McNeill in Mainichi on how Japan Inc. needs to loosen up to women and NJ executives


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Hi Blog.  In between speeches today, and a quick visit to the Diet as well, so let me just put this article up for commentary.  Another insightful one from David McNeill.  Arudou Debito


David McNeill
Japan Inc. needs to loosen up
(Mainichi Japan) November 27, 2010, courtesy JK

I’ve talked about Japan’s reluctance to embrace mass immigration in this column before. Here’s something else to consider: Japan’s boardrooms are still almost completely devoid of foreigners — and females.

Women make up just 1.2 percent of top Japanese executives, according to business publisher Toyo Keizai; gaijin board members on Japan’s roughly 4,000 listed companies are as rare as hens’ teeth.

The exception is a handful of troubled giants, notably Sony Corp., which made Welshman Howard Stringer its chairman and CEO in 2005, and Nissan Motor Co., where Brazilian Carlos Ghosn has been in charge for over a decade.

That lack of diversity worries some bosses. Last year the Japan Association of Corporate Executives published the results of a two-year survey that called on its members to revolutionize boardroom practices.

“Japanese firms are terribly behind in accepting diversity,” said association vice chairman Hasegawa Yasuchika. “They should radically transform their corporate culture to provide the same opportunities to employees all around the world.”

Easier said than done, perhaps. Ever since Japan’s corporations began moving overseas in the 1970s, they have followed a tried and tested formula: Whatever happens in transplants and local operations abroad, control stays in the iron grip of the all-Japanese boardroom back home.

That’s partly for understandable reasons: I just watched a ridiculous CNN interview with U.S. bosses, who all said the key to the future is sacking thousands of workers. Japan rightly fears that foreign managers will bring that sort of slash-and-burn model of American capitalism to this country.

But the fact is that, in the view of many, the control-freakery of large Japanese firms is damaging their own interests.

“A lot of big companies like Toyota have to deal with very complex problems, involving foreign governments, legal processes and consumers,” says T. W. Kang, a South Korean national and one of the few foreigners to serve on a Japanese board.

“To think these problems can just be tackled with insiders is a mistake. An external director forces you to listen to external issues.”

Would Toyota have handled its recent recall problems better if it had a few non-Japanese on its board? — It’s worth thinking about.

And here’s more food for thought: What about the dearth of women? One reason why Japan still lags far behind in childcare and help for working women is that there are so few female bosses or policymakers.

Most Japanese politicians and bosses are married to someone who isn’t working. As one of my recent interviewees said, “They’re not seeing the problem because they’re not experiencing it.”

I know many conservatives here are against empowering foreigners with voting because of the changes that might bring. Empowering women is even more transformational.

Perhaps that’s why it hasn’t been tried …


David McNeill writes for The Independent and Irish Times newspapers and the weekly Chronicle of Higher Education. He has been in Japan since 2000 and previously spent two years here, from 1993-95 working on a doctoral thesis. He was raised in Ireland.

3 comments on “McNeill in Mainichi on how Japan Inc. needs to loosen up to women and NJ executives

  • When I worked for Bridgestone, I used to complain that there were no women in charge of any departments at the company, let alone in the boardroom. The misogynistic culture of Japanese companies discourages women from climbing the corporate ladder.
    On another note, can we get Messrs. Kang, Stringer, and Ghosn to front our campaign to end border fingerprinting?

  • There was a good BBC report about this recently.
    One of the other reasons, which is over looked, why Japan Inc wont hire NJs, is because to get these “high-flyers” commands a large Salary. These NJ CEOs end up getting anyting from 5 to 20 times their Japanese counterparts! Doesn’t go down well when there is such a disparty in salary, which is of course driven by performance (and shares given). Ergo to be performance driven, accountability, doesn’t sit well!

    With a generation of women being “forced” to stay at home, regardless whether they wont to or not, leaves Mr Japan wondering what all the fuss is about, with women, they are “home makers”, not workers. Thus, wont see this generation doing anything to address this major imbalance as they want their wifes to stay at home!…they don’t wish to empower them….they might leave them…heaven forbid! 😉

  • I work in a big Japanese company with very few female staff outside of admin /secretarial roles let alone as managers. At a nomikai I asked one of the few women I work alongside how they feel about the lack of female staff in managerial positions. The response was quite disheartening, she said she understood because “Women want to have children so it is difficult, how can they stay late all the time or take months off for pregnancy and be expected to run a team of people below them?!”.
    I put it to her that it takes two people to make a baby, what about the fathers responsibility for child rearing and child care?
    I think the imbalance in the workplace has as much to do with the weakening male role in the family and what Japanese society expects of a “father” at present his paternal duties are limited to not a lot beyond conception. This also explains some of the troubles with joint custody etc. This is not as simple as misogyny because many women also appear to view themselves and other women as first and foremost a home-maker/child rearer and do not demand equal opportunities to advance their career in the workplace. I heard through some friends even Japanese fathers who want a greater role in childcare often get told to basically “but-out” by the mother and grandmother who often prefer men to remain in their traditional role and not interfere.
    It may take a change of attitude for both men and women to get a better balance in the workplace.

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