The Challenge of Engaging and Diversifying in Japan

In March 2016, ChapmanCG led a series of Japan HR roundtables hosted by Rakuten, Abbott Laboratories, Huawei, 3M, and Oracle, which altogether involved the participation of around 200 senior HR professionals in Japan. With me were Oscar Fuchs, ChapmanCG Managing Director for Northeast Asia, who facilitated the meetings, and Shimpeita Matsumoto, a Director at sister company Ethos BeathChapman. The groups all discussed the theme of ‘Preparing Japan for the Workplace of the Future’ from a variety of different angles. There were many notable perspectives that emerged, and the following three were particularly interesting.


Popping the Japanese Culture Bubble

In a globally connected economy, people must be able to work with others around the world, regardless of location. Whether that involves a global salary grading system rollout or a Diversity & Inclusion programme, the technology must be in place, and a common language needs to be used so that mutual understanding is achieved. This can be difficult to achieve in Japan, where perspectives can be very different. To generalise, the Japanese have a reputation for being polite, honourable, and loyal employees. As such, research has shown that their motivations are somewhat different to those often found in other cultures, with healthy relationships between co-workers counting much higher towards job satisfaction than factors such as salary and career progression. So it is common that an Employment Engagement strategy that works well in other countries will not be as successful in Japan.


To approach this cultural aspect from another angle, individualism is still largely frowned upon in Japan, with more emphasis placed on group responsibility. There is a commonly used term in Japanese business culture, ‘ganbarimasu’, which translates to ‘I’ll do my best.’ However, in an increasingly competitive and globalised business world, we are seeing there is no longer group protection and ‘trying one’s best’ seems slightly naïve and potentially inadequate.

As a result we’re seeing companies in Japan trying desperately to change this ‘all-for-one’ culture to one that is more results-oriented. In addition to implementing performance-based salary systems, companies are now sending more Japanese employees overseas, ranging from short stays of a few weeks to longer assignments lasting a few months. The aims here are to gain cultural understanding, and the ability to operate in an English-speaking work environment – where grammar may sometimes be secondary to effort. Often in these programmes, facilitators are present to encourage non-English speakers to put forward their ideas. Anecdotally, the good listeners and methodical thinkers of few words, which are typically Japanese qualities, are often the most pragmatic and come up with the most practical solutions. The long-term success and effects of the transition from Japan’s ‘all-for-one’ culture to an environment where the individual reigns supreme will be interesting to observe over the next decade or so.


Womenomics at Work

Gender diversity in Japan has been in the spotlight ever since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced his goal to fill 30% of all leadership positions with women, across all industries and in time for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. This of course, is easier said than done. Ironically, Prime Minister Abe himself won’t be able to fulfil this objective in his own government, as tenure in the seniority-based system won’t allow new graduate hires to reach that level until 2035. In spite of the challenges, it was incredible to hear in our meetings that some multinational organisations are setting goals as high as 50% when it comes to females in leadership roles by 2020. The targets are ambitious, but these companies are putting programmes in place so they can reach these lofty goals, a few of which are outlined below.

  1. Ensuring diverse interview panels, with the idea that female interviewers are better at relating to and attracting female candidates to join;
  2. Promoting flexitime, so employees have the option to leave work early to take care of their children, allowing them to work more comfortably;
  3. Rolling out back-to-work programmes for new mothers looking to work again;
  4. Building awareness of diversity by providing unconscious bias training.

At this stage, there do seem to be some small wins with companies increasing the rate of women in leadership by single digits. For the general public, the percentage of Japanese women working outside the home is currently 64%, which is actually higher than women in the U.S. at 63%. Prime Minister Abe’s push for more day-care centres and better working conditions has helped, but these are mainly for temporary or contract jobs. How these initiatives can translate to leadership roles for women is yet to be seen.


To Engage or Disengage? — That is the Question

When asked for a show of hands as to whether Japan has the lowest Employee Engagement scores, representatives for almost every company put their hands up. It has been argued that Japanese people simply have a bias for circling the middle number on any scale, while some theorise that the quality of goods and services in Japan is so good that it is hard to create the same experience at work. Theories aside, this is a very serious matter and some organisations are making it their number one priority to raise these scores. We have all seen the research indicating that highly engaged employees are more productive, which leads to higher service quality and customer satisfaction, which of course means reaching business targets. There is no question that this should be a primary concern for any company wanting to optimise productivity and success.

One leading IT company present conducted an engagement survey and found that employees were dissatisfied with the onboarding, training, and career paths available internally. HR went to work right away to create manuals for higher managers and new employees, career seminars, coaching for managers, and offering training on almost everything imaginable, from English to various business related topics. The result? A healthy 8% increase in engagement, which is impressive considering the short timeframe of less than one year. We also heard about other programmes that have had good results, including flexitime and giving employees the technology to enable working from home. One issue that came up and which foreign companies operating in Japan should be aware of is that too much English information coming from headquarters through an intranet or social media platform can result in disengagement. It is important to invest in translating key information for Japanese employees.



All five sessions consisted of valuable sharing of information and learning from each other’s experiences. A big thank you goes to all of our co-hosts, the organisers at Rakuten, Huawei, Oracle, 3M, and Abbott Laboratories, as well as to all of the participants. We’ll be hosting our next group meetings in the fall of 2016. From the whole ChapmanCG team, we look forward to seeing you there!

Here’s What People are Saying:

“It was really a great opportunity to learn different and more broad perspectives from the inspiring participants in such a diverse setting.” – Yasushi Shimatani, Sony Pictures Entertai

“I really enjoyed attending this HR roundtable. We were able to share the challenges we are all facing. I got some good actions that other participants are doing at their companies, which I may be able to execute in my company as well. Thanks all and ChapmanCG!” – Erina Tashiro, FIS Global

“It was a great opportunity to meet HR professionals from various industries. It really helped me to broaden perspective and stimulate creativity.” – Sachiko Okamoto, Philip Morris International

“In the hectic HR World, it is sometimes hard to find time for my own learning and development. The two hours at this event was time for me, as an HR professional, to learn, share and meet other like-minded people.” – Naomi Takase, Richemont

“A great avenue to get away from the daily pressures, and once again reflect on where priorities should be focused.” – Akira Endo, DHL Express

“I always enjoy and learn a lot from the ChapmanCG HR roundtables. In this session, I found it valuable to exchange knowledge and views around the topic of ‘Preparing Japan for the Workplace of the Future’, especially views on English usage at a global company in Japan.” – Miho Takiguchi, AIG

“Thanks to ChapmanCG for facilitating a great platform to connect, share and exchange ideas with HR professionals around the country on embracing and leading change within Japan’s unique cultural context. It was a very lively session and very valuable to learn from the diverse and rich experiences of the fellow participants.” – Adrita Datta, British American Tobacco

“It was a great event where we could build our networks and share best practices on change management and transformation. I enjoyed it a lot!” – Tomoko Esaka,

“I enjoyed the event very much. I was able to meet new people, learn about the trends, share the challenges and discuss best practice. Sometimes, it is a bit challenging to be away from the day-to-day, due to heavy volume of work, but it’s really worth it to step back and take some time to stimulate the brain to be more innovative. Thank you again for having me as a part of it.” – Minori Kobayashi, Bloomberg

“Thank you for organising such a great event. I really enjoyed our active discussions. It’s a rare occasion to be able to exchange opinions at this level of HR leaders. Very stimulating!” – Yasuhiko Yamamoto, JLL


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