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Japan’s first self-made woman billionaire began with an idea that could have sent her to jail

CNBC logo CNBC 25/01/2017 Catherine Clifford
Yoshiko Shinohara© Kyodo | AP Images Yoshiko Shinohara

Yoshiko Shinohara is the first self-made female billionaire in Japan. On her way from divorcee to business titan, Shinohara revolutionized her country's workforce.

Shinohara just crossed the billionaire threshold, according to Forbes , because the value of her shares of the temporary staffing agency she started, Temp Holdings, have been climbing steadily higher. Temp Holdings is publicly traded in Tokyo .

Her journey began when Shinohara upset her family by divorcing her husband. 

"Soon after my wedding, I realized that I would rather not be married, that this was not the right person for me. So I decided I had better divorce as soon as possible," says Shinohara in a 2009 interview with the Harvard Business Review .

"After the divorce, I said, 'I have to do something with myself,'" she says.

Uninspired by the "boring jobs" that most women in Japan had at the time, Shinohara left Japan and moved to Europe. That's where she observed, for the first time, the notion of "temporary workers."

That inspired the start-up idea that made her a baroness.

"Mistakes are the sea of opportunity," she tells the Harvard Business Review.

Shinohara went back to Japan in 1973, realized that she was not interested in any of the jobs available to her and decided to start her own temporary staffing agency. She launched what her company out of a one-room apartment in the middle of Tokyo, according to an HBR biography.

Introducing temporary employment in Japan in the 1970's was a risk. It was even illegal at the time.

"Lifetime employment was the norm in Japan, and temping by private companies was banned under law, so I was often summoned by the ministry," she says. "I used to say to myself: 'I wonder what it's like in jail. How big are the rooms? Is there a toilet or a window?'"

Eventually, the law changed and temporary employment became legal.

Her second push against the tidal wave of public opinion was to bring men into the office. Until the 1980's, her company, Temp Holdings, was all women.

"So in 1988, I said, 'How about if we put some men in here?' The managers said, 'No, thank you, we don't need any of those creatures.' But we did need them," says Shinohara.

"A branch happened to hire a man as a part-timer, and wow, did sales increase! That was the turning point. The trick was achieving the right mix of men and women."

Today, she is the chairman emeritus of Temp Holdings , according to the company's corporate masthead. The company has 16,542 full-time employees and another 21,000-plus part-timers, according to the company website .

Shinohara hasn't spent much time worrying about whether she would have had an easier time growing her business as a man. She has heard the question often enough, however.

"People often ask me that. My answer is 'How would I know? I have never been a man,'" Shinohara says. "Starting a business is always difficult."

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