Meet Kumiko Kamiya and Maho Watanabe, two female employees of Yamaha Motor Japan who have contributed to the development of motorcycles for the ASEAN market. In Japan, they are known as “rikejo,” which can be roughly translated as “science women.”
Japan has been facing some labor-related problems due to its aging population and declining birthrate. To address the labor shortage, the country has been accepting more foreign workers while creating policies and supporting efforts to bring more women into the workforce. This is challenging. Even as an advanced, developed, and powerful nation, Japan was ranked extremely low in 110th place out of 149 nations in the World Economic Forum’s 2018 Global Gender Gap Report (Iceland was ranked in 1st place; the Philippines was placed very high at 8th). In order to increase the proportion, acceptance, and equality of women in the workforce, Japanese groups and organizations have been promoting the image of the strong, lovely, intelligent, and valuable female worker. This effort is especially important in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) — hence, the spotlight on “rikejo.”
As part of this larger conversation, the Yamaha newsletter and the Japanese motoring website, Response, chose to introduce readers to two of Yamaha Motor Japan’s outstanding female employees, Kumiko Kamiya and Maho Watanabe. Kumiko Kamiya is a mechanical engineer who works in the vehicle development department of Yamaha Motor Japan, specializing in two-wheeled commuters. She is also becoming well-known for her significant role in helping design the new European-styled LTF125 Nozza Grande scooter for the Vietnamese market.
Because Yamaha has been selling around 3.3 million units annually of the Nozza Grande in Vietnam, while claiming that 90% of the scooter’s users are Vietnamese women, Kamiya had to do a lot of research on the female market. The fashionable women of Vietnam expressed how they’d like to be seen on a scooter; posture mattered to them and many wear skirts and heels while riding. Kamiya figured out that the floorboard must be flat and grippy, that the rider should be able to close their legs together, and that the arms should rest beautifully. Yamaha now offers a premium hybrid version of the Nozza Grande.
Kamiya loved design as youngster and was an avid motorsports enthusiast. She enjoyed watching F1 and raced karts in college. When she joined Yamaha, she got an SR500 and learned how to ride off-road on a TT-R125. She handled tire replacement at the Suzuka 8 Hours, and is also an active member of the company’s road racing club. While she would love to work on competitive machines, her strengths lie in developing city commuters which she considers as more down-to-earth. “It is important for the manufacturer to listen to the user's voice and reflect it in the product, and we are now working on creating a system that can meet more needs,” Kamiya told Response. “I’m glad that the bikes I've been involved with are out in the world, and when I see the customers on board, I'm so happy that I get [emotional].”
Maho Watanabe is a brakes specialist who is now an engineer at Yamaha Motor Japan’s vehicle testing department. Watanabe evaluates braking systems and chassis behavior in simulated running conditions in order to optimize stopping power and feel. Up until 2018, she was mainly running bench tests of ABS systems. Since then, her area of responsibility expanded to full brake systems. After Yamaha helped her secure driving licenses, she also conducts self-driving experiments on the company’s test course.
Funnily enough, Watanabe majored in the natural sciences with a focus on agriculture. She started riding a scooter and bought an YZF-R25 in university for commuting, touring, and track days. This grew her interest in motorcycles, after getting over the bad reputation motorcycles had when she was in high school. Watanabe insisted on maintaining her bike herself, then joined Yamaha initially as a college intern. Soon after, she bought herself a TT-R125 trail bike and the liter-large MT-10 SP. Watanabe recognizes that women attract unwanted attention from male engineers, saying, “When it is not good, I am strictly trained.”
Watanabe strives to develop safe and effective braking systems that are effective yet feel natural, so riders never feel uneasy applying their brakes. While she is committed to her role as a brakes specialist, she wants to expand her knowledge to cover whole motorcycles. She is currently working on the braking system of a sports model, and her dream is to work on a new sport bike for Yamaha that takes women into closer consideration. “I cannot reach the ground when straddling a [larger sport bike]. There is a gap with target customers, and that’s frustrating… It would be great if you could create a sport bike that women can ride without hesitation,” Watanabe told Response. “The sense of accomplishment when solving questions is joy,” said Watanabe in Yamaha’s newsletter. "I want to reflect women's sensibility in product development.”