Business leaders are calling for leveraging the United Nations’ sustainable development goals to achieve global peace because the coronavirus pandemic is exacerbating social and economic inequalities not just in Japan, but worldwide.

Yoshimitsu Kobayashi, chairman of Mitsubishi Chemical Holdings Corp., said Saturday that the pandemic has forced a rethink of political and economic strategies. He called for shifting the focus of such plans from profit growth to building sustainable peace by addressing the deepening inequalities.

Kobayashi was one of the guest speakers at this year’s Hiroshima Business Forum for Global Peace, a symposium on business strategies and political solutions that address global threats.

While praising the progress of technology, Kobayashi warned it could also lead to the creation of an underprivileged class as technology further pushes people out of job markets.

“While the middle class is at the core of the inclusive society that emerged amid the process of globalization, they may now fall prey to this nationalist shift,” he said in his keynote address. “In the pandemic, such tendencies are becoming more apparent.”

Another panelist, Kathy Matsui, vice chair and chief Japan strategist for Goldman Sachs, stressed the pandemic has been particularly tough on women by deepening gender inequalities, especially in Japan, where part-time labor is one of the main forms of employment for women. She called for more inclusive strategies to help women and minority groups, including foreign residents and people from LGBTQ groups who are the most vulnerable in crises.

The panelists who discussed the correlation between politics and economics concluded the pandemic has highlighted challenges in technological development stemming from political threats.

Kobayashi cautioned that technological innovation, especially in the field of artificial intelligence, could strengthen authoritarianism as it enables greater control over human behavior.

Yoshimitsu Kobayashi, chairman at Mitsubishi Chemical Holdings Corp. | KYODO
Yoshimitsu Kobayashi, chairman at Mitsubishi Chemical Holdings Corp. | KYODO

“In a way democracy is under threat of digital dictatorship,” he warned.

Yasutoshi Nishimura, the economic revitalization minister who is leading Japan’s response to the coronavirus, pointed to the positive aspects of technological progress that has allowed businesses to continue operations remotely. As many companies in Japan have adopted telecommuting to cut back on human interaction, Nishimura said he was hopeful the digital shift would further redefine Japan’s working style.

However, expert panelists, including Shuzo Sumi, vice chairman of Keidanren, Japan’s largest business lobby, said that businesses, as well as non-governmental organizations and individuals should engage more in strategies aimed at eradicating poverty, addressing inequalities and peacebuilding. The event followed the 75th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

The panelists also suggested that further economic strategies should be based on the U.N.’s 2030 agenda for sustainable development, which was adopted by the leaders of more than 150 countries at the United Nations summit in September 2015.

“Further economic development won’t take place without addressing environmental challenges,” Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi said in a video message.

Koizumi said Japan should lead by example as a country that has experienced severe pollution problems, such as Minatama disease. The mercury-poisoning disease, caused by toxic discharges into Minamata Bay by Chiso Corp., was discovered in Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture, in 1956.

“We can’t forget what happened in Minamata,” he said.

Due to the pandemic, the fifth annual symposium, co-sponsored by The Japan Times, was held online.

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