Commentary / Japan

Time to make diversity and inclusion a reality

by Yoko Ishikura

As we start the new Reiwa Era, I want to come back to a recurring question: “Will Japan become a truly diverse and inclusive society?” Here I would like to focus on work-related aspects of the issue, rather than society at large.

With the enthronement of the new emperor, I hear two contrasting facts. One is that Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako are both cosmopolitan since they were educated overseas. The emperor spent two years at Oxford University where he earned his master’s degree, while the empress, a former career diplomat, graduated from Harvard and spent some time at Oxford.

The other is that Empress Masako, along with other female members of the imperial family, was not allowed to attend a key official ceremony following the new emperor’s ascension to the throne — which was portrayed in an overseas media report of the enthronement as an indication of women’s status in traditional Japan.

To me, they point to the dilemma that Japan faces, and at the same time suggest that now is the time to free ourselves from this dilemma.

Several actions have been taken by both the government and private sector companies to make Japanese workplaces more diverse and inclusive. Recent changes in the labor market, as well as changes in people’s mindsets, point to a move toward greater diversity and inclusion.

The government has amended the immigration control law to allow the entry of more workers from overseas as a measure to mitigate the severe domestic labor shortage. The labor shortage in the service industry, and the care giving sector in particular, has become a very serious problem as the population rapidly ages. Whether we like it or not, we need more people coming to this country.

Not only the sheer labor shortage but the fast-changing business environment have prompted many Japanese companies to try to recruit workers from all over the world with highly technical skills to meet the demands of the times. The term “diversity and inclusion” found in the strategies and business plans of many firms testifies to the efforts made by these companies to promote the concept to fill their manpower needs.

Younger people are more receptive to the idea of working with people of different nationalities and cultures, according to a recent online survey. Companies such as Fast Retailing and Mercari have such cosmopolitan workforces. With well-respected global companies such as Fast Retailing and Mercari — one of the few former unicorns originating in Japan — leading the pack, we can expect more people to become receptive to a diverse workplace.

Some changes have also taken place in the labor market. The number of people who change jobs mid-career has been increasing and has hit the highest level since 2008. The ratio of people over the age of 45 who change jobs is also rising.

With the advent of the new policy of Keidanren (the Japan Business Federation) to shift away from the fixed recruiting calendar for new hires, many more companies are expected to move to year-round hiring. These trends will hopefully make traditionally fixed and uniform recruiting and labor practices more open and flexible.

On the other hand, a deep-rooted perception and unconscious bias against women in the workplace still exists and is difficult to eliminate.

According to a Cabinet Office survey in 2017, some 40 percent of respondents agreed with the statement “husband should work outside, and wives should stay home.” Consulting firm Changewave reports that almost everybody responded “no” to the question, “Do you discriminate against your colleagues by gender?” But many hesitated to respond clearly when they were asked a more specific question: “Do you ask your female colleagues with small children to go on overseas business trips?”

Several studies point to a popular perception that women have fewer of the characteristics required for leadership positions than men. Even companies that have launched “unconscious bias” training for their employees to address this issue often find that such bias against women is much stronger than they initially thought.

Despite the mixed results of these efforts, I trust that the new imperial couple with their extensive overseas and cosmopolitan experience can serve as a role model for a new Japan and boost the public momentum for diversity and inclusion at workplaces.

There is another reason to act now: The inherent propensity of the Japanese people. The Global Agenda Seminar series, which I have been holding every year since 2010, is my attempt to develop global talent among the younger generation. We provide opportunities for young people to become exposed to global agendas, and to hear firsthand from people who are working in global environments and to engage in discussions with them. The seminars are conducted in English and in a low-risk environment where constructive suggestions and criticisms are made and shared among participants.

During the initial years, we invited young Japanese who work at international organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund, the International Finance Corp., Human Rights Watch, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and Table for Two.

They shared the experience of being overwhelmed at first by the aggressive assertiveness of other members of the organizations (partly due to the language/communication difficulties that many Japanese people face). They gradually identified roles for themselves: to serve as good listeners and to help participants reach conclusions and ideas that were endorsed by many of them.

As we invited more people to join the seminar courses, I became convinced that the Japanese do have the skill of listening to others, identifying common factors and/or conflicting items, helping coordinate views and ideas of people of different backgrounds and finding agreements.

Having been given many opportunities myself to moderate brainstorming sessions at international conferences such as the ones organized by the World Economic Forum, I realized that it is not an easy skill or perspective to develop without actual experience. I also realized that some people simply do not have the propensity and/or willingness to do so. Many people speak their minds, but without reference to other people’s views. I concluded that some people are born with this propensity while others are not.

From listening to the experiences of young Japanese at international organizations and my own experiences of moderating at conferences with people from diverse backgrounds, I came to believe that a majority of Japanese people are born with this nature. What they need is the actual experience of working with people from different backgrounds and cultures.

My recent experience of interviewing Shunsuke Karasawa of Mercari, the guest speaker of our upcoming Global Agenda Seminar series titled “Working across Differences,” confirmed my belief. Mercari recruits people from all over the world and now has employees from more than 30 countries. As vice president of its people and culture group, Karasawa makes sure that working with people from different countries and cultures is a daily activity, not a special event.

Although Japan is still perceived as not open and friendly to people from different countries and cultures, and not receptive to including them, I think the seeds for changing the culture and people’s mindsets are there.

With the new imperial couple serving as a symbol of cosmopolitan experience, and with the government, companies and people more aware of the need to reform the workplaces to survive and prosper, we can take a significant step to make Japan more open, flexible, diverse and inclusive. By realizing our unique inherent propensity for collaboration, and by developing sensitivity and skill to work across differences, we can set ourselves free from conventional practices and bias. I am quite optimistic that Japan can and will be a more diverse society.

Yoko Ishikura is a professor emeritus of Hitotsubashi University and serves as an independent consultant in the area of global strategy, competitiveness and global talent. She is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Expert Network.