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Even now, in 2022, Japan is seriously lacking in gender diversity up and down the corporate ladder. The old-school management style that has dominated Japanese working culture for centuries makes progress hard to imagine.

That isn’t to say the country isn’t ready for a change—especially the younger generations.

Twenty-seven-year-old Koh Matsuki started his proxy advisory firm Proxy Watcher in 2021 to bring this issue front and center. After two years covering the finance beat as a Nikkei reporter, he couldn’t shake the feeling that the ESG perspective gaining traction in the West was still largely ignored across corporate Japan. From his base in Tokyo, he hopes to not only make an impact on the lives of Japanese workers today, but also embolden younger generations for a more progressive future.

We spoke with Matsuki on how Proxy Watcher is working with stakeholders to speak up and fight for a more diverse and inclusive workplace.

The Need for Change in Corporate Japan

GLOBIS Insights: The term “ESG” covers a lot of concepts and strategies. What does it mean to Proxy Watcher?

Matsuki: At Proxy Watcher, we see the shares of a public company as voting ballots towards the future of Japan. So to us, ESG acts as a voting guideline for stakeholders to reference as they work towards influencing the future of Japan in a more positive way.

Traditionally, the general public tends to feel that large companies are only interested in maximizing their profits and benefiting their shareholders. In doing so, these companies may be overlooking environmental concerns or the human rights of their workers.

We’re working to engage stakeholders, especially younger people in these positions, and encouraging them to speak up. We want them to use their influence as stakeholders to transform policies around environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) issues.

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GLOBIS Insights: Does this play into the idea of “Stakeholder democracy”?

Matsuki: Yes, that’s right. “Stakeholder democracy” doesn’t only apply to traditional corporations. It can also apply to activist funds or even private NGOs, for example. We want to encourage stakeholders to speak up to the corporations they’re involved with and say, “Hey, this is wrong. We should be protecting human lives, and we should be encouraging diversity in the workplace.”

We see stakeholders as the real leaders, or the real voices of their companies. Especially in Japan, I think we tend to overlook the human rights of our workers. We want to encourage stakeholders to speak up about this and increase the social responsibility of the companies they invest in. That’s our mission.

GLOBIS Insights: How did your experience in journalism impact your decision to start Proxy Watcher?

Matsuki: When I left Nikkei back in 2020, I wanted to move on from covering finance and corporate news to the social issues I was more passionate about. As I began my research, I noticed that the social issues we’re facing in Japan are largely the result of an old-school mentality. The younger, more progressive generations aren’t contributing to most of these issues in a significant way.

Of course, Japan is an aging society, so the younger generations are quite literally in the minority. Because of this, it’s difficult for younger people to feel empowered to make a difference. They feel hopelessly outnumbered. As a member of the younger generation myself, I knew it would be difficult to make a real change to the cultural structure here in Japan on my own.

GLOBIS Insights: How can Proxy Watcher help inspire that change?

Matsuki: I thought that if we could change the basic principles of how we work, how we communicate, and how we treat people in Japan, then we could make a real difference in the way things are run here. I wanted to work with stakeholders directly and incentivize major changes to the corporate structure of Japan from within.

Encouraging stakeholders to make brave decisions and speak up for a more inclusive work environment is what’s most important. That’s why I started Proxy Watcher.

Corporate Japan’s Problem with Gender Equality

GLOBIS Insights: What are some common issues you see women facing in corporate Japan today?  

Matsuki: The business culture here makes it very difficult for women to find success—especially compared to men. Across Asia at large, we have an entire population of competent and talented women who are simply giving up their careers because they face a sort of sexist peer pressure that’s ingrained into the culture.

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Women are pressured into leaving the workplace in their late twenties or early thirties for the sake of marriage or children. After that, if these women do end up coming back to the workforce, they typically come back as part-time workers. They’re essentially forced to give up their full-time career in favor of running a household.

GLOBIS Insights: What’s the solution to that gender inequality?

Matsuki: We need to transform how we view both women and men taking on roles at home and in the office. There’s a more flexible way to go about this. Taking a sabbatical from work to have a child should be encouraged for everyone, regardless of gender—and coming back to work full-time should also be encouraged for those who want to.  

Only 10.7% percent of executive leadership in publicly listed Japanese companies are female. That’s significantly less than the 28.2% working in the US, or the 34.7% working in the UK. Opening opportunities for women to not only pursue a career, but be empowered to stay in their careers and climb the ladder towards success is incredibly important.

GLOBIS Insights: What actions can investors and business owners take to make a difference right now?

Matsuki: For starters, investors need to use their voices to push for female representation in leadership positions. Investors hold incredible power. I encourage foreign investors to come to Japan and ask their invested companies to support female leadership. Put the pressure on.

As for business owners, I think it’s very important to seek out and prioritize women in your network. When it comes to hiring, it’s crucial to create a supportive and inclusive structure that accommodates everyone equally.

Create programs that your female employees can take advantage of. Be flexible and accommodating of their life choices. Get rid of the “boys club” culture. Create a balance so that the companies in your portfolio can serve as an example of a place where your female colleagues, partners, or daughters would like to work.

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