Pioneer Helped Turn Her Family Store Into Japan’s Biggest Retailer

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Dave P.

Jun 28, 2022, 3:12:20 PM6/28/22
Pioneer Helped Turn Her Family Store Into Japan’s Biggest Retailer
By Chieko Tsuneoka, June 23, 2022, WSJ T

TOKYO—First her father died young, then her mother, then her older sister. At 23, Chizuko Okada inherited the job of running her family’s clothing store in Mie prefecture, Japan.

It was 1939, and war with America was just around the corner. Few could have foreseen that the little business would develop into Japan’s largest retailer by sales—or that a woman would be its driving force.

By the time Chizuko Kojima—her married name—died on May 20 of old age at 106, the company now known as Aeon Co. had thousands of stores around Japan and the rest of Asia and annual revenue equivalent to $64 billion.

Tomokazu Tokai, who worked with Ms. Kojima for two decades and wrote a biography of her, said her acumen rescued the business not only during World War II and years of postwar inflation but also in the retail wars of the late 20th century.

Aeon survived when rivals went bankrupt, and people would say, “The only difference is we had Kojima-san,” according to Mr. Tokai.

Ms. Kojima was born on March 3, 1916, as the second daughter of the Okada family, which had run a fabric and kimono store since 1758 in Mie prefecture, just west of Nagoya in central Japan.

Chizuko’s father, Soichiro Okada, modernized the business but died of heart disease in 1927 at age 43. Then Japan was hit by the Great Depression, which caused bankruptcies and joblessness.

In a 2003 book, Chizuko wrote that she believed it was necessary to be ready for such cataclysms by studying history. The hard times deprived her of a chance to pursue higher education in Tokyo.

After taking over the family business, Chizuko managed to keep it going during WWII until a U.S. bombing raid destroyed much of their home city of Yokkaichi in June 1945, including the Okada store’s stock.

At the time, customers held coupons similar to gift certificates entitling them to store goods. The store no longer had anything to offer, but Chizuko posted notices throughout the city saying her shop would give cash in exchange for the coupons, recalled her younger brother, Takuya, in a 2005 autobio. It was a way of maintaining customers’ loyalty that would pay ample dividends in years to come.

Chizuko loved studying and during the war, she read a book about Germany’s inflation after it lost World War I. When Japan surrendered in WWII in Aug. 1945, she predicted the same would happen. She gathered her cash and bank loans and bought as much merchandise as possible, reopening the shop in March 1946, ahead of an inflationary surge that hurt other businesses.

“All the merchandise flew off the shelves,” Takuya recalled.

Chizuko wrote of the episode, “Through my own experience, I learned the importance of studying and reading records of the past.”

Takuya took over the business in June of that year, and Chizuko supported him for a time. In 1952, she married painter Saburouichi Kojima and left the family business for a while.

In 1959, when the Okada family business still had just two stores, she came back to take charge of personnel and other behind-the-scenes management issues.

That year, Chizuko and Takuya made their first visit to the U.S. & toured the famous Sears, Roebuck & Co. store in Chicago. Takuya wrote that he was impressed by the giant scale of the business. Paging through the thick Sears catalog full of pictures of refrigerators, washing machines, clothing and a myriad of other goods, he imagined the day that Japan, too, would enjoy that kind of affluent life.

Chizuko was impressed by the Sears pension system, thinking it would create a loyal workforce. She introduced one a decade later, as her brother rapidly expanded the retailer through mergers. She also introduced an in-house training organization, today known as the Aeon Business School.

Tokai, the biographer, said Chizuko was more like an educator and thinker than a businesswoman.

“She wanted to carry on her higher education but couldn’t. She had a dream she couldn’t realize,” he said.

He said she always carried a book and asked anyone she encountered what kind of books they were reading.

Chizuko was one of the first managers in Japan who aggressively hired female full-time employees and homemakers as part-timers. She saw that many women worked in the U.S. and believed Japan should follow suit.

By having women at the company, “we were able to bring on board the viewpoint of the customer—how much to sell and at what price,” she said in a television interview when she was 90.

Takuya and Chizuko were “two people working as one,” recalled Tokai. “With just one of them, it wouldn’t work.”

Takuya, 96, is still honorary chairman of Aeon, and his son, Motoya, is chairman. Another of Takuya’s sons, Katsuya, is a longtime member of Japan’s Parliament and a former foreign minister.

Chizuko’s husband died in 1997. They had no children.

The chief executive of Uniqlo operator Fast Retailing Co., Tadashi Yanai, worked briefly at Aeon when it was called Jusco, and said he learned from Chizuko.

“Her attitude toward employees was strict, yet loving, and I remember writing my letter of resignation when I left Jusco thinking that she would understand my feelings,” Mr. Yanai recalled.
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