Playing Two-Way for Management and Health Awareness

She played the leading role in reviving Sanrio Puroland which was a long-faltering theme park.

By Fusako Taneichi

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“We had a hard time” during last year’s closure (photo: Tsuyoshi Ashida)

Interview with Aya Komaki, Sanrio Entertainment President & CEO

She played the leading role in reviving Sanrio Puroland which was a long-faltering theme park. Yet she spent the recent year fighting the COVID-19 impact. She is also promoting awareness for women’s menstruation, in reflection on her own cancer experience.

 (Interview by Fusako Taneichi, editorial staff)

“Mentality Alone Won’t Influence People”

“We Need an Environment for Casually Talking About Menstruation at Work, Home, and in Society”

– Since the temporary closure from April 25 following the third state of emergency, Sanrio Puroland reopened on May 14 with a limited number of visitors. How was their response?

Komaki: They were saying, “I realized how much I yearned for Puroland,” “I suffered from Puroland deficiency.” Since people refrained from going out with COVID, we held online events for interacting with our characters. Yet that can never replace the exceptional joy of real exchange with the characters and seeing shows up close.

Sanrio Puroland (Tama City, Tokyo) is a four-story indoor theme park operated by Sanrio Entertainment (100% subsidiary of Sanrio). Visitors can enjoy live shows performed by Sanrio original characters including Hello Kitty, My Melody, and Gudetama, photos with the characters, shots at photogenic spots, and goods purchase.

Closed Five Months with COVID

– How did you respond to the COVID-19 pandemic from last year?

Komaki: We closed temporarily from February 22 before the first state of emergency was declared, since Puroland is an indoor theme park. It would not be responsible corporate behavior to continue operations in a Three Cs (closed space, crowded place, close-contact settings) environment. It was a critical period before the fiscal year end. We had to make a tough decision, but Sanrio’s founder and chairman, Shintaro Tsuji, said, “Right now, trust is more important than sales,” and that encouraged my decision. Initially, I thought the closure would be about a month. Yet the outbreak continued and we could not reopen even at the beginning of July, and had a really hard time. We ended up opening on July 20.  

– How did you respond during the closure?

Komaki: The Live Entertainers that performed in the shows practiced from time to time, but other than that, business was basically closed. The administrative personnel implemented staff training, daily online communication, and discussed future measures by working from home and at the office.

– Puroland celebrated its 30th anniversary on December 7 last year.

Komaki: We held Puroland’s 30th anniversary parade. This was a special program featuring the master pieces selected from our shows and parades since the opening. We wanted many visitors to see it, but had to consider the social distance, so all seats were assigned by reservation only. On the day of the parade, a visitor told us in tears, “This will be an unforgettable day in my life,” and I was also moved to tears.

Komaki became involved with Puroland’s management from 2014. After graduating from university, she joined Sanrio, and left after her marriage. Later, she returned as a working mother, and at 49, established a Sanrio group company for supporting women, and engaged in seminars and talk events.

Komaki: Puroland attracted attention when it opened in 1990. I too took my young children there. It had facilities like the 3D theater and 360-degree revolving stage that will catch on later, but I guess they were rather ahead of time. The Hello Kitty boom came in the late 1990s, but after that, the park business remained slow for some time amid the sluggish mood from the 2008 financial crisis and the Great East Japan Earthquake (2011).

– How did you think of the Puroland during its slump?

Komaki: I heard from people around me that Puroland was facing a downturn. So in 2014, I went there for the first time in 15 years as an ordinary visitor. My impression was, “What a waste.” When I asked the staff “What time does the next show start?” they responded, “I don’t know.” The event information displays within the park had inconsistent fonts, colors, and character layout. I thought it was such a shame since the live shows were of great quality. Each staff was working hard, and no one was to blame. I was convinced that if there was proper coordination within the park, Puroland could bring back visitors again.

Direct Appeal to President Tsuji

Takamex Shutterstock.com

– So what did you do with that idea?

Komaki: I wrote a letter to president Tsuji of Sanrio (then). I pointed out the issues I mentioned and stated that “Puroland is full of potential.” The letter was meant to let him know how Puroland can be improved, so I had no intention of claiming, “Let me do the management.” Looking back, I wonder why I sent such a letter, but there must have been something that urged me to do so.

– How did president Tsuji respond?

Komaki: He approached me and asked, “Would you like to try turning around Puroland then?” I had no experience in the entertainment industry, so I contemplated for two weeks, and decided to accept the offer. I was appointed Sanrio Entertainment Director in June 2014.

– What measures did you take?

Komaki: For the first three months, I had repeated communications with the employees, and sorted out the urgency and weight of the issues. As a result, we found out the customer contact point and service were the pressing issues. So we began the 15-minute “warming-up morning meetings.”

– What did you do in the morning meetings?

Komaki: We repeatedly went through the basics of customer service and team building (an approach for bringing out individual capacities and creating a goal-achieving organization). For example, when visitors ask “What time does this show start?” or “Where can I find that character?” and you don’t know the answer, you shouldn’t reply “I don’t know.” So we passed on specific ways of response, like, “Sorry for the inconvenience. Could you wait a moment while I go and check?” and we asked the staff to put this into practice.

– Morning meetings tend to be a place for talking about corporate philosophy.

Komaki: Mentality talk won’t work. If we just tell the employees to work harder, no one will think “I wasn’t working hard.” Telling them to act cheerfully will only make them wonder “how do I actually act cheerfully?” In that case, we should let them know the specific method for making expressions such as lifting the corners of their mouth. We can’t make improvements unless we create a system for specifically doing what we aim for, instead of abstract talk.

– Did the improvements show effect?

Komaki: At first, some employees said they would rather use the time for other tasks than attend the morning meeting. However, our staff gradually became more energetic, and smiling faces could be seen even in backstage areas.

The number of Puroland visitors was 1.26 million in FY 2014 when Komaki became involved as the Director. The figure continued to rise and reached a historic high of 2.19 million in FY 2018. In FY 2019, Komaki became the president & CEO of Sanrio Entertainment.

– Did the 30th anniversary remind you of the tough times when you joined as the Director?

Komaki: I have been involved with Puroland for only six years. There are quite a number of staff who have been working since the park’s opening and also seen the bad times. It wasn’t that there were individual problems, but Puroland was out of sync with the market and trends of that time. On the contrary, after I joined the company, social media arrived on the scene, while it became okay for adults to enjoy Japanese kawaii content, and the number of visitors increased. I feel, “What a great timing to be appointed. I’m really lucky.”

Let’s Talk About Menstruation

– While managing Puroland, you are recently working to promote awareness of women’s menstruation.

Komaki: Menstruation is part of reproductive health, which is the health of partners, families, and female employees. It concerns everybody, but is little talked of in Japan. If there isn’t an atmosphere for talking about menstruation, symptoms of health problems may be neglected, and examinations may be put off. So we must be able to talk about menstruation in the workplace, home, and society.

– Yet, in reality, isn’t it difficult?

Komaki: I’m not suggesting that people talk loudly about menstruation en masse. If there’s an environment for a female employee affected by menstruation to tell her male supervisor without hesitation, “I’d like to skip the meeting because I have my period that day,” that would be ideal. It’s important for both men and women to have a chance to learn and understand systematically about menstruation, and wipe away prejudice and preconceptions.  

– What are the responses within the company?

Komaki: One male employee gave a great comment. “There are times when even men want to say, ‘Today, I get tired easily, so could someone take over my task?’ when we are not in full shape. So with menstruation, women should be able to speak up in the same way without enduring.” And the ones on the receiving end of such requests can also figure out good ways of handling the situation and improve their business skills.

“Let’s Talk” Was a Great Success

– An event themed on menstruation was held on July 4 at Puroland. Could you tell us the details?

Komaki: “Let’s Talk” is a global event for talking about the taboos on women’s health. It was first held in 2018 in Turkey through a collaboration between the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the supermodel Natalia Vodianova. I saw the conference in Turkey while I was working on promoting cervical cancer prevention and hoped to hold the event in Tokyo someday. This time, we had co-organizing and sponsoring companies, as well as support from the Cabinet Office and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

– How about the program?

Komaki: There was a speech contest on menstruation by junior high school, high school, vocational school, and university students, and a panel discussion including the artist Sputniko! and PR strategist Tetsuya Honda. Having men like Tetsuya Honda taking part in the discussion and the mayor of Tama City attending the event was also a significant achievement.

– Why did you start promoting awareness of women’s health?

Komaki: Part of it is a serious reflection on overworking myself, since I was diagnosed with breast cancer at 48 and had my left breast removed. One day, a friend told me she was going to have a uterine cancer test. I’ve never had one before, so I went along with her to try it out. There was a discount for getting both uterine and breast cancer tests, so I also got tested for breast cancer. It turned out I had cancer in my breast, although I didn’t have a lump. That’s why I’m advocating examination and early detection.

– You’ve experienced a serious disease and an intrapreneurship in your 40s, and the turning point of becoming a corporate manager in your 50s. This year at 61, you’ve successfully held the “Let’s Talk” event. So you continue to challenge, regardless of age.

Komaki: I went through a lot of things in my 40s and 50s, so I guess I’ve become more resilient. You can take on challenges from any age, any number of times. But for that, you need the solid base of a healthy body. I still have many things I want to do in the future, and I’ll keep on pushing.

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Profile

Aya Komaki

Born in Tokyo in 1959. After graduating Seijo University, joined Sanrio in 1983. Left after marriage, then returned after having children. Following a career in cosmetic sales, established a Sanrio subsidiary company for supporting women in 2008. Became Sanrio Entertainment director in 2014, Sanrio Puroland director in 2016. In current position since 2019. Studied the dialogical self at the University of Tokyo Graduate School of Education and gained the master’s degree in 2013. Chairman of the Hellosmile Committee for promoting awareness on cervical cancer.

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