Commentary / Japan

A long-term outlook for decisions here and now

December is usually a month of reflection and review of the passing year and the outlook and expectation for the upcoming year. Though many of us follow this routine process almost every year, 2019 and 2020 have special features that make this routine activity special.

2019 marked the beginning of new imperial era of Reiwa with the enthronment of the new emperor in May. The year may also be remembered for Japan hosting the first Rugby World Cup in Asia — with almost unexpected enthusiasm of Japanese fans as well as visitors from overseas. 2020 is expected to be even more significant as the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games are scheduled to take place, providing a great opportunity for Japan to inform and display its new image to the world.

How can we take an advantage of this special feature of 2019/2020 and make this routine activity different and relevant?

My suggestion is to go both ways — to extend the time horizon a decade to 2030 and focus on what we do here and now to address not-so-favorable overseas perception of Japanese companies.

My first suggestion is to set the target year at 2030, not 2020, as we look forward. Hopes for the Olympics and Paralympics next year have increased after the very successful Rugby World Cup engaged more people than had been predicted. But my concern is that too much focus has been placed on 2020 with little thought or planning after the games — as shown in the absence of after-event planning for the use of the new National Stadium that has just been completed. I fear that infrastructure buildup for wi-fi, etc. — to keep up with technological changes that will continue after the Olympics — may peter out unless we deliberately plan for activities after the games.

Extending the time horizon to 2030 may alleviate this type of short-term thinking. After all, Japan will not disappear after 2020 and issues concerning digital infrastructure and so on will continue. We will be forced to think of the future beyond 2020. By asking questions such as “What kind of country do we want Japan to be in 2030?” and “How do we want the nation positioned/perceived in the world in 2030?,” we can think beyond the 2020 Summer Olympic Games.

Some might say 2030 is too far away to have a clear image now, given that so much change has taken place over the past decade. Others might say that it is too close in time to imagine a drastic transformation, judging from the slow pace of change we find in Japan. The point is to shift our thinking from the immediate to mid-range future and at the same time, focus on immediate activities.

2030 is a good milestone since that is the goal year of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). SDGs have gained recognition quickly in the Japanese business community due to the increasing seriousness of the social/global agenda listed, heightened expectations for the private sector to address the social issues, growing interest in the investment community in ESG (environment, social, governance) index, and interest in and calls for action on the agenda by the younger generation.

While the private sector is expected to play significant roles to contribute to the SDGs, many goals and tasks included in the SDGs require innovative and creative approaches for businesses. That is what I suggest as actions we can take now and here.

A recent visit to Tel Aviv and contacts with people from Israel reminded me of the persistent image overseas that Japanese companies lack quick follow-up actions and/or take a long time to make decisions. Contrasted with the accelerated pace of transformation sweeping the world, such tendencies of Japanese firms could make the country totally out of the league and hurt the position of Japan today and into the future. It is urgent to do something about it.

Many Japanese companies send overseas missions to obtain technology and ideas for innovation. This is because Japan suffers from an absence of innovative business models to address urgent issues such as digital transformation and promotion of startups /entrepreneurs to stimulate the economy.

Looking for technology and startups in Israel, for example, seems to have become a must for major Japanese corporations, the government as well as business associations, in addition to Silicon Valley, which has long been their favorite destination.

Many more companies have invested in the country, and collaboration efforts have been made much more than a few years ago with the support of organizations such as Start-up Nation Central and Israel Innovation Authority.

And yet the perception lingers that the Japanese companies lack follow-up actions after paying visits there and/or that decisions take far more time than what is required today to move forward and get tangible results. Not enough cases of Japanese companies that refute this long-standing perception have been reported.

Perception and reputation take a long time to build. The perception stays strong that Japanese companies (manufacturing in particular) have excellent production engineering capabilities to commercialize new ideas and technology with high quality standards and to distribute using their global network. What we need to break is the perception that actions and quick decisions are not part of Japanese business practices.

The interest of Israeli startups in collaborating with Japanese business community is high and so is the interest of the Japanese in Israel technology and startups. We should take an advantage by acting immediately while the interest is high. Something simple such as a short note explaining the specific timeline of decision/actions for a Japanese company and/or the specific information needed to make decisions will go a long way. The Japanese mindset that we need to have something solid before we respond does not work. We have to at least respond “there” and “then.”

This lack of follow-up actions and long-term decision-making is not limited to case of collaborating with startups in Israel. We need to learn to make a move while the window of opportunity is open despite many uncertainties in geopolitics and society, and an overabundance of information that looks confusing because that window will close quickly.

Companies and people trying to collaborate with Japanese businesses and organizations should also set the deadline for their counterpart to respond and clearly state that they will not wait beyond the deadline.

If both parties focus on the “here” and “now,” we can make a step forward to make Japan well positioned in the world in 2030.

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.

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