Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW)/日本からの意見

Striving Towards a World of Diversity
KASHIWAGI Shigeo / Guest Professor, Keio University

February 7, 2017
The world is expected to undergo a sea change in the years ahead, as our lives become transformed by major developments such as the emergence of artificial intelligence. Each country will need to navigate such changes as best they can to sustain their development.

As a country experiencing the progressive effects of a low birthrate and greying population, Japan faces a particularly pressing need to develop various systems and create an environment in order to harness its potential and deal with the expected changes. Accordingly, the government has made reforming the way people work an important policy on its agenda, with “diversity” as its keyword. However, it is important to note that there are diverse aspects to “diversity” itself.

In Japan, diversity is predominantly viewed in terms of social advancement for women, and emphasis is placed on making a greater effort in that area. However, when it comes to ensuring diversity, Japan lags not only in the area of gender, but in every other aspect as well, including age, nationality, ethnicity and academic background. To begin with, there is little understanding of why diversity is desirable and necessary.

I spent a total of twelve years at international organizations including the International Monetary Fund, which provided me with the valuable experience of working with individuals with truly diverse backgrounds. Despite the differences in nationality, ethnicity, mother tongue, religion and way of thinking, here was a group of competent individuals who had come from all over the world driven by a shared mission – to contribute to the global economy by using English as a common language and economics as a common tool. Working in such an environment did have its difficulties, but my interactions and discussions with such a diverse group of individuals were always stimulating, and I found the experience to be both constructive and enjoyable.

An international workplace like this differs considerably from the highly homogeneous Japanese workplace, where communication is made easy by employees who are well attuned to each other. It is hardly an environment where a Japanese would feel at home. Yet, there is now a growing acceptance that this new type of workplace is set to increase as an inevitable consequence of globalization.

But is diversity an “inevitability” we have no choice but to accept? Isn’t it something that is intrinsically beneficial, which we should actively embrace? Shouldn’t we consider the environment created by diversity in a positive light, as something Japan needs in order to adequately respond to the dramatic changes currently underway in the world?

The Japanese education system is partly to blame for stunting the development of respect towards diversity in our society. While reinforcing homogeneity through school lunches and uniforms, and promoting collective behavior through coordinated group gymnastics and other programs, our schools did not teach the significance of diversity. Yet, we come to better understand ourselves precisely through encounters with that which is different from us. Many Japanese seem unaware of who they are, or are unable to articulate their opinions, because they never learned how to handle such encounters at school.

It is also important to acknowledge and accept the diversity of individual work styles and lifestyles. The Japanese tend to be somewhat indifferent towards those who make life choices that differ from the mainstream or opt for a change of course. We must correct this attitude in a world that is about to change in even more drastic ways.

In Japan, major fields of study are more or less fixed upon entering university, and while not impossible, it is rare for students to subsequently switch their subjects. It is also unfortunate that boundaries set by academic disciplines established more than a century ago have persisted to this day despite advances in interdisciplinary studies, and universities remain intolerant towards the changing interests and concerns of young minds.

This lockstep mentality is reinforced by the peculiarly Japanese practice of hiring new graduates en masse. The recruitment period differs from that of other countries, and is hindering the globalization of Japanese universities as well as student mentality.

And while hurdles to switching careers are gradually being lowered, we must enhance social mobility even further at a time when major changes are underway in the nature of work itself. We need to develop an infrastructure that will make it easier for workers to change their career paths or seek a second chance, and actively support their efforts to acquire new skills.

The government must certainly take the initiative in reforming work styles, but what we really need is to reform the mindset of individual Japanese.

Young people should aspire to take on new challenges without fearing the risks, and strive to acquire the necessary knowledge and skills. Those in the prime of their lives should proceed with determination to proactively enact reforms without fearing change. And those in the baby boom generation and older should look on with tolerance at new approaches without clinging to the old way of doing things. Everyone will need to pitch in if we are to change the status quo.

Shigeo Kashiwagi is Guest Professor, Graduate School of Business and Commerce, Keio University.
This is a summary of an article that first appeared in the Sekai Nippo newspaper on October 13, 2016.
The English-Speaking Union of Japan

柏木 茂雄 / 慶應義塾大学特別招聘教授

2017年 2月 7日













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English Speaking Union of Japan > Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW) > Striving Towards a World of Diversity