Japan is full of contradictions. Its people are polite yet exclude outsiders. Its cities are tidy but ill-planned. Despite the handful of entrepreneurs who made Sony, Pokemon, Toyota or Uniqlo global brands from scratch, it is rare to start a new business in Japan. As a native Japanese who has been outside of the country for almost a decade, I am no exception. I love and doubt Japan at the same time.
I love Japan for obvious reasons—the amazing food, distinct culture, advanced technology, respectful people and Haruki Murakami. Within minutes of being greeted by a robot at a retail outlet, I could be shepherded, in the most orderly manner, into line at a Michelin-star ramen restaurant located a few stations away from a beautiful 1400-year-old-temple.
A major reason why I remain unenthusiastic about Japan lies with its feelings towards diversity. In Japan, conformity is believed to be a key virtue. Although this concept reinforces the nation’s values of peace and efficiency, it comes with the significant downside of implicit marginalization of non-mainstream groups such as working women, non-Japanese and L.G.B.T. people. In Western countries this marginalization is considered the result of “white male privilege”: one particular group (straight white men) enjoys unearned advantages in terms of social, economic and political status to the detriment of others. Yet Japan’s case seems different in that each disenfranchised group generally accepts the role accorded to it by the country’s societal consensus. Interestingly, prejudice in each case is accompanied by a mitigating “benefit.” Women quit work after marriage and subsequently enjoy tax and other benefits as housewives; the nation’s (inaccurate) mantra of “One Nation, One Race” precludes Japan from accepting immigrants while the country welcomes thousands of temporary foreign English teachers; everyone pretends that gays don’t exist so no hate crimes ensue.
While I have been gone, however, Japan has undergone transformations across three major axes that are intertwined with one another.
More non-mainstream people are visible in Japan
Historically, Japan never seemed to welcome, let alone house, many foreigners. However, Japan had a record number of foreign visitors and issued a record number of work and study visas in 2015, both a double-digit increase over the previous few years. These trends are likely to continue through the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. The last two years also saw the first few female executives, including at Keidanren, Japan’s most powerful business lobby, and one of Japan’s three megabanks. A few of Japan’s largest companies have recently appointed non-Japanese as executive officers. On another front, a record number of 3,000 people marched in the 2015 Tokyo Rainbow Pride parade and more and more L.G.B.T. people gained business media traction.
More Japanese companies are globalizing
Japanese companies have realized that they can no longer afford to focus on the shrinking domestic market. In 2015, the sum of Japanese companies’ acquisition of overseas counterparts was $90.5 billion, the highest recorded. The Japanese market is slowly opening up to foreign investment, the most recent example being Taiwan-based Foxconn’s acquisition of Japanese electronics company Sharp. Globalization has also led Japanese companies to change their practices in hiring, promoting and retaining diverse and global talents from top management to entry-level employees. Several traditional Japanese companies such as Panasonic have started to confer spousal benefits to L.G.B.T. employees’ partners, despite a lack of legal recognition in Japan.
More diversity policy changes are being implemented
National and local governments have responded to pressure from Western countries and are taking actions to promote diversity. The Trans Pacific Partnership (if ratified) would promote trade in services and movement of persons across national borders. The Abe government is considering liberalizing immigration policies, especially for highly skilled workers. In April, a law was ratified that requires Japanese companies with 300+ employees to set numerical targets for promoting and employing women. Two Tokyo wards now issue same-sex partnership certificates and so do three cities in the west.
While diversity is not an end in itself, in theory, these changes would result in increased tolerance of, and appreciation for, different perspectives. At a New York law firm where lawyers hail from over 50 countries, 40% of the associates are women and many lawyers engage in L.G.B.T.-related and other pro bono cases, I witnessed firsthand high levels of morale, collaboration and productivity. Diversity would benefit Japan, which lags behind global competition as it under-utilizes talents outside of the majority labor force.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position or opinions of Japan Partnership Co. Ltd. or its partners and sponsors.