Despite recent signs of what may be second wave outbreaks, Japan has been deemed to be among the countries that have controlled the COVID-19 pandemic relatively well — except in its poor response to the initial outbreak on the cruise ship Diamond Princess. The number of infections — though rapidly expanding again nationwide over the past several weeks — is still far smaller than in some other countries. Analyses and speculation have been made as to why Japan was “different” from other major economies in how it was affected by the new coronavirus.

But aside from Japan being different or unique in its response to COVID-19, my concern is that the country is quite different from other parts of the world in its fundamental perspectives toward some important concepts, including its definition of diversity.

Discussions on diversity gained momentum in Japan as the nation reflected on its extremely poor global rankings on gender equality (such as in the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Report). When diversity is discussed in Japan, it’s mostly about gender parity, such as the sluggish ratio of women in leadership positions in politics and business or the steep wage difference by gender. The slow and scant progress the nation has made over the past decade in these respects doesn’t help either.

But diversity discussed in global business circles covers much broader areas. For example, the Black Lives Matter movement triggered by the brutal killing of George Floyd by a policeman in the United States focused attention on racial diversity. Data showing that a much higher ratio of people of color were infected with and died of COVID-19 in the U.S. prompted business leaders to address the issue of diversity more from the perspective of race.

If you ask people in Japan what diversity is, they usually respond that it’s about gender disparity, and very few people would associate it with race. Here, diversity is defined much narrower than in many other countries.

The narrow scope of diversity in Japan may be understandable given that racial diversity is much more limited in this country than, say, in the United States or Europe. Differences in physical appearance found among people of different races in other countries may not be so apparent here. Many other Asians in Japan look quite similar to Japanese.

Even if the concept of diversity extended beyond gender, it usually stops at nationality and sexual orientation, according to the education ministry report Diversity 2.0. So what does the limited scope of the concept of diversity in Japan mean? To me it indicates the absence of “big picture” perspectives and systematic thinking.

The lack of diversity requires attention because it reveals an absence of equal opportunities and of basic human rights open to minority groups in terms of gender, nationality, age, household composition (such as single-mother households) and educational background, etc., and indicates how unfair treatment of such groups may be in reality. Diversity defined as merely a gender issue does not address the total picture of what is at stake. Addressing the gender gap is only the initial step to identify problem areas in intertwined issues.

If we focus only on certain criteria such as gender, we lose sight of more fundamental issues. We may be led to tackle specific issues of unequal pay, absence of diverse people in managerial positions etc., without addressing the big issues in society.

It is important that we divide big issues into several manageable pieces so that we can go deeper on each for further analysis. It may make the process more efficient as many groups can work separately on resolving each of the components of big issues. It is also easier to set up measures to monitor the progress.

However, the issues we face today are not simply the collection of different pieces. Even though we address specific issues concerning diversity at companies and in the government — such as the ratio of women in managerial positions, for example — what we really need to do is accept and tolerate the differences that exist in society today.

I don’t think the significance and value of accepting and tolerating differences is well understood in Japan. In a democracy we must uphold the basic principle of respecting differences. But as long as we define the term “diversity” narrowly and think of it only as a gender issue, we miss the opportunity to address more fundamental issues of inequality by other dimensions.

We need to extend the concept of diversity to other aspects, and to offer fair and good opportunities to people regardless of age, nationality, sexual orientation, health conditions and background, in addition to gender. For example, we need to be able to tolerate different approaches to work. We need not limit “full-time employment at an established company” as the only desirable style of work. We should let people choose freelancing, contract work, multiple jobs at multiple companies to accommodate their situations and needs. Having people work in different format may even help improve our productivity (which is another issue for Japan in addition to gender parity).

The days in which value is created only when people follow the same routine, the same work-style and the same unwritten rules are over. We need to encourage, accept and tolerate many different ways to get things done.

Are we on our way to achieving the goal of accepting and tolerating differences? Are we ready to extend the concept of diversity to address deep-rooted problems? Unfortunately, we have a long way to go but that also offers great potential to transform society.

To extend the concept of diversity we need to have a broader perspective that takes in the whole picture rather than just pieces of it. To do so, we need reference point. We need to perceive our own position in the global context. We need information and experience to see what is happening outside of Japan. We need to see that we are “in the box,” so to speak.

If we expose ourselves to the outside world, we will be able to leave the box. We can achieve intellectual freedom even as we are confined physically by the “Three Cs” (closed spaces, crowded places and close-contact setting) due to COVID-19. Many other risks such as climate change and natural disasters could restrict our physical activities in the future, but with this freedom to leave the box, we can stay free and innovative.

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.


Coronavirus banner