We’re on a narrow street where the towering structure of Roppongi Hills looms in the distance, but the area is amazingly quiet, full of residential houses and alleyways. This is where Keiko Ihara, racing car driver and board member of Nissan Motor Co., has set up a private office.
At first glance it seems like a secret salon for vehicle enthusiasts.
“I run my racing company with 50 female racers,” says Ihara, 45. “This place functions as headquarters.”
When she started her racing career, there were no female racers in Japan. Even now, there are few. “But I’m hoping to put more women out on the track,” she smiles.
Ihara is a living example of what a woman can accomplish in Japan’s heavily conservative social system. In college, she was a “race queen,” whose ornamental presence graced the circuit. But Ihara wanted more.
“The excitement of seeing car races up close got to me,” she laughs. “I wanted to be behind the wheel too, to experience the speed and incredible drama of racing.”
So she got a driver’s license, mastered the skill and knocked on the door of professional racing.
“Twenty years ago, Japan wasn’t ready for women to be racers. The social environment didn’t allow a woman to drive a car that cost billions of yen. I had to leave this country in order to race, so in 1999, I took off for England.”
Ihara’s English skills were honed on the job. She had to put herself among mechanics and crew to learn the language they used and make sure they were on the same page. She says her relaxed personality helped.
“I’ve always been quite laid back. That helped when I was learning English. I didn’t mind making mistakes — I would just ask, make the correction and move on.”
She raced and trained in 70 countries, reveling in the racer’s life, before returning to Japan in 2007.
“When I returned, I saw that nothing had changed in terms of letting women take the wheel. There was the same old harassment and barriers. I knew I needed to take a stand.”
Since making that decision, Ihara has worked with the central government and others to improve workplace environments for women, lobbied to increase slots for female executives and even runs an English conversation school for children — all while training for international competitions.
“There’s nothing to lose and everything to gain from learning English,” says Ihara. “You learn the value of freedom and having the option to choose your life. You learn to formulate and voice your opinion. Your whole life could change, just like that.”
At Nissan Motor Co., board meetings are conducted in English, says Ihara.
“The diversity in Nissan is top-level,” she says. “With so many foreign people working for the company it’s imperative for Japanese executives to be able to communicate with everyone. Otherwise, things tend to stall.”
Stalling is never a good thing, especially on the race track where Ihara has spent most of her adult life.
“Racers need a lot of strength, both mental and physical. Out on the track, it gets really intense and I always feel I have to push myself to the absolute limit in order to get results. But that goes for everyone connected with the vehicle. I’ll never forget the first time I saw a car racing team up close, working together to win a race. There was just so much dedication and concentration. People were on fire.
“For me, it all starts with communication,” stresses Ihara. “A single missing bolt can alter the course of a competition. So gauging other peoples’ feelings, making things happen together, as a team — this is all crucial to car racing. And most other things in life, too.” (Kaori Shoji)
Words to live by