and hope for the future. I feel empowered by their works, too. Through my own experiences, I’ve come to believe that everyone — whether they’re artists, business leaders, journalists or mothers — contributes to society and the community. I’m also inspired by people, despite how they identify themselves, who pick themselves up after they fail and achieve something new. Failure is something that happens to everyone, but it’s how we respond to it that matters.
So you’ve gained more people you respect. Of the many new artists rapidly emerging on YouTube, are there any female creators that you find worthy of note?
YouTube is home to a wide variety of content creators and artists, and they can leap to go beyond borders. In the past, it was a major challenge to expand your audiences internationally, but now, expressing your work on YouTube means “making a global debut.” The popularity and reach that people like Hyakumantenbara Salome and P Marusama have are tremendous. When seeing the diverse expressions of these creators, it’s encouraging to see that it’s OK to decide with your own expression and identity.
What were you like as a child growing up?
I recently met with my elementary school classmates and they said I used to “dress in freedom” back then. I think I was trying to free myself from something. At the time, it was common for girls to be told how to act and have their actions restricted. For example, women weren’t allowed to read the news on TV, and they were only seen as weather forecasters in most cases, or hosts of segments within a program. This was the world I lived in, and I was determined to do things as I wanted to do them. I just couldn’t give up.
What did you do to keep from giving up what you wanted to do? You could say that studying abroad and getting a job as an anchor person freed you from that “something” you mentioned.
First and foremost, I had to convince the people around me. When I told my parents that I wanted to study abroad, not only my parents but also somehow my relatives and neighbors joined in the discussion of why a girl should leave her hometown to study abroad, and they thought a local school would be good enough. It took me two years to convince them all, but I eventually succeeded. On the day of my departure, about 30 people — including my teachers and vice principals from each of my elementary, junior high, and high schools, my relatives and friends — came to Narita Airport to see me off. Looking back, it’s an unbelievable sight, but I think the long discussions were their way of showing me love and support. That’s why I think it’s only natural to give back to society, my own children, and to the team I work with.
You’re now the mother of two sons. How did motherhood affect your career?
I got married early and didn’t plan on working for long, partly because I was raised by a stay-at-home mom. I was 26 years old when I married and wanted to have kids quickly and be there for them as a mother, but we weren’t blessed with children for over ten years. At one point, I even wondered if I’d ever be a mother in this lifetime. I had no long-term vision for my career and time sort of passed as I just kept working hard every day and took on whatever challenges came my way.
There was also a positive side to experiencing motherhood at a later age. I was in a different phase of my career, and I felt more prepared to handle parenting because I had a better understanding of my job. No matter how old you are when you become a parent, there will always be things you don’t know about raising a child. But if you don’t know how to do your job, managing both parenting and work will be chaotic.
Throughout my journey, I’ve made a conscious effort to engage in multiple activities simultaneously. For instance, I have been involved in non-profit work alongside my career, taught at schools, and pursued further education. Juggling multiple projects at the same time became second nature to me. When I eventually became a mother, I was able to redirect some of the time and energy I’d invested in those personal projects towards parenting. I believe that my experiences allowed me to apply the lessons I’d learned to parenting and vice versa, looking at the positive side of becoming a mother after gaining experience.
What you just shared may encourage people who are trying have children at an older age. What do you think is necessary to make it easier for women to work, society-wise?
Information is now much easier to access than when I was in my 20s and 30s. I think this saves time and makes it easier to design one’s daily life. On the other hand, something that can’t be solved through technology is one’s mindset and the mindset of the people around them. Even if a system is in place, it will be difficult to achieve a working style if the right mindset is not present.
What do you mean by “mindset”?
I believe that many solutions can be found in society, companies, and other organizations if we properly address the basic issue of “creating an environment where people can be themselves, respect each other, and contribute to each other.” Simply put, this means “psychological safety.” For example, we often hear from parents who find it difficult to tell their colleagues that they have to leave early because their child is sick. This is a sign that the workplace may not have a culture of psychological safety. I’m sure some aspects have improved in recent years, but it’s still far from enough. It is important for individuals to take professional responsibilities as well as be responsible for their own set of rules and for those around them to respect and support them.
We’re in the midst of a major shift in values as a society in Japan. As a parent, is there anything you try to be conscious of regarding gender inequality?
Actually, my sons are quick to point out any stereotyping if I might have. They will say, “Mom, isn’t that stereotyping?” It seems that the schools they attend proactively engage in discussions on gender inequality and other social issues. I think it is great that they are aware of these issues, and I am glad they feel comfortable speaking up frequently, and I find myself learning from my sons everyday.
It’s encouraging to hear that efforts are being made in schools to eliminate gender bias. What do you think needs to be done to promote gender equality in the Japanese music and entertainment industry?
I think it’s safe to say that there are signs of change in gender equality. In the past, I often found myself in situations where I was the only woman in a meeting, but that’s becoming rare. We’re also seeing more and more women in decision-making positions, where they weren’t given the opportunity before.
For example, gender inequality in higher education, especially in the sciences, is a problem that’s being addressed at last in recent years. But until fairly recently, parents and teachers would often say things like, “Girls are better suited for the liberal arts.” These words are imprinted in our minds. While the concept of “women belong in the home” is considered outdated, I was influenced by my mother and had no intention of pursuing a career when I was young. This shows the immeasurable influence of mindsets unknowingly imprinted by our environments, such as family and society.
There are still many obstacles that need to be overcome, but I am hopeful because in addition to individual efforts, positive efforts by society as a whole are being made. This includes programs encouraging the growth of the next generation. It goes without saying that gender has nothing to do with how talented someone is. We should remain optimistic and work towards accelerating this change.
—This interview by Rio Hirai (SOW SWEET PUBLISHING) first appeared on Billboard Japan