Having a Blast in High School Before "Doubling Up" During University
-Ms. Ogawa, you attended Keio schools from elementary school through university, didn't you?
Yes, as did my father and grandfather, so you could say that I followed in their footsteps. I still remember Mr. Shinji Kondo, my homeroom teacher for all six years of Keio Yochisha Elementary School. Every day he would assign daily diary entries and our "news of the day," a five-line summary of the day's topics. In Japanese class, students were constantly ordered to look up the meaning of any words they didn't understand. In hindsight, I still use the skills Mr. Kondo taught me then in my work today. And I'll never forget something he used to tell our class: "You only need to give 80% usually. Save your full potential for when you really need it."
-Weren't you also a member of the archery club in junior high and high school?
Yes, I only joined the club in junior high because I thought my older classmates looked cool in their archery uniforms, but I ended up winning second place in the Tokyo tournament during my second year. I went on to serve as captain of the high school archery club, which had just been granted status as a club at the time. I have good memories of being instructed by the university students of the Keio University Athletics Association at the Mamushidani archery range on Hiyoshi Campus.
During my three years at Keio Girls Senior High School, I think I learned the importance of being independent in an all-girls environment—all without ever having to rely on boys. [laughs] I worked with my classmates to accomplish everything from planning to execution for both the Drama Festival and Kanna Festival. I remember one time, at the Kanna Festival afterparty, some of the teachers joined us in performing a parody of the all-female Takarazuka Revue. Every day was a blast at high school.
Ogawa as captain of the high school Japanese archery club
- It must have been a lot of fun by how fondly you talk about your time there.
Since clubs and festivals took up so much of my time, I suppose I wasn't too focused on academics. I also wanted to major in something that I might not have a chance to study once I entered the workforce, which is one reason I chose to study at the Faculty of Letters for university. I majored in German literature since my second foreign language at high school had also been German, which was better than my English at that point. I also had a budding dream of becoming an actress, having experienced the joy of performing in front of people in high school. I started attending acting school in Ikebukuro after finishing my classes at Keio and even had opportunities to perform in small theaters. I had only known Keio my entire life, which may have been one reason why I was so self-conscious and decided to "double up," so to speak. While Keio is a wonderful place to study, I was worried and wanted to know more about the outside world before entering the workforce.
One of my most memorable times in school was a short-term language study abroad program in Berlin as a third-year undergraduate. It was my first experience abroad, just ten years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. I went together with three good girlfriends and often enjoyed tasty German beer and sausages after a long day of studying. I've been a beer lover ever since. [laughs]
Ogawa (third from right) during her short-term language study abroad in Berlin
- Did you continue with theater?
No, my "doubling up" only lasted for a year, until my second year of university. After I started elementary school, my parents separated and eventually divorced, an event that left my mother and me in a very challenging situation financially. I was only able to graduate from college thanks to my mother, who paid my tuition, in addition to financial support from places like the Keio Girls Senior High School Alumni Association and the Shinzo Koizumi Memorial Scholarship. I could only afford to pay the tuition for acting school because I was working at restaurants and as a tutor on the side. Since money had always been tight, I was set on becoming financially independent as soon as possible so that I could put my mother at ease. That's why I decided to abandon my fledgling theater career and focus on getting a job. This was during Japan's "employment ice age," and many companies had stopped hiring new graduates at the time. Still, I managed to apply for six companies, mainly department stores like Tokyu, which had just resumed hiring.
Lessons Learned in the Workforce: The Importance of a Getting Off to a Good Start
- Why did you choose to work at a department store?
When I thought about the work I wanted to do, I knew it had to be something that would give people enjoyment and happiness in their daily lives, namely through food and clothing. A department store seemed like the right fit as a larger organization where women could make a career for themselves. I chose Tokyu Department Store in particular because I had many good memories of shopping with my mother at the main Tokyu store in Shibuya. Another reason may have been that there didn’t seem to be a Keio clique within the company. As was the case when I went to acting school, I was very conscious of seeing the world outside of Keio.
- What kind of work did you do when you first started?
I was first assigned to selling towels on the linen sales floor at the then Machida store. I worked the sales floor furiously and tried hard to get customers to sign up for the Tokyu Department Store point card, which had just been introduced at the time, eventually garnering more sign-ups than anyone else at the store. My performance was noticed by the store manager, who chose me to be part of the Machida store renovation project despite my having just joined the company. Tokyu, too, had held off on hiring new graduates since the recession, so I may have been the first female college graduate in quite some time to attract attention at the Machida store. I was aware of the company's expectations, so I always brought a "bring-it-on" attitude to my work. [laughs] My involvement in the renovation project led the company to send me to a year-long program at IFI Business School, an educational institution that trains business professionals in the fashion industry. There, I made connections in the industry while learning practical business skills from lecturers at the forefront of their fields, including from the late Yukio Fujimaki, a charismatic buyer who worked for Isetan at the time. It helped me lay the foundations for my later career.
- It sounds like you were enthusiastic and eager to succeed right from the start.
My first three years at Tokyu were fast-paced, and now that I look back on those experiences, I realize how important it was for me to get off to a good start. That first dash forward makes it easier to maintain a sense of speed and urgency.
In 2005, I was assigned to a project called "Shibu Rokugumi" at the Toyoko store. The project encouraged women to enjoy shopping and dining in Shibuya on their way home from work. We assembled a team of 15 young women, and together we came up with ideas like increasing sign-ups to our email newsletter, which was still uncommon at the time. In the process, memories of my high school days came rushing back, along with the leadership skills I learned then, which helped me bring everyone together. I believe there is important work that only young women are capable of, and Tokyu Department Store has a corporate structure that allows cheeky women like me to do the things they like.
Unique Food Propositions to Tackle an Era of Change
- You eventually worked your way up into management.
That's right. One turning point came in 2007, when I served as an executive assistant to a managing director dispatched to Tokyu during a business alliance with Isetan. I learned a lot from my experience shadowing them in meetings with managers from the different Tokyu Department Stores and compiling their meeting minutes. In 2012, I was chosen as a buyer for our food department. The food business at the time was known as a rough-and-tumble man's world, but the managing director didn't seem too worried and apparently told people that I'd do just fine. [laughs]
When I started the job, I enjoyed it so much that I felt I had finally found my calling. I love eating and was willing to get creative when matching products and suppliers with the different sales floors and potential customers. I threw myself into communicating effectively with all parties involved. Food is both a product and an emotional expression of its creator. And so many of our partners in the industry are sincere, warm, and wonderful human beings who offer delightful products. As a buyer, I have had increasing opportunities to interact with people and business partners outside my company. That's where I've felt the benefits of being part of the Mita-kai, Keio's far-reaching alumni association. Many of the owners of our suppliers are Keio alumni, and I feel a sense of warmth and connection among fellow Keio graduates, even without having to say as much. I've learned a lot from them.
I continued to gain a wide range of experience as a food buyer, having been involved in a complete renovation of the Shibuya Tokyu Food Show in conjunction with the Shibuya redevelopment project and traveling overseas to attract new tenants.
- What are you currently focused on as part of Tokyu's senior management team?
Department stores are adrift in a raging sea of change, no longer able to survive doing business as usual. At Tokyu, we are working to restructure our business to suit this new era. These efforts include the Tokyu Alliance Platform (TAP), an initiative sponsored by Tokyu Corporation to develop new business possibilities through collaboration with start-up companies and other industries. As the individual responsible for on-the-ground planning, I have transformed the project into an event at Shibuya Hikarie ShinQs to celebrate the appeal of delicacies from all over Japan, which won the top prize at TAP in 2019. Amid these new challenges, we must also review our current assets to better utilize them.
Last December, I represented Tokyu Department Stores Co., Ltd. at Tokyu Academy, an educational program to foster the next generation of management at Tokyu's group companies. The participants received full training in practical business, learning management perspectives and leadership skills that are essential for change. I am truly grateful to my company and the entire Tokyu Group for so many great opportunities.
Ogawa giving a presentation at Tokyu Academy
- Could you say a few final words to current students?
In the future, it will be increasingly important to think, judge, and act for yourself, and Yukichi Fukuzawa's spirit of independence and self-respect is as relevant today as it was 150 years ago. Fukuzawa also emphasized "interpersonal exchange" as an important academic discipline, which I think pairs well with independence and self-respect as a recipe to enrich your life. Furthermore, I would like young students to be aware of one more thing: mettle. You can gain knowledge and experience whenever you want, but mettle is something you must create and maintain with willpower. I, too, must continue to prove my mettle and live up to my name as an alumna of this great institution.
- Thank you for your time.
Taeko Ogawa (née Hirano) Director, Business Development, Business Strategy Office, Tokyu Department Store Co., Ltd.
Ogawa graduated from the Faculty of Letters in 1999 before joining Tokyu Department Store the same year. She started her career on the sales floor of the Machida and Toyoko stores while also in charge of back-office operations as a planner, buyer of women's fashion merchandise, and executive assistant. She then proved her mettle as a capable food buyer, leading product planning and development on the sales floor and for events. Now responsible for the food sourcing department of Toyoko Noren-gai and the Shibuya Tokyu Food Show, Ogawa is currently the director of business development in Tokyu's Business Strategy Office. Ogawa loves to take dance classes and play golf in her free time to stay active.
*This article originally appeared in the 2022 Winter edition (No. 313) of Juku.