Diversity in Japan: The nail that sticks out will not be hammered down

While progress in pushing for workplace diversity has been slow in Japan, there are signs that companies are increasingly recognising the benefits of DEI and are actively playing a role in moving the needle.
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This article is part of a content series on diversity, equity and inclusion for Campaign Asia-Pacific’s Women to Watch, created in partnership with Essence.

It’s perhaps more challenging to talk about DEI in Japan than other APAC countries. Traditional gender roles and sexism still prevail in the country, and mixed-race people still face discrimination, highlighted by some of the discussions and debates during Olympics 2020. 

The slow progress in the country is perhaps epitomised by the pushing back of the national goal of increasing women’s share of leadership roles in the workforce to at least 30 percent from 2020 to 2030.

While culture plays a role, part of it has to do with the country’s relatively homogenous population. 

Though that might be changing, due in part to the increasingly globalised world we live in. 

“Japan is a pretty homogenous country; the difference between my and my children’s generations is, with the internet, they can access a lot of things... and a lot of experiences they aspire to,” notes Kyoko Matsushita, global CEO at Essence at a panel discussion hosted by Campaign in partnership with Essence. 

What are the barriers to achieving DEI in Japan? 

While we all tend to mingle with people who are educated the same way, have been exposed to the same influences, and share similar values to ours, perhaps this tendency is even stronger in Japan. 

According to Tomonori Sakai, director, Japan and Korea business finance at Google, Japan’s long history has cultivated a strong sense of “common sense” and inertia among its people.

“In this country, people sometimes expect others to read between the lines, or to get that there’s an unspoken understanding of certain things.” 

Kaoru Inahara, director of business and brand marketing, Google Japan (and executive sponsor of [email protected] employee resource group), notes how “harmony” is the centrepiece of Japanese culture. “But on the flip side, this can lead to the unintended pressure to conform, whereas diversity is about ensuring that everybody has a story. In a seemingly homogenous society like Japan, it feels like there should be one certain way.”

Japan also has a less diverse demographic representation, notes Kota Murakami, managing director, Japan at Essence, who adds that there has generally been a lack of opportunity to be exposed to what diversity is in the country. 

Having spent time abroad, he values being questioned about assumptions he’d made about things he was less educated about or less exposed to. 

“When I was living in the United States, it wasn’t rare for high schoolers there to have come out. One of the friends I made there identified as bisexual. Having grown up in Japan, I admit to having had misunderstandings about LGBTQ+ and got called out, but that experience was actually very beneficial.” 

The role of the marketing and advertising industry in the march towards DEI

Inahara says the marketing and advertising industry absolutely has a role to play in the march towards greater diversity and inclusivity. 

She says, “First, we need to recognise the scale that we have, in terms of getting messages out there. We have a role to play, to become a voice when it comes to various audiences, including underrepresented groups. We can make sure our messages don’t inadvertently feed into stereotypes, for example, when women are portrayed in the kitchen, and men are portrayed wearing suits. ” 

There are positive signs that companies in Japan are increasingly recognising the benefits of DEI, be it for business or at a wider societal level, and are actively playing a role in moving the needle in their own ways. 

“You often hear the misperception that DEI, or gender equality, is for HR or talent management, but I think DEI is definitely as important as revenue targets for business leaders. If your company doesn’t have the make-up of the economy, then your business is at risk of losing the ability to continue growing.”

Murakami gives the example of Daio Paper, a company which featured a male model in its recent diaper ad

“As a father, I’m buying diapers, I’m changing my kids’ diapers, so I always questioned, why do diaper commercials always feature moms only? There was one - unfortunately small, but growing - demographic that was unattended to but would have been encouraged, willingly purchased and become loyal to a brand that has the right communications.” 

Another company making strides in the DEI space is Japanese food company Ajinomoto. Their response to a user’s social media post as well as subsequent PR campaign build on insights into the perception that if you are a mom and serve frozen gyoza, you are slacking off.

“The campaign encouraged a wider debate on the role and expectations of moms when it comes to cooking. I could personally relate to that,” says Inahara. “I had a customer who was struggling to ‘place’ me, who was trying to figure out who I was, until I happened to mention that I’d made bento boxes for my children that morning, and I could tell that he felt reassured, that he could comprehend me, by placing me in a recognisable ‘category’. It was only then that we could focus on our business meeting.” 

From an agency perspective, Matsushita says they look at DEI using a three-pronged approach.

“First, do the clients we work with have goals and agendas around diversity and inclusion? Second, is the work we create with clients: are we being truthful and thoughtful in reaching our audiences? The third point is around social responsibility, as what we do does have an impact on people and society.” 

But measuring DEI progress remains difficult.

Inahara believes in the importance of a data-driven approach. Google regularly audits the work they do - so the team remains mindful that the messages they are sending out to the public are diverse and inclusive enough. 

She also says one needs to take note of the composition of event panels. 

“In Japan, as a society, we’re still on the journey to achieving gender diversity, so at the leadership level, you won’t see too many women. If we choose speakers based on hierarchy, it’s very hard to find a woman, so we could perhaps look at different sets of criteria to make sure it’s more representative.” 

The role of industry leaders in pushing for DEI in their own companies...and beyond

Who should bring all the different DEI initiatives together - and ultimately push for greater inclusivity in the workplace and society? 

Sakai says it needs to be a team effort, though also emphasises the importance of the leadership’s sustained commitment.

“While I do believe DEI elevates business performance in the long term, in reality, in the short term, business performance might slow down because of more focus and resources dedicated to DEI, and less on day-to-day business activities. Hence, sustained leadership commitment, even with such short-term difficulties, can be a critical enabler to promote DEI.” 

Matsushita says in an “ideal world”, the leadership should put systems in place. “Then it’s about employees educating themselves through programmes and training, to eventually take real actions.” 

Though she also concedes that not all companies are set up to allow that. An alternative approach might be to start small to build that proof of concept. 

“You could start with a business unit, make a success out of it, before scaling it.” 

The role of industry and company leaders is also to cultivate an environment where everyone feels they have the freedom to voice out - and that their voice is heard. 

“When you’re in a big group, you tend to voice out less, either due to missed opportunity or you give right of way to others, despite not needing to.” 

She notes the importance of having one-on-one catch-ups with the shyer members of the company. “People have great ideas, and they’re motivated to do things, and having one-on-ones does unlock the potential of many people.” 

The role of the leader is particularly crucial when it comes to ensuring that a company isn’t only diverse - which can be achieved via the big numbers - but also inclusive. 

“We talk about DEI - the ‘inclusive’ part is really important. We can achieve diversity through the numbers, but inclusivity is around the experience. Do people feel they belong? Is it an environment where they could share their views?” notes Inahara. 

There are times when allies, out of fear of ‘getting it wrong’, don't speak up or take action. This is especially true in Japan, where there is the saying that ‘the nail that sticks out will get hammered down’. How should leaders assist others? 

“The Japanese people are risk-averse when it comes to being different. Leaders need to ensure there’s a safe environment where people can be vulnerable and wrong.” 

Yet, it’s also down to individuals to carve out that space for yourself to learn. One doesn’t need to holler about how inclusive they are on social media on Day One, says Murakami. 

A more effective way, he notes, might be to first, educate yourself by talking to those in the minority groups or doing your own research, and then creating safe spaces or relationships where you can course-correct, as part of the learning process. 

What does the future hold for DEI in Japan?

As for what they hope to achieve in three or five years’ time? The panellists are generally optimistic that there will be progress. 

Murakami is “cautiously optimistic” that there’ll be some sort of progress, with diversity being “a part of the business as usual”. 

Inahara notes that while the national goal of getting rid of gender biases has been pushed back from 2020 to 2030, “once the ball starts rolling, it goes very fast in Japan.” 

Matsushita ends the panel on a hopeful note. “I feel we’re at the beginning of something. We need to listen more… and create an environment [where people feel safe to talk about their views on DEI]. And eventually down the road, I want to hear about the initiatives that are happening across the industry.” 

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The Campaign Asia-Pacific Team