Japan urged to embrace diversity management as working population shrinks



Long accustomed to hiring mainly Japanese staff, domestic firms are likely to start diversifying their workforces in response to a declining working population, and to accommodate clients’ needs amid rapid globalization.

Bringing talented workers, including more foreign nationals and women, into the labor force is one of the major policies in the country’s growth strategy under the second stage of Abenomics, as a diverse workforce is considered essential for sustaining and strengthening the creativity and competitiveness of the Japanese economy.

At an international workshop on workplace diversity management held in Tokyo late last month, William Swing, director-general of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said that one out of every seven of the world’s 7 billion people is a migrant.

“So if I have a message today, it would be that we are living in an era of the greatest human mobility in recorded history,” he said in a keynote speech.

Swing said the issue of utilizing foreign workers is particularly relevant in most industrialized countries like Japan, where workplaces are destined to become more diverse.

“Like most developed countries, Japan is an aging country. It happens to have one of the world’s lowest birthrates,” he said, adding that one-fourth of the Japanese population today is 65 years or older, with the proportion set to reach one-third 15 years from now.

Registered foreign nationals in Japan, meanwhile, surpassed 2.17 million at the end of June 2015 and foreign nationals who were permitted to change their student visas to a working visa reached a record of around 13,000 in 2014, according to government data.

“So I think it’s wise and timely for us to consider this issue, how best to diversify our labor markets, how best to manage that,” said Swing, stressing that migration is a human reality and one that is highly desirable for a society with the right policies and management systems in place.

Another expert at the workshop also underscored the importance of diversity management in Japanese firms to attract talented workers from abroad.

“Globalization brings complexity into workplaces because it creates differences among employees such as their nationalities, ethnicities, religions and languages, and how to manage those differences becomes crucial,” said Mitsuhide Shiraki, professor of labor policy and human resource management at Waseda University’s Faculty of Political Science and Economics.

“Providing fair treatment to those workers without losing the organization’s efficiency in such a complex environment will be key,” Shiraki said.

To help firms deal with intensifying globalization and international competition, Link Global Solution Inc., a consulting firm in Tokyo, has been providing intercultural communication training for over 25 years.

The programs are designed for participants ranging from new recruits to senior executives, both Japanese and non-Japanese, based on the belief that such a framework must be shared among employees and management to become effective.

Akira Isshiki, Link Global Solution’s president, said there are differences in how people from different cultures communicate based on how important context is to getting a message across.

People are expected to “hear one and understand ten” in some cultures but in others, people need to spell out “ten” in order for others to understand “ten,” he said.

“It is crucial to understand the existence of such a difference,” he added.

According to a theory presented by American anthropologist Edward Hall, members of low-context cultures generally engage in verbally explicit styles of communication, while members of high-context cultures focus more on nonverbal information and contextual cues to communicate implicitly.

In an intercultural training course, participants will also learn about types of corporate cultures in terms of job description and scope of responsibility.

In the training, companies are typically categorized into Tetris- and Amoeba-style organizations — the former clearly define the scope of duties and responsibilities in a job description whereas jobs and responsibilities for the latter will change depending on the situation and dynamic priorities.

“In a Tetris-style organization, there is a job description and an employee may get a raise and promotion by fulfilling duties in the job description, but in an Amoeba-style organization, more flexibility is required in terms of covering gaps between boundaries, such as who will handle a ground ball between third base and shortstop,” said Gareth Monteath, an executive director who teaches training programs.

“Many Japanese firms may fall into this (Amoeba-style) category and employees need to understand this because they become uneasy about their jobs without this knowledge,” he said.

Monteath, who is British, said he was confused about whether he was going to be evaluated based on individual or team performances when he first started working in a Japanese firm.

But he had a word of advice for firms looking to diversify their workforces — doing so alone will not enhance corporate performance as it comes with various internal costs. Instead, it must go hand in hand with an inclusive mindset.

The diversification of the workforce itself is a means for individuals to maximize their talent, which in turn leads to the reinforcement of competitiveness, he suggested.

“People need to comprehend why diversity is important with their own heart, instead of their head,” he added.

The workshop was organized by the Foreign Ministry and the IOM along with Tokyo’s Shinagawa Ward, and supported by the Council of Local Authorities for International Relations.