By Dr Suzi Chen, Founder of Resilient Leadership Academy

One of my favourite movies is Hidden Figures. Based on a series of true events, the 2016 film tells the story of 3 brilliant female African-American mathematicians who changed the history by playing a vital role in the early years of the U.S. space program. 

The character that played the brilliant mathematician-turned engineer Mary Jackson said something that has since etched in my mind: 

“… I can’t change the color of my skin, so I have no choice, but to be the first …”. 

When speaking to women who are courageous enough to challenge the norm, this quote often comes to mind. And this indeed was the case when I reconnected with Akira Yamaguchi, a female entrepreneur in the Japanese organic farming industry. 

I briefly met Akira on my trip to Japan in 2015. During a workshop featuring provincial organic farming, I learned Akira studied in Canada and had just decided to switch gears to build a new career in organic farming.   

Over the years, I have followed Akira on social media, witnessing her work in promoting and advocating for organic farming in an industry that is very much dominated by men in Japan. I was so intrigued by her experience that I thought Akira’s story would be a great case study for the writing that I wished to do leading up to the 2024 International Women’s Day. 

I wanted to share Akira’s experience and how she has paved a new career path for herself while navigating a male-dominated industry. Like Mary Jackson in Hidden Figures, Akira had to be the first on many occasions. And I suspect Akira is likely to have to be the first for a while.  

“I have always been in a male-dominated profession. I started out as a civil engineer in Canada and later in Japan before working in the organic farming industry.” 

With her first chosen profession, I was not surprised that Akira was one of the handful female students during her university years. 

“Back when I was studying Bachelor of Engineering in Japan, there were only 11 women out of 77 students in my year. I then went on to study a master’s degree in Canada and work for Saskatchewan government office. Eventually I was admitted as a Chartered Professional Engineer.  

When I think about my days in Canada, there was no female role model that I could associate with or reach out to. Simply there were not many female civil engineers in my area to begin with. It was also unusual to have a female international civil engineer working in the local government at the time.” 

With no role model to look up to, Akira had to seek opportunities on her own. 

“I asked a senior male engineer to be my mentor. He was about 30 years older than me and had extensive experience in public service and civil engineering. Not only did he counsel me on technical skills and work ethics, but he also showed me Canadian culture, customs and Canadian ways of thinking.  

My mentor invited me to various professional conferences and meetings; some of the events I would not have been able to participate in alone without an introduction. He also helped me expand my network by introducing me to other professional engineers.  

This experience taught me the importance of proactive participation. It gave me the confidence to join the committee of the Professional Engineering Society, which led to other opportunities to further my career. 

I realise from my own mentoring experience that role models don’t have to be of the same gender. It’s more crucial that the person that you role model on understands your position and challenges and is willing to remove the barriers for you and guide you.” 

Akira returned to Japan in 2011 and worked as a consultant for a Japanese firm before switching her career path from civil engineering to organic farming. Once again, Akira works in an industry that is traditionally dominated by men.  

“I moved to Fujioka City in Gunma Prefecture in 2015. I have since joined my husband’s agricultural business and co-own Komedaruma Organic Farm. 

Like many other countries, Japan’s agricultural sector is also very much male-dominated. In fact, the average age of active farmers in my city is 70 years old. This means that the regional agricultural committees and policies are led and made by senior male farmers. Even young male farmers are not often given the opportunity to be part of this closed network.  

I knew it would take time and effort for the current culture to change. So instead of waiting, I decided to create my own network – a new type of agricultural society that welcomes diverse views.” 

Akira’s tenacity has paid off. She has managed to successfully establish herself in her area while slowly influencing the culture of a closed-door regional agricultural sector. 

Today, not only is she the vice chair of Fujioka City Agricultural Commission or CAC, but Akira is the youngest vice chair of CAC in Gunma Prefecture – although Akira acknowledges there is still work to do to achieve better representation with CAC as only 3 out of 14 commission members are women. Looking at a bigger picture, Akira is also part of a subcommittee by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, Japan. 

“It has been only 8 years since I entered the agricultural sector in Japan. As a woman from another city who is also a new farmer without an agricultural background, I am considered a visible minority*.  

But things have definitely improved. I have been appointed to various key positions in the sector, which would not have been possible years ago. I think this is largely attributed to my belief in creating a new type of agricultural society that welcomes both women and men.” 

Being somewhat impatient and wanting to see results, I resonate with the strategies that Akira has adopted over the years to navigate her career in male-dominated industries. Guided by “action over words” and a belief in a proactive career approach instead of waiting for opportunities to knock on my door, I truly admire Akira’s courage. 

While loving the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day, Count Her In, Akira’s experience once again reminded me that “counting her in” may not always happen. There may be times that we have to be the first, just like Mary Jackson in the movie Hidden Figures. 

If you ever find yourself in a situation where you may have to be the first, remember Akiara and her proactive moves that have helped advance her career. 

To learn more about Akira and her work, visit Komedaruma Organic Farm

*Visible minority: A term used to describe people living in Japan who do not display phenotypical Japanese traits  

About Akira 

Akira Yamaguchi is an organic farmer who co-owns Komedaruma Organic Farm in Gunma prefecture, Japan. Komedaruma Organic Farm grows organic crops including seven kinds of rice, soybeans, wheat and barley. Komedaruma Organic Farm also provides their customers with a unique cooking experience, making their own miso, tofu and Amazake!