A Conversation with the Japanese First Lady about Womenomics

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A Conversation with the Japanese First Lady about Womenomics

Posted on 12 May 2017 in News, womenomics -
With Akie Abe and Madame Tsuruoka

I had the great privilege of having lunch with the Japanese first lady Akie Abe on her recent visit to the UK. Given her unassigned but very important role as a figurehead for women in Japan and her involvement in raising the awareness of the issues surrounding female empowerment, I couldn’t help steering the conversation to ask her about the progress of ‘womenomics’ in Japan, especially since I run corporate female empowerment training and am carrying out academic research into how Japan can adapt their gendered cultural behaviours through education.

She spoke about how the Japanese government is prioritising the promotion of women in the workforce and albeit slow, there are some signs of progress. She agreed that the traditional corporate culture within Japan does not allow women (and men) to leave work at reasonable hours, so family life can suffer. Levels of stress are increasing amongst families trying to balance the economic need for women to go back to work alongside running a family. Domestic violence and child abuse are on also on the rise as a manifestation of this stress-she recently visited a domestic violence centre in Kobe. She also feels that Japanese women lack confidence and don’t develop themselves outside of work enough. As well as tackling the work/life imbalance typical of Japanese corporate life, this may well be another key to female empowerment. By cultivating an identity outside of work and families, women can feel more confident in their abilities. I personally couldn’t agree more being a mother, entrepreneur, lecturer, semi-professional bassoonist & pianist and amateur kick-boxer!

I also asked her which Western women she admires and she mentioned Cherie Blair and Laura Bush-both incredibly supportive first ladies, independent in their own rights and strong advocates for causes they cared about- a possible reflection of Akie Abe’s own independent and supportive role. I hope to meet her again when I go out to Japan to deliver my academic paper.

Background to my Research

The gender roles in Japan are culturally ingrained and expectations placed on behaviour carry considerable influence in everyday life. I am looking at how gendered behaviour is so strongly influenced by Japanese culture and society (family, education, media) and how this may be a barrier to the policies of Womenomics, which are unable to penetrate the unwritten and yet strongly influential expectations of how men and women should behave. These expectations work against the Government’s agenda to both encourage a productive female labour force participation and raise the birth rate whilst changing the corporate culture and lowering the gender gap -something that needs to precede both these goals. For the future survival of Japan, a re-evaluation of how cultural norms and traditional values influence gendered behaviour is needed but can only effectively take root if happening from the bottom up through education. I will look at how gender socialisation happens within the family, media and most importantly education and will open the debate on how the traditional and cultural values and norms of Japan regarding gender can be preserved within the educational system whilst re-defining the gendered behaviours that presently are a barrier to gender equality within Japan.

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Gender Equality in the Workplace in Japan-Gendered norms still a barrier

Posted on 13 December 2016 in Japanese Corporate Culture, News, womenomics -
womenomics

I recently got back from a week in Japan where I spent some time gathering information for both my ‘Promotion of Gender Equality Training’ for businesses and my academic research into the Gender Roles in Japanese Society. I met with employees from a Japanese company and spoke to other people I met to get both a male and female perspective on Womenomics and to discuss issues such as child-care and gender equality in the workplace.

Labour Participation & Female Leaders

Although the Survey of Living Conditions compiled by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare in 2015 showed a record high number of working mothers in the labour market since 2004, they are still predominately working in part-time and temporary roles. Indeed, many of the working mothers I spoke to in Tokyo supported this by agreeing that they chose to do either part-time or contract work so they could fulfil the duties of bringing up children. Furthermore, full-time working mothers were not going for promotions to managerial levels because of the immense time commitments this would entail since they were already up at 5am sorting out the house-work and children having to do more in the evening, making the long hours and responsibility of reaching managerial level at work unrealistic and unattractive. One of the men I spoke to told me how his wife was wanting to go back into the workforce but was lacking the confidence to do this. Even with his support it seems that the corporate culture and hurdles of finding child-care and fulfilling the expectations of the educational role they are still expected to play (PTA attendance being one of the major bugbears) is still not supportive of mothers returning to work with confidence and ease nor is it giving them any incentives to want to climb the corporate ladder. No surprise that a poll conducted by the Intelligence HITO Research Institute in April 2015 showed that Japanese women have little interest in becoming managers or leaders.

yokogawa-2Gender Gap Widening

Even with all the awareness raising and structural support from the Government within their Womenomics initiatives, Japan dropped even further on the Global Gender Gap Index from 101st in 2015 to 111th in 2016 . The traditional expectations of gendered behaviour in Japanese society are very ingrained and still value men as the breadwinner and women as the house-wife/child-carer with expectations of certain gendered behavioural patterns. These attitudes are used as a socialiser to influence how women feel about themselves, behave, view opportunities and their ability to change things and can be quite harsh for those women who choose to go outside of these norms.

Grass-roots Shift

Pockets of change are happening but for more sustainability and a real change in mindset, there must be a grassroots shift in the expectations of gendered behaviour, which can only really happen from early years education (more about this in my upcoming academic paper). Until then, what the Government is ideally wanting- a rise in GDP from women entering the workplace alongside a rise in the birth rate to offset the demographic time bomb and create a workforce for the future- is going to be at odds with what women can realistically achieve within society.

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Working with Tokio Marine HCC-Building the Trust and Adding to Leicestershire Links

Posted on 13 December 2016 in Inter-Cultural Training, News -

Japanese Investment adds to Leicestershire Links

Tokio Marine Holdings Inc. bought HCC Insurance Holdings Inc. last year, in one of the biggest acquisition deals by a Japanese company to date. In doing so, they sparked a curiosity within the then HCC International into Japan and its culture, initiated by its office based in the Leicestershire village of Rearsby. The HR department there felt that their staff needed to know more about Japan, as for many of the staff it was their first experience working for a Japanese company.

Raising Interest in Japan

Together with the HR department, we developed an introductory presentation for staff in Leicester and London to get an insight into current Japanese culture, society, language and corporate philosophy. There is a big interest in all things Japanese in the UK, but the two cultures are very different. The training was tailored so that participants could really grasp the basics of Japanese culture to understand current events that are happening in and around Japan, raise their cross-cultural skillset and transfer these to any direct involvement they might have with their Japanese colleagues.

Angela Baker, Head of HR for Tokio Marine HCC, said:

“We had over 185 employees attend the presentations that Sarah delivered, and the feedback that we received was very positive.  Staff enjoyed the sessions which gave a real flavour of the culture and the economic and social issues in Japan.”

I was very impressed with the genuinely positive attitudes shown towards Japan from Angela and her team and the high level of interest shown by participants through their questions and prior knowledge about Japan. Every time I visit the offices, people are always talking about Japan and they all know the name of the Japanese representative from Tokio Marine in London -Kenichi Sakakibara – better known as Ken to the local staff.

hcc

In front of the new company sign at Tokio Marine HCC, The Grange, Rearsby, Leicestershire. From left to right, Sarah Parsons (MD Japan in Perspective), Angela Baker (Head of HR) and Jane Thorpe (HR Co-ordinator)

East Midlands/Japan Regional Links

This raised awareness of and interest in Japan highlights the soft power of Japanese investment in the UK, which has not only brought economic benefits but has fostered cultural and educational exchange on a regional level. There is a lively Japanese community in the East Midlands based around Toyota Motor Manufacturing UK in Derby and NSK in Newark. The University of Leicester has an active Japanese student population and Her Imperial Highness Princess Mako (the Emperor’s grand-daughter) recently graduated from there. Leicester is also well known to the Japanese thanks to the recent success of their football club and Japanese striker Shinji Okazaki. Hopefully now, staff from the Leicester office can access the Japan – UK links already developed in the area, and create more.

 

 

To find out more about Tokio Marine HCC, please visit their website, tmhcc.com/international.

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Deeper Insight into Japanese Brexit Demands

Posted on 6 September 2016 in Cultural Awareness, Japanese Corporate Culture, News -
japan-brexit-707184

The recent set of guidelines issued by the Japanese Government to the British Government and the EU regarding Brexit apparently took Downing Street by surprise but were inevitable given that Brexit has pushed all the Japanese cultural buttons.

Generally, the Japanese avoid instability, uncertainty and unpredictability. Given that group harmony, inflexible hierarchies and love of consensus are all still powerful forces within Japanese business, they find people from more individualistic cultures scarily unpredictable in their decision making and individuality. Admittedly, they had the Brits pegged as a safer bet in this respect and were lured into a false sense of security about the outcome of the vote from a very London-centric view without foreseeing the anarchic side to the British public or the discontent simmering away in the regions. They also invested heavily into the UK on a basis of trust in the commitments made by the previous government and the potential withdrawal of these benefits that they saw as ‘firm’ commitments has been interpreted as a breach of trust rather than a result of democracy.

Trust and Obligations

This trust within long-term relationships is so integral to the business environment in Japan and relationships are carefully formed so that everyone knows what to expect from them. Even today, many Japanese living overseas still deal with Japanese companies for services-it’s just easier and everyone knows the obligations involved, some of which seem unrealistic and unnecessary to non-Japanese. They include: avoiding loss of face, never upsetting the group harmony, keeping everyone informed so there are no nasty surprises and always show respect and loyalty to your boss/employer or the group as they are the ones who ultimately look after you. Ideally it’s better if you do this without anyone having to actually directly tell you this but a dressing down does occasionally happen and the government are not shy from dictating what businesses should do- the state holds immense authority and control over the private sector in Japan.

So in a sense, it’s totally natural that the Japanese reacted the way they did. The obligations from the long term-investments the Japanese made into job creation, training, education in the UK are in their eyes not being reciprocated. The feedback, detail & reassurance needed by the Japanese to ensure there are no nasty surprises/loss of face, to achieve harmony and to enable long-term planning are not currently forthcoming from the British Government. For obvious reasons really-no-one actually knows what is happening and they are starting from scratch with this. We may be used to some level of unpredictability in our decision making processes and turn-around once decisions have been made but the consensual decision-making Japanese are not. The rhetoric coming from the UK may be one of stoicism-let’s get on with it, stop complaining and see it as a positive opportunity for change. However, this is really unsettling for the Japanese. The current uncertainty surrounding Hinckley Point will just exacerbate this and market us as being unreliable and liable to renege on our long-term commitments.

So how do we go forward?

The British Government needs to be better advised regarding Japan-they already made themselves look unfavourable to the Japanese when not only a week after attending the opening ceremony of the Hitachi Rail Factory in the NE and lauding a massive investment from Nissan in their Sunderland factory in September last year, George Osbourne was straight off to China urging them to bid for HS2 contracts before the hybrid bill had been passed. Although the vote for Brexit was never really about rejecting Japanese investment, there is great sense of betrayal from the Japanese companies who invested in the areas of the UK where the Brexit vote was high. We will need to work very hard to re-build the trust and show the Japanese we appreciate the investment and the obligations that go alongside it. The Japanese side will also have to realise we can’t meet all these obligations and don’t always react well to being told what to do-that caused enough problems with the Brexit vote!

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Doing Business with the Japanese with a Pack of Ramen at Farnborough

Posted on 14 July 2016 in Cultural Awareness, News -
Ramen

I recently visited the Farnborough Air Show to meet a potential client (UK company) and took the opportunity to have a look around the show. Naturally, I honed in on a Japanese company exhibiting there and got talking to the representatives, who gave me the set piece in excellent English about their product. Once we had established I had lived in Japan, the conversation turned to the highlights of the different regions where we all lived and of course, as in any conversation with the Japanese, food. Soon, they had given me a pack of instant ramen they had stashed under the counter, some cute promotional biscuits and an invitation to go and eat with them when I next go over there. Anyone observing this from a Western business mentality would have thought I was blagging free food and an invite out to dinner (why not) but in fact I was doing business the Japanese way. Instinctively, I knew the right topics of conversations and how to start building up those relationships. Whether I get direct business from it or can build up my network, this will have been a good business transaction for us both. Interestingly, the British company they seem to want to do business with is one whose rep has a long experience of working with the Japanese, understands how to form those relationships and indeed met them for dinner when out there and has regularly visited their stand at Farnborough.

This is where the differences in business cultures cause misunderstandings and ultimately less than optimal outcomes-the Western business mentality gets inpatient with the long-term and sometimes vague nature of the relationship building that goes hand in hand with doing business with the Japanese and want to talk ‘results’ and ‘objectives’ straight away. They can’t see the value of Japanese presentations that seem to hone in on promoting local food and sake instead of actually giving out defined business strategies. The Japanese business mentality instinctively mistrusts potential business partners that aren’t aligned to their own values. All very solvable and actually quite enjoyable. Especially if you enjoy Japanese food..

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