Among local activists and socially conscious visitors who have spent some time in Japan, there is a consensus that sexism and misogyny are deeply rooted in many aspects of Japanese society—the country ranked 121st out of 153 countries in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2020. Still, the controversy surrounding the former chief of the Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Game (TOCOG) Yoshiro Mori’s remarks has brought a brand-new level of international exposure and attention to gender discrimination and inequality in Japan.
The former chief commented at a committee gathering on February 3 that women tend to talk too much in meetings as they have “a strong sense of rivalry,” while exempting the seven women sitting on the board of TOCOG from his criticism because they “understand their place.” He later retracted his “inappropriate” remarks and apologized but insisted that he stays in his position. While Mori’s remarks echoed the unconscious biases that women often encounter in the workplace, some also recognize this incident, which led to Mori’s resignation and the appointment of a female chief as his successor, was a point of progress for Japan.
It is worth highlighting that the movement asking for his resignation achieved credibility when two worldwide partner companies to the 2020 Tokyo Games made public statements criticizing Mori’s remarks. That being said, not all of the sponsors reacted with the same speed or a strong expression of condemnation. According to Mitsushige Tsuruno, professor at the Graduate School of Information and Communication, 37 out of 61 sponsor companies issued public statements or responses to media inquiries by the day after Mori’s resignation. Eight companies did not mention Mori’s remarks in their statement, but only reiterated their commitment to promoting the values represented by the Olympic and Paralympic Games, and many companies only took a stance after Mori’s resignation. Out of 24 companies which did not issue a statement, at least 17 mentioned their commitment to diversity in their CSR report and/or recruiting website.
Out of many factors that might have affected the speed and tone of their response, two seem to matter the most: 1) the past experience of failure in appropriately responding to a similar controversy, and 2) extent to which values like diversity and inclusion are implemented internally, by the leadership, the communication department and employees in general. The two companies which made the first move in Mori’s controversy had both experienced public criticism over discrimination and harassment accusation in the United States. As well-integrated international businesses founded in or operating in Japan, they learned their lesson and applied it well. To the second point, beside the lack of tradition and experience of proactive communication for many Japanese businesses, they might have reacted differently had there been more women in boardrooms.
Changing Public Expectation for Businesses
This incident was hopefully a wake-up call, as the Japanese public and consumers have started to shift away from a traditional indifference to political and societal issues. Indeed, the online petition site Change.org reports that Japan saw the biggest increase in user activity out of 19 countries where they operate. The numbers of new campaigns, signatures collected, and new users in Japan increased dramatically during 2020. Some of the most popular campaigns were launched and supported by youth and related to issues that directly affect them.
Furthermore, Japan’s shrinking pool of young workforce also means that businesses face more competition to recruit young talent, which gives potential and existing employees stronger voice and leverage. A survey by a recruiting company shows that the younger generation are more likely to desire a career that allow to “contribute to the society through work” compared to previous generations who valued status and economic compensation. Businesses looking to hire motivated and talented youth are facing heightened expectations to embrace diversity and make tangible and visible changes.
Beyond public perception and recruitment, social commitments by businesses are also starting to affect their financing abilities, as the Japanese government encourages ESG investment and demands actions to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.
What to Do
The recent controversy surrounding Tokyo Olympics’ chief Mori’s misogynistic remark put under scrutiny Japan’s slow progress in achieving gender equality, as well as the corporate responsibility to take a stance on social issues and act in a timely and thoughtful manner. In the short term, businesses need to get more prepared to respond to incidents like this by reviewing what values they want to represent and having a solid communication strategy and protocol in place. As a long-term and more fundamental solution, business leaders also need to become more attentive of the changing expectations of consumers and the workforce. They can start by empowering the underrepresented groups in the company as well as young employees, and by listening to what matters to them. Having more diversity in the decision-making room is equally important.
There are not many but some great examples in Japan too where businesses have successfully implemented both external campaigns and internal initiatives to improve inclusion and diversity, by creating childcare facilities on company property, supporting other companies in similar efforts, having 30%+ women in management positions, and overall ensuring that the company is accommodating to diversity and different working styles. Such efforts make the employees truly appreciate the values that the companies are advocating for. Employees are the best brand ambassadors after all, and it will also lead to continued reform and improvement in all fronts where inclusion and diversity come into play.