DEI Member Feature: Fiona Toyama

Our featured guest for our August DEI interview is Fiona Toyama.
Fiona works in Human Resources at Yamahachi Dental, a dental manufacturing company based in Aichi Prefecture.


Q1: Please introduce yourself.

My name is Fiona Toyama and I hail from Tipperary. I’ve been in Japan 23 years and am married with three daughters. I originally came to teach English with a now defunct Eikaiwa chain called GEOS. The intention was to stay one year but I met my husband soon after arriving and I’m still here. My husband runs a dental manufacturing company called Yamahachi Dental with the head office in Gamagori, Aichi. After we married I started working at the company and I’ve been here 19 years. There are roughly 63 members of staff at our main office and there is a manufacturing plant in China.


Q2: Please tell us about your relationship with Ireland and the IJCC. 

The IJCC came to my attention a few years ago but at the time I didn’t think it really had anything to do with me. It was only after I spoke with some members on a number of issues that I realized the IJCC could indeed have some impact on some of the issues I was dealing with and also from the point of view of a mother with three daughters growing up in Japan. My eldest was talking to me recently about the differences between universities in Japan and Ireland. She also asked me would I recommend her starting a career in Japan or Ireland and I really had to think hard. I consider both Japan and Ireland my home but as a woman working in a Japanese company I couldn’t help but feel she would have better career chances in Ireland. I then decided it was time to stop watching from the sidelines and get actively involved with these issues as well as promoting Ireland in Japan and vice versa. From a work perspective, our few Irish customers had gone through a British supplier but with BREXIT we aren’t sure if we can continue to accommodate them with good value products. We’ve also been getting more and more requests from Ireland for our products so we’re also exploring the possibilities of an Irish dealer or an Irish office. 


Q3: How would you define diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI)? 

DEI is designed to promote the equity of diverse groups, making sure that the same opportunities are available to all regardless of background or circumstances. Simply making those opportunities available is not enough, DEI also supports the empowering of people, the removing of barriers that limit underrepresented minorities, giving voices to those who have been ignored or unable to speak and the establishing of an open inclusive community. 


Q4: What Japanese cultural or societal challenges do you think impact DEI initiatives in Japan?

Tradition is one of the main obstacles with regard to DEI policies in Japan, that and the fact the Japanese are often cautious when it comes to change. 

Things are changing in the workplace and I have watched this over the last twenty years but it is a very slow process. Diversity in Japan still mainly focuses on gender issues but I do think that changes in any area will have repercussions in others.

When I first started working at the company I would watch the women leave at 17:30 on the dot to go home and cook dinners, clean house etc.. The male workers would often stay until nine or ten o’clock. This was on a daily basis and this is how it had been for years. At the time most women would quit work after marriage and I was aware of some very large Japanese companies the actively tried to discourage female staff who didn’t marry from working past the age of forty. When the children started elementary school the women would start applying for low paid part time work, despite their qualifications.  I was the first woman in our company to apply for maternity leave and by this stage I was working in HR and I remember the paperwork being absolutely horrendous, to the point I nearly thought about quitting. Over the years I watched the company actively change and the arrival of different nationalities onto the work force combined with women not quitting their jobs due to marriage or childbirth has definitely been one of the reasons for these changes. Yet we seem to hit a lot of the same walls. For example when opportunities for promotions come up none of the female staff members ever apply. I asked why and they told me they needed to leave by 17:30 to look after their families and they were also shy to take on extra responsibility as they felt they were incapable of doing the position justice. So until the Japanese government comes up with more persuasive policies to allow men to share the care of their families at home or paternity leave is actually encouraged then things are not going to change. More flexible work times and remote work strategies are also needed to encourage companies to help those who work with them to share the work at home and allow others who, for whatever reason, would benefit from working remotely or on a different schedule. Understanding of the uniqueness of your staff’s situation and supporting them where you can is the key to a happier work environment.


Q5: What steps can organisations in Japan take to promote DEI?

I think representation is a very important factor when it comes to promoting DEI policies. When there is more diversity in managers and upper level executives, the morale of staff increases and productivity improves. Customers find it easier to relate to a diverse workforce and in return a diverse workforce is far more attractive to younger recruits. On a personal note, I go out of my way to point out female executives or women working in previously male-orientated areas as I want my three daughters to know that they can achieve whatever they set their minds to. I get great pleasure walking into an office with a mixed workforce and as a foreigner in Japan, it gives me even greater joy to see so many different ethnicities becoming more visible. Other minorities are also slowly becoming more evident in the workplace, society and our TV screens giving everyone a chance to learn and grow.


Q6: How did living overseas change your views on DEI?

Living overseas has had a massive impact on my views on DEI. I was aware of the many inequalities in Irish society before I came to Japan from a personal point of view and because I did some volunteer work back in my university days with refugees. I used to teach English in Dublin with the African Refugee Network so I often saw how hard it was for some of my students dealing with regular racism or just ignorance. Then all of a sudden I was the outsider. Discrimination takes many forms, some so subtle you barely notice them. I chose to ignore a lot of them throughout my life as I didn’t want make situations awkward or because I was too tired to deal with them. Then I became a mother and all of a sudden these very discriminations that I had previously ignored seemed so much louder. For my children’s sake I didn’t want any form of discrimination being brushed under the carpet. The more we talk openly about DEI issues the sooner these very issues will become a thing of the past and the more openly the next generation can handle them. Living overseas also gave me a very different perspective on religion and the effect religion has had on Irish society. Being able to view a culture like Japan that hasn’t been monopolized by one church but still seemed to suffer from many of the same problems can lead to some very interesting discussions.