Handbags and Champagne: Japan’s Young Forex Divas Make Their Mark

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Issei Kato / REUTERS

U.S. dollar and Japanese yen rate seen in Tokyo on July 3, 2013

Mrs. Watanabe is back.

Housewife investors were a feature of the Japanese financial landscape during the prolonged recession of the 1990s. Marooned at home because of the lack of career opportunities in a male-dominated business world, lacking child-care support and penalized by a tax system that didn’t encourage their participation in the labor force, many Japanese women found that they could bolster tight budgets by performing online forex trades in between chores and shopping for groceries.

They became such a force that the market gave them a name: Mrs. Watanabe (in Japan, Watanabe is a common surname, the equivalent of Garcia, Jones or Wang). And now they have returned, only this time they’re younger and more aggressive. Perhaps Ms. Watanabe would be a more accurate title now.

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Kazuhiro Koike, head of one of Japan’s first online-trading platforms, tells TIME that over the past year his female client base has been rising. And it’s a different kind of female. “Recently, housewife traders have been disappearing and changing to a younger age,” he says.

Women in Japan make up approximately 25% of the nation’s vast retail forex-trading market. (Japan’s largest retail broker, GMO Click Securities, reported a staggering $694 billion in volumes in March alone.) Women in Australia and the U.K. make up just 10% and 5% of the market respectively.

While the older female traders — so-called kimono traders — looked to steady wealth creation, the younger ones have a shorter horizon, making a quick buck to pay for their next Birkin bag, says Vito Henjoto, a strategist at a large Japanese brokerage firm. When they have good days, they brag about it on social media, tweeting the forex charts, blogging about their successes and posting images of recently purchased bags and glasses of champagne. “On Twitter, a lot more forex divas are emerging,” Henjoto says, “They don’t want to be dependent on a boyfriend or a husband.”

These divas could be the spenders the now recovering Japanese economy needs. “I cannot recall a specific luxury item that I purchased with money earned from forex. But when I win a trade, I buy fancy desserts or drinks,” Maiko, a young Japanese woman said in an interview for a book on foreign-exchange trading by Kiana Danial, CEO of Invest Diva. Danial, of Iranian descent and now 28, was lured into forex trading while studying in Japan a few years ago.

The Japanese government’s new monetary, fiscal and growth policies have jolted the aging nation into action. The Nikkei, a barometer of the Japanese financial markets, has performed exceptionally well over the past year, since Shinzo Abe took office. The Japanese yen has weakened as Abe intended, driving “international investors who believe in the Abenomics story” to seize the opportunity, UBS’ FX strategist Gareth Berry tells TIME. Now, Japanese investors are also beginning to believe the weakness of their currency is a good thing (since this makes Japan’s exports more competitive) and are buying large amounts of foreign bonds. “As yields rise elsewhere in the world, that will have an effect on the psychology of Japanese investors and will arguably tempt them to sell the yen more aggressively to avail of these higher yields overseas,” Berry says.

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Ms. Watanabe probably knows that already. Between singlehood and matrimony, women are increasingly becoming “economically literate about financial transactions,” Koike says.

Many are part of Japan’s female-dominated contractual-labor market. Historically, “virtually all women were in temporary jobs,” says Mary Brinton, a Harvard University professor who studies Japanese society and gender inequality, and “still a large number of women [are].”

That seems to be working in their favor because contract work gives them the flexibility to trade, while also providing an income independent of the markets. “This should not be their full-time job, forex trading. It should be on the side because it’s very risky,” says Danial.

Ironically, these freebooting, freelance forex divas are coming into their own at a time when Japanese companies have finally begun to eye skilled young women. As Brinton says, companies are “anticipating a labor shortage because birthrates have been so low for so long — they’re starting to need [young women].” But the question is, Will corporations be able to offer a life to compete with the heady pleasures of a few quick morning trades, followed by a champagne-fueled shopping spree in the afternoon?

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