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Diversifying Honda taps first woman on board, promotes foreigner to operating officer

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TOKYO - Honda appointed a woman to its board for the first time and gave a major promotion to a foreigner in signs the automaker wants to change perceptions of a hidebound corporate culture.

Technology expert Hideko Kunii, 66, will join the board, and Issao Mizoguchi, a Brazilian of Japanese ancestry, who has worked with Honda's South American operations for nearly 30 years, has been appointed operating officer, Honda Motor Co. said Monday. The appointments need shareholder approval at a meeting set for June.

Companies have come under fire within Japan for not promoting anyone other than Japanese men. Putting women in leadership positions is a pillar of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's policies to revive the moribund Japanese economy.

Toyota has a foreigner on its board, American Mark Hogan, formerly of General Motors Co., but has yet to tap a woman, and it said it is not necessarily looking to promote a woman.

Honda has cultivated an international image from its early years, as founder Soichiro Honda always had global acceptance as part of his vision for the company. It was the first Japanese automaker to open a vehicle assembly plant in the U.S. But the addition of Mizoguchi, 54, as one of the top executives at headquarters, as well as the appointment of Kunii, a professor at the Shibaura Institute of Technology, is a high profile move for the company.

Kunii studied at San Jose University and the University of Texas at Austin, and previously worked for Japanese electronics maker Ricoh Co. She is now in charge of promoting gender equality at the university in Tokyo.

Mizoguchi is senior vice-president and director of Honda South America.

Despite Abe's prodding to promote women to corporate boards, Honda is the first major Japanese company to follow that advice.

Honda officials stressed Kunii was picked because she was the right person for the job, not because of her gender.

Among Japanese companies, Nissan Motor Co., allied with Renault SA of France, has been the most progressive in promoting diversity. Still, it has yet to appoint a woman to its board.

Asako Hoshino, a woman and management expert, is among the top Nissan executives, serving as corporate vice-president. Nissan has three non-Japanese on its 12-member board, including Chief Executive Carlos Ghosn.

Japanese society is expected to lose its potential for growth and innovation if it can't do more to encourage women to enter the workforce, as its population is aging and dwindling.

Women say the difficulties of finding proper child care as well as cultural expectations about women doing housework make it tremendously difficult to pursue a career in Japan.

The nation's tax system encourages women to stay in poorer paying part-time jobs. The lack of role models in Japan Inc. also adds to the obstacles for women's efforts to move up the corporate ladder.

Boosted by the weak yen, also being realized under "Abenomics" policies, Japanese automakers see a great opportunity to grow overseas.

In late 2012, Honda announced ambitious plans to double its global annual auto sales to more than 6 million vehicles in five years.

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Follow Yuri Kageyama on Twitter at twitter.com/yurikageyama

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