For the first time in her life, Taekol Matsuda is having doubts about something she has done. She smiles when she says this and she doesn't know what she can do about it, but it bothers her. Matsuda, a Japanese housing tycoon who helped bring good, affordable American-style houses to Japan, worries now that the private living pattern in such homes may be contributing to the rising violence in Japanese families and schools.
"Japanese families are very tight. We all studied together and slept together," she says. But American houses, which provide each child with separate bedrooms, lead to separate lives. Children don't grow up together, Matsuda says. "They don't communicate anymore. They don't learn how to have consideration for each other." And Japan, she says, where children used to have enormous respect for their elders, is showing symptoms respect for their elders, is showing symptoms of family collapse. "Parents complain their kids are going wild. Divorce rates are going higher and higher." She calls it "advanced country sickness. . . . We all have everything. We don't help each other." She ticks off the names of great Western philosophers. "They all said we should help each other, help the poor. We are all too full.No one thinks about their neighbors."
Matsuda is the only child of Matsuda Takechiyo, the senior elder statesman of the Japanese Liberal Democratic Party, who died last December at the age of 92. While he rose to important ministerial posts in the Japanese government, he started out as a social worker -- at Hull House in Chicago under James Addams -- and throughout his life carried with him a strong sense of social responsibility. Late in his life he opened an orphanage and vocational center in Saigon. Taeko Mastsuda, who has raised her three children in international schools, has carried on her father's tradition of trying to promote international understanding and cooperation. She has suceeded as a businesswoman in a land of historically pervasive oppression of women. But unlike many self-made tycoons, she has retained an inbred concern for others tht motivates most of her activities.
"My mother was very special," says Matsuda. "Ever since I was a child, she said, 'Be exceptional. Don't just make marrying your target.' . . . My family told me you are a little bit healthier than others, a little bit more clever. You have to return something to others and give service to others."
Matsuda lived through the bombing of her Tokyo home during the war and came here in 1952 to study television at the University of Southern California. She worked at NBC for three years as an assistant director and married another Japanese living in the United States. After the birth of their first child, they returned to Japan and opened a public relations firm to dispel the image of Japanese products as cheap, flimsy copies.
They made money and she decided to buy a house. "I wanted a nice house, equivalent to the United States. We bought it finally, but it was very expensive." That was 20 years ago, at a time when there was no mortgage system and no central heating for small houses. "I thought, we are okay, but what are the others going to do, our age or younger?" She approached three of the largest steel, construction and appliance companies in Japan and got them to invest $2 million in a corporation she founded.
She leaned how to build a house. "In Japan, the good management people learn from the bottom up. The first three, four and five years, I went to the site. I learned from the plumber, the carpenter and the roofer. I helped with common sense." She built 8,000 houses and wrote a book on how to maintain a house that sold more than 100,000 copies.
Five years ago, she retired from her corporation and began the Japan Housing Research Foundation. Backed by the Ministry of Construction, the foundation educates builders in management techniques (50 percent of the bankruptcies in Japan involved builders), lobbies government agencies for changes in housing policies and construction rules, and brings various elements involved in the housing industry -- builders, utility companies, land developers and consumers -- together at symposiums. "I wanted to do something big for the whole industry," she says. Matsuda was one of the women featured in Asia magazines's June story on the emergence of women in "the land of Madame Butterfly."
"The public recognizes her as very extraordinary," says her daughter, Kumi Sato, a June graduate of Wellesley. "A lot of women are in middle management, but very few in the housing industry. Most successful Japanese women are single or divorced. There are a lot of supporters for her because they feel she's attained that balance."
"I never felt the limitations of being a woman," says Matsuda, who believes woman are a least half to blame for their limited achievements. "The key is you have to work maybe 30 percent harder than a man. A proposal in which you ask for money has to be a very, very good proposal. In Japan, men are presidents of corporations. If they fail, people say it's the economy or the environment. If a woman fails, it's because she's a woman. I'm not allowed to be a failure."