Though it may be difficult to recall now, May 2019 was a month of hope. The nation had an unusual 10-day holiday (an extension of the regular Golden Week holidays) to commemorate the new emperor's enthronement and the start of the new Reiwa Era.
With their experience of having studied overseas, Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako symbolized the new image of Japan, where diversity and inclusion were finally being given a boost after long discussions. A year ago my column stated that it was time to “make diversity and inclusion a reality.”
A year later, we are in the midst of the COVID-19 state of emergency, and national borders are closed throughout the world, making the cross-border movement of people almost impossible. Usually May is a great month for travel, domestic or overseas. Now people are urged to stay home.
Travels to and from Japan remain restricted. As for international exchanges of talent, many concerts and performing arts with artists from overseas have been canceled, along with sports events. Promotion of the “one team” concept — highlighted just last fall by the strong performance of Japan's national team, which featured 15 non-Japanese members, in the Rugby World Cup — seems so distant now.
With the flow of people across national borders blocked and a nationalistic mentality emerging, the inclusion of people from a variety of nationalities and backgrounds is being challenged. There are signs that Chinese and other Asians may be becoming a target of discrimination due to the pandemic. Is inclusion as we understand and have advocated for years going to die?
In business inclusion has been promoted since it is believed to have positive impact on corporate performance. Unlike in the United States and in Europe, however, evidence of a correlation between corporate profitability and inclusion in Japan is still limited to gender and nationality, according to a Cabinet Office survey. With COVID-19 blocking the movement of people, it is time to revisit what inclusion means and how it can continue to be pursued instead of going back to isolationism.
Before that we also need to look at the new sources of "divide" revealed by the COVID-19 pandemic, which are the degree of technological literacy of people and the technological readiness of institutions and organizations.
Even as the number of infections and deaths from COVID-19 has remained relatively low in Japan, the government's "work from home" request appears to have become the new normal. Technology enabling online meetings, such as Zoom and Teams, has become increasingly important to keeping businesses operating as more people adopt teleworking.
Big companies have moved quickly to adapt to the government's request by holding online meetings, sharing documents and using other digital tools as many of their employees work from home. Their technological infrastructure is well established and their employees (even executives with little direct experience of using the technology before the pandemic) are relatively well equipped with skills to use digital tools. The practice of requiring seals in decision-making procedures remains a bottleneck and is now under debate.
Small and medium-size enterprises in most industries other than information technology sectors, however, are having difficulties. According to a recent survey by the Tokyo and Osaka Chamber of Commerce, there is a gap in the prevalence of teleworking by the size of the companies (48 percent for large corporations versus 10-20 percent by the SMEs.) The reasons cited include a lack of infrastructure and worker skills to use digital tools.
A pandemic like COVID-19 is not the only global risk we face in the future, and there is no escape from the fact that today's world is inter-connected. Whatever type of crisis that hits the world, we cannot live isolated from other people even when we need to be physically separate from them. We will need to develop ways to keep communication lines open despite physical distances.
What does inclusion mean when we are required to be physically distant? There is no better means for inclusion than technology.
While technology has emerged as a source of the divide — as is happening in companies and workers that can or cannot adapt to remote work — it can also serve as effective means for inclusion. The good news is that close attention and investment on technology on the national level can resolve two issues simultaneously.
Technology has clear benefits for companies. As they gain more experience with online meetings and negotiations, large corporations can tap the best talent from anywhere in the world without requiring them to come to Japan, and can assign them to task-based or project-based jobs. Technology also opens up many possibilities for people such as the elderly and the handicapped to work remotely.
After all, without technological skills, few companies regardless of size can survive, much less compete successfully. If the companies, big or small, have clear visions and value supported by technology, they can compete effectively on a global basis.
To reap the benefit of technological capability building, however, massive retraining of people in new technologies is necessary. COVID-19 is hurting the economy and people's daily life, but it can be turned into an opportunity for people to re-skill themselves.
There are several options for where to start. Reskilling programs for SMEs, as well as the elderly, people with disabilities and women who want to join the workforce, can be organized. Some companies offer free programs for students. Those can be offered to other groups as well. Students who have basic IT knowledge and skill, but are currently facing difficulty finding jobs, can be recruited to support these new groups.
As the working-age population rapidly declines, Japan needs such people to participate in the labor market as active members and help raise productivity. To do so, technological capability on their part is necessary. If they are tech-savvy, they can do project-based work from home.
Are these ideas unrealistic? We have an unprecedented opportunity to take drastic and audacious initiatives. Using technology to address the challenges that confront us, 2020 may yet become a year of hope. We must make the best of the threat and danger we face by taking quick and comprehensive action.
Yoko Ishikura is a professor emeritus of Hitotsubashi University and is 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.