Photo/Illutration Tomoko Yoshino is the first female chairperson of Rengo, the Japanese Trade Union Confederation. (Shiro Nishihata)

The first woman to chair Japan’s largest labor organization decided she would step into the role after listening to her own advice to young women: “Don’t miss an opportunity.”

Tomoko Yoshino, 55, became the eighth head of Rengo, the Japanese Trade Union Confederation, on Oct. 6.

Yoshino was previously one of the 13 vice chairs of the organization, which comprises about 7 million members and 48 industry-based labor organizations.

But she said she was regarded as a representative of women at the table, since the other 12 were all men who doubled as heads of major affiliated industry-based labor organizations.

Yoshino was puzzled by the offer for the top post at Rengo. All the previous leaders had headed up affiliated industry labor groups before becoming chairperson.

“I never expected I would be offered the post,” she said. “I thought I haven’t had enough experience to chair the organization, but I also felt that I shouldn’t miss this opportunity.”

Yoshino said she saw many senior women fail to shatter the glass ceiling. She has decided to dedicate her efforts toward promoting gender equality.

“I have told younger women (at local affiliated labor groups), ‘Don’t miss an opportunity,’” she said. “So, I thought I would lose their trust if I turn down this offer.”

After graduating from high school, Yoshino joined Juki Corp., a company that manufactures sewing machines. She was praised for persisting with ballet lessons since childhood and became a full-time official at a union for Juki at the age of 19.

Yoshino pushed the company, which had only a few female workers, to introduce a child care leave system after two years of negotiations.

She continued to devote herself to pushing for greater workplace flexibility, such as shorter working hours for those raising children and parental leave for those who need to take care of sick or injured children.

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the extent to which women are socially vulnerable. Rengo is also facing many challenges, including internal divisions among affiliated labor groups.

But Yoshino has received encouragement from like-minded people who emailed her after learning she was being appointed chairperson.

“I will promote gender equality in all activities at Rengo,” she said.