GDP up for seven years in a row. A stock market that’s tripled since 2009. Sub-3% unemployment. A 1.5 job-to-applicant ratio. Which booming emerging market is this?
Prime Minister Abe and his ministers have done a great job fixing the economy over the last few years, but for Japan to thrive in the long term, it also needs to tackle issues with a major impact on the nation’s finances, like health care and social welfare.
When a company is facing challenges, what do the executives do? Often, they turn to management consultants who can look at the problems with fresh, objective eyes. Consultants have got the “outsider’s edge.”
You get the same thing in politics.
In every country, there are issues desperately in need of reform. Paradoxically, elected politicians are often too frightened to tackle these urgent issues head-on. Why? Because they are worried that the public might vote them out for doing so.
It’s precisely because of such taboo issues that outsiders have a role to play. While politicians stay safely in the background, activists and think tanks can propose a reform agenda, questioning the status quo until public opinion becomes receptive to change.
This is what I am trying to do here in Japan.
Since 2011, I’ve been gathering the best ideas from the G1 Summit, the annual multi-day conference I run, to create a vision for Japan based on 100 necessary reforms. I published it online as “100 Actions” in 2015.
Modeled on the World Economic Forum at Davos, the G1 Summit is attended by political heavy hitters, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, members of his Cabinet, governors, and mayors. As G1 operates under the Chatham House Rule of anonymity when discussing sensitive topics, politicians can give their frank take on taboo issues without fear of electoral repercussions.
We’ve now expanded to several conferences a year, including an annual G1 Global Conference held (in English) in the fall.
Here are six of the 100 controversial reforms derived from our discussions.
• Proactively encourage immigration
Japanese companies are already starting to experience severe labor shortages as the country’s population ages and shrinks. However averse the Japanese may be to immigration, the country needs more working-age people to stay functional. We propose admitting immigrants at the rate of 300,000 people per year.
• Remove the social stigma on unmarried couples
A comparison between France and Japan shows that legally married couples in both countries produce children at roughly the same rate. In France, however, there are also many unmarried mothers (i.e., women with long-term partners who are not officially married, or single mothers) who are having babies. In Japan, the social stigma against giving birth outside of formal marriage stops this happening and suppresses our fertility rate. We propose embracing diverse models of the family unit by making single mothers, single fathers, and unmarried couples feel welcome in the community.
• Raise the state pension age
Japan leads the world for the percentage of population defined as elderly. Coupled with a low fertility rate, this means that an ever-smaller working population is having to support more and more retirees. This is bad news for the national pension system. People now live longer and healthier lives and can work longer in consequence. We propose raising the age for receiving the state pension to 70 or 75 (from the current 62).
• Make medical insurance fairer
Under the Japanese health insurance system, patients under 65 years old pay 30% of the cost of their medical care, with the government paying the remaining 70%. Patients over 65 get a much better deal: they pay just 10% of the cost (while, of course, consuming healthcare services in far greater quantities). This unbalanced treatment of different age groups puts a heavy burden on the medical insurance system. Japan’s national healthcare expenditures are already more than 40 trillion yen per yearーmore than eight times what is spent on defense! We propose making the system fairer by making everyone pay the same 30% rate, regardless of age.
• Amend the Constitution
Japan’s Constitution was drawn up by the U.S. occupation forces in the immediate aftermath of World War II. Under Article 9, Paragraph 1, Japan famously renounces war and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes. The problem lies with Paragraph 2 of Article 9, which states that “land, sea, and air forces…will never be maintained.” The truth is, through the Self-Defense Forces, Japan already has an army, a navy, and an air force. The Constitution should be revised to reflect that fact. We propose reforming the constitution to reflect reality.
• Re-embrace nuclear energy
After the 2011 disaster at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, public opinion in Japan became vehemently anti-nuclear. But with no energy resources of its own, Japan is one of the world’s biggest importers of oil, coal, and gas. In a world roiled by climate change, Japan should be minimizing its use of fossil fuels by promoting the use of renewable energy (wind, solar, and geothermal) and nuclear power. We propose re-opening Japan’s nuclear power reactors within an effective regulatory environment as a low-carbon energy source.
When we first published these ideas, they were all way too controversial for politicians to touch. The elderly, for example, will never vote for anyone who proposes raising the state-pension age or reducing health subsidies. But as soon as these taboos began to circulate in the public domain, people moved past their first emotional response and started thinking calmly and logically. Over time, they became part of the mainstream conversation—even public policy.
That’s the outsider’s edge in action.
Whether in business or politics, the most effective tool a leader has is vision. A vision unites, energizes, and inspires people to start moving in the same direction. The vision of the 100 Actions that we developed in consultation with Japan’s politicians has truly shifted the conversation, making it possible to discuss formerly taboo subjects. We are persuading stakeholders with vested interests that sometimes it can be worth sacrificing individual privileges for the common good.