Photo credit: iStock photo/elenabs

Starting in April 2019, the Japanese government will be easing visa restrictions for blue-collar foreign workers. The new bill marks a significant shift in the country’s immigration and labor policy. Japan’s doors had only been open to highly skilled foreign talent in the past, but intense lobbying from various industries is helping to realize change. However, the readiness of Japan to welcome such a significant number of foreign workers remains highly questionable.

Even more questionable? Whether the foreign workers themselves will be keen to accept the offer.

The sudden turn in Japanese policy prompted me to revisit a report issued in 2016 by the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI), which began its “Diversity Management 2.0” initiative that year. Working with major blue-chip Japanese corporations, the ministry aimed to promote female workers and a generally more balanced work style for all. The notion of diversity management as the nation’s competitive strategy has since gained traction, and attention has turned to the promotion of foreign workers. What, METI wondered, was foreign workers’ perception of Japanese companies?

The report drew from the Global Career Survey carried out by Recruit Works Institute in 2012. The survey respondents were a group of working males and females from 12 countries, aged 20–39, who had completed college or some other form of higher education. When asked about their willingness to work in different regions, about 60% expressed a strong desire to work for European and American companies. That number dropped to 31% when asked about Japan—the same portion that showed strong unwillingness to work for Japanese companies.

Source: Recruit Works Institute, Global Career Survey, 2012

Source: Recruit Works Institute, Global Career Survey, 2012

Japan’s low appeal to foreign female professionals is hardly a mystery—Japan has quite the reputation as a male-dominant culture and continues to underperform in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report. In 2018, Japan ranked 110th, only slightly up from 114th a year earlier, but still the lowest among the G7 nations.

The METI report also included a Recruit Works Institute poll from 2009 (by all accounts, still largely accurate ten years later) on foreign workers’ perception of resistance from their Japanese counterparts. 80.3 % of the respondents believed there was constant resistance. Aside from the obvious language barrier, they listed differences in work processes, cultural customs, relationships, and work values. Another survey in the same year listed more specific complaints by foreign workers that included long hours, suppression of opinions, lower wages, slower promotion, fewer responsibilities, weekend work, meetings that were excessive in number and length, and strong in-group behavior among the Japanese. Those complaints undoubtedly resonate with young Japanese females who choose to leave the workplace after starting a family.

Source: Recruit Works Institute, Gaps between Japanese Workers and Foreign Workers, 2009

So how can Japan actualize this change?

The reality is, we need something drastic and aspirational to snap out of this long-lived inertia. Not many Japanese organizations have a clear image of what a high-performing workforce with significant diversity really means. Finding a middle ground to “deal” with female and foreign workers will not be the way to go.

To bring big change fast, we must trust in the power of action. Instead of wasting time arguing and wondering why Japan is the way it is, we should just dive in—start a new way of doing and being at work. What behaviors and actions would we see at a workplace where women and foreign workers feel valued and included?

Let’s start with instilling respect for different work styles and processes. Get rid of all sources of disrespect. Set a code of conduct with explicit language and penalize those who can’t or won’t follow it. Some may say that enforcing rules does not lead to authentic behavior, but at the same time, advocating change without seeing it through is hypocritical. To promote diversity, every member of an organization must agree on one shared value: respect for others. Unique individual values are rich resources for innovation, but none of these should be given priority over another. Every voice matters; different viewpoints should not be ranked.

At the end of the day, differences don’t matter when people are recognized and rewarded for their results, rather than for their attributes or relationships. What Japanese organizations tend to lack is clarity in metrics. Sadly, dominant groups are still most capable of seizing opportunities.

Again, action is the best medicine. For minority groups to feel safe and motivated, managers need to provide clear logic to metrics, enthusiastic feedback, and opportunities for further development. As Japan opens its doors wider to foreign workers, its commitment to change will be tested more than ever. Can Japan dream to be a workplace of choice for all?

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