Reporting from Tokyo — After 25 years working as an accounting assistant in a leading construction company, Asako Nakano decided two summers ago that she needed to stabilize her retirement plans. So she took the plunge and bought a condominium.
"The decision to put almost all my savings into a home for myself was a bit daunting, but I never hesitated," said the friendly, confident single woman. "I thought to myself, I am never going to get married, so why not invest in my future? It made sense to me."
With a little assistance from her mother, the 52-year-old paid almost $100,000 as a 40% down payment for her apartment in a leafy residential area of Tokyo.
Japan's effort to dig itself out of its economic malaise is getting a boost from an unlikely source — the nation's female workforce.
More women are making their mark in a once male-dominated corporate workplace. Both single and married, Japanese women are earning more, analysts say, and they're not afraid to spend what they earn.
Traditionally, Japanese women have stopped working when they have children — with some rejoining once their children are in their teens. In the last decade, however, more women have kept their jobs.
Officials say many women keep working because their husbands' salaries are no longer secure as companies cut back amid recession. A recent Equal Opportunity Act has also allowed more women to hold on to their careers.
Working women now make up 41% of the 66.5-million-strong workforce, but what is important is the steadily rising number of those in the 35-to-45 age group, a bracket that traditionally saw fewer women employed. In 2009, working women in that age group rose to 6 million, up from 5 million in 2002.
Women have always been an important customer base given traditional gender roles in which homemakers have controlled the family budget based on their husbands' paychecks. But now there's a crucial change.
"With the rise in female employment, women are now earning their own money and spending more on themselves, a key difference with the past," said Hiroyuki Nitta, an analyst at the Nomura Research Institute.
Retail experts say Nakano's story represents the growing number of affluent female shoppers in Japan who are ready to put large amounts of money into purchases such as real estate, stocks and luxury items despite the lingering recession.
The trend, they say, represents a breakthrough in a market that had until recently been a man's world.
"They are well educated, with good careers, and are mostly single, even though recently we see a growing number of married women who are also making enough money to spend on what they consider important for themselves," said Koichi Ishiyama, who teaches international finance at Toin University of Yokohama.
Nakano, for example, earns about $50,000 annually —not a hefty sum compared with her male colleagues. Yet her savings are similar to those of other middle-age career single women whose assets, according to Sumitomo Trust & Banking Co., total approximately $110,000 each.
Rekindling domestic spending is a key challenge for the government, which saw the Japanese economy remain lackluster in 2009.
Akemi Natsuyama, an analyst at Hakuhodo Research Co., a consumer research firm, says a February company survey indicated that 50% of female respondents said they would continue to spend despite the economy, compared with 45% of men.
Natsuyama says Japanese women's spending patterns have marked characteristics. "Female shoppers tend to be careful on how they spend.... They also look at quality and shy away from reckless spending," she said.
For many women, the old challenge of juggling family responsibilities with work is fading.
Nakano points to her recent spending on golf lessons with a group of female friends.
"The main point for us is to enjoy life," she said. "My mother believes in saving for her children. In contrast, I am single and free."
Kakuchi is a special correspondent.