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In the autumn of their lives, more Japanese women are starting businesses

IIDA, Japan — Yoshiko Zakoji recalls her friends and neighbors being shocked when they heard she was planning to start her own business at the age of 60 in the mountainous city of Iida.

"People asked me what on earth I was going to start" following her husband's retirement, the 85-year-old business owner recalled.

Zakoji, who was then a full-time housewife with no work experience, opened a shop in 1992, selling traditional local food and goods handmade by locals and her acquaintances. She encouraged other elderly people to follow suit.

"In an ageing society, I thought older people like me also need to play a part," she recalled.

People aged 65 and older will constitute 38.4 percent of Japan's population by 2065, up from 26.6 percent in 2015, according to estimates from the National Institute of Population and Security Research.

Neither Zakoji nor her close family members had experience operating a business, so she traveled to Tokyo to attend "citizens' business school" organized by Women's World Banking (WWB) Japan.

Zakoji also established a non-profit group to address local issues in the sleepy, sprawling city, which is located about 180 kilometres west of Tokyo.

Zakoji's late husband used to help with her business and non-profit work, she said.

"My husband's understanding was crucial," she said. "He knew I wanted to do something for the community."

The couple refurbished their house to start her business on the first floor and let locals utilize a space on the second floor for pottery and flower-arranging classes.

On weekends, some volunteers help non-Japanese residents study Japanese, math and other subjects. The opportunity has existed for 24 years, as the city has seen more people from abroad.

Zakoji even worked with city officials to invite Kyoko Okutani, the head of WWB Japan, to help promote a spirit of entrepreneurship in the conservative region.

"I've seen more women set up little businesses around here," Zakoji said.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said he wants to create a society in which "all women shine." But married women still face difficulties in re-entering the country's rigid and male-dominated workforce, even if they are educated and willing to work.

Japan ranks 111th among the world's 144 countries in gender equality, according to the 2016 Global Gender Gap report from the World Economic Forum.

Ryo Tsunoi had a hard time finding a job after quitting her job as a public school teacher. After taking some menial jobs, Tsunoi decided to start her own business.

She learned how to make bread and opened a bagel shop named Koharubiyori — which means "a warm autumn day" — in the city of Saitama, north of Tokyo, 10 years ago.

With her family's support, Tsunoi's business proved so successful that her two sons also launched their own bagel shops.

"I've enjoyed this business so much because I'm the one who decides everything," the former teacher said.

Japanese women are increasingly interested in starting their own careers or businesses after child-rearing ends and their husbands retire, said Atsuko Arisawa, the director of the non-profit organization Rokumaru 60 in the city of Yokohama.

Rokumaru 60 helps women improve their job skills in order to get rehired or to start their own businesses.

"Many women have more flexibility, compared with men in the same age group. Many men worked for the same company for decades," Arisawa said.

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