Lynko Morimoto, a 30-year-old business owner in Tokyo, doesn't look back nostalgically on her days when she worked as an "office girl" in her hometown of Osaka in western Japan.
"Starting up my own business in my mid-20s was definitely not an easy proposition," says Morimoto, who has been running her company AILA International since 2006 selling belts that make use of fashion scarves called "Belticaf."
"I knew nobody in Tokyo. I just had this idea of combining a conventional belt and a scarf to create a fashion accessory. All I had was this business idea but hardly any knowledge on running a business."
Four years later, her Belticaf products are sold at boutiques and department stores across Japan as well as on her Web site. Maintaining a steady income still can be tough but Morimoto does not think twice about going back to work as an office girl. "I am in control of my own destiny. I feel like I am really living now."
It was not long ago that most Japanese women took the traditional path of becoming full-time homemakers right out of school or after spending a few years in the workforce. Many companies even had policies, written or unwritten, that women had to leave their jobs when they got married or pregnant.
"In the pursuit of diversity at workplace, that culture changed in the past 20 years or so," said Kyoko Yokota, the president of Colabolabo, a PR company which also provides networking services especially for female entrepreneurs. "Now women can work for a company for as long as she wants to – if that is what she wants, "said Yokota, who worked for one of Japan's leading advertisement and human resources companies, Recruit Co. Ltd. "I have seen more women wanting to think and work outside the box and start up their own businesses using their skills and background they have acquired over the years in the corporate world."
Since she launched her business in 2006, Yokota has seen nearly 1,000 female entrepreneurs.
"The attitude towards women wanting to have their own business has changed and is changing," Yokota said. "It might have been difficult for a woman to even apply for a business loan 10 years ago or so. People often thought she might have a male sponsor or something. But now if she has a legitimate business plan, she can get a loan to get her business going."
In fact, more women are taking their destiny into their own hands instead of relying on corporate employment. Japan Finance Corporation, a government financial institution specializing in providing services and loans to small and mid-sized business owners, has seen a steady rise in the number of loans extended to female business owners over the past few years. In 2007, the institution offered more than 5,000 loans to female business owners, roughly 40 percent more loans than were available to women in 2003.
These are not easy times for any business in Japan. In 2008, more than 12,000 businesses went bankrupt with more than $100,000 in debt and the number of bankruptcies has increased for the past few years, according to Teikoku Databank, Ltd.
Although the environment for female entrepreneurs is no different than for that of male counterparts, Yokota feels many female business owners seem to be braving the current economic challenges. "Business start-ups can be a by-product of an economic downturn," Yokota said. "We could and should see a spur in the number of female business owners."