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Japan must leave backward ways behind

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Unswerving cyclist
14 Mar 2002
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Found this article on Japan Times Online, published on Oct. 26, 2001. I believe these conclusions do not only apply to Japan's IT sector.

Japan must leave backward ways behind

Survival in IT future requires equal footing for women, foreigners: panelist

Japan must drastically revise its attitudes toward women and foreigners to stake a place in the global information technology revolution and survive and prosper as a nation in general, according to experts at a Tokyo conference last week.

Participants at the conference "Women and Foreign Nationals as Leaders in Information Society," organized by The International University of Japan's Center for Global Communications and supported by The Japan Times, stressed the importance of education to reduce the current obstacles to reform.

In his opening address, Hiroaki Fujii, president of The Japan Foundation, minced no words: "The greater participation of women and foreign nationals in Japan is not only desirable, but imperative."

Citing the projected shrinking and rapid aging of Japan's population, Fujii emphasized that accepting foreign nationals as skilled workers and even as immigrants would be the inescapable solution to the problem.

In his keynote speech to open the discussion on Japanese corporate management in a multiracial and multicultural society, Fuji Xerox Co. Chairman Yotaro Kobayashi stressed that the current Japanese education system has succeeded in only narrow terms. "Japanese education has been effective at producing technocrats," he said. "Technocrats who may not know 'why,' or who may not even care."

Kobayashi said Japan must broaden the scope of its educational curricula to better provide students with the mental framework needed to cope with the inevitable changes resulting from the nation's shift toward a knowledge-based economy.

One important aspect of the conference was its blending of industry experts and academics. The keynote speaker for the section focusing on the new role of women in the information age was Saskia Sassen, professor of sociology from the University of Chicago and author of "The Global City," a book analyzing social trends in Tokyo, London and New York.

Sassen noted the opportunities women have to become more independent.

"Women are demonstrating that they have enormous potential for leadership as entrepreneurs," she said.

One empowering aspect of IT is that, as a relatively new business domain, it is "not as marked by the older forms of stereotyping," she explained. In a later interview, Sassen elaborated on her concepts. "There are two key areas that women can use the Web to expand into -- entrepreneurship and politics," she said. "E-commerce is here to stay, and I think for women it will be a very significant arena."

Sassen also remarked on population decline as a problem that "cuts across all countries." She referred to figures that suggest Europe as a whole will be in a similar situation within a few decades. Immigration will thus become an issue for all countries to face. "We should begin to denationalize ourselves," she said.

Another point of discussion was globalization. Glen S. Fukushima, president of Cadence Design Systems, offered a detailed view of the subject and implied that Japan must revise its traditional hiring practices to remain competitive.

Fukushima claimed that major corporations pay little attention to issues such as race, age or gender. "What they care about is how capable that individual is," he said, adding that as globalization advances, "the usefulness of foreign nationals as a category is losing relevance."

The trend also means that "the war for talent has intensified," he said.

Emiko Magoshi, professor of international management and communication at Tokyo Junshin Women's College, pointed to the larger role multinational companies are beginning play.

Magoshi said her research has shown that loyalty has come to rest more with one's firm than one's country. "Corporate culture is more important than national culture," she said.

But Magoshi was more passionate on the subject of education in Japan. "Japanese society should welcome diversity and openness, and that is what we need to work on," she said.

Toyoo Gyoten, president of the Institute for International Monetary Affairs, expressed similar sentiments, noting, "Children are in a sense distorted by education both at home and at school."

Holding up American society as an example, Gyoten said Japan would do well to learn how to integrate immigrants into society. "American society is very receptive to newcomers. . . . They don't place too many requirements on these newcomers," he said.

One person well-placed to discuss the issue of immigrant IT workers in the United States is Vinnie Mehta, director of the Manufacturers' Association for Information Technology in India.

Mehta pointed out that Indian IT workers have been very favorably received in the U.S. and have quickly risen to the top. Already 38 percent of employees at NASA are of Indian origin. In fact, Indians now constitute the third-largest group of Asian immigrants in the U.S., numbering some 1.6 million.

One reason why India has excelled at IT has been the strong command of English that engineering graduates have upon completing their studies. However, Mehta also observed that part of their success is due to the nature of the industry.

"The IT industry is so much less capital-intensive (than traditional industries)," he noted. This explains why IT is so valuable to developing countries such as India. "IT is a great economic leveler, not only for developing countries, but also for women," he said.

However, although IT may present new entrepreneurial opportunities, relatively few women in Japan have exploited this dimension.

Merle Aiko Okawara, chairwoman of JC Foodsnet Co., discussed her struggles as a woman attempting to launch her own business in Japan in the 1960s.

After years of encountering indifference from her male peers, she managed to establish her company. "As a woman, I was shut out of the old boys' network," she said, making it that much more difficult to secure necessary funding for her firm.

While Okawara eventually succeeded, she expressed disappointment that more women have not chosen to follow the path that people such as herself have made.

"The status of women has not really changed that much," she said. Okawara, however, showed guarded optimism in light of the 60,000 female entrepreneurs that currently run businesses in Japan, a figure she would like to see rise further.

In closing the conference, Shunpei Kumon, executive director of International University of Japan, rejected the contention that Japan has not participated fully in modern civilization.

"We think we are part of modern civilization, and we share its glories and its problems," he said.

At the same time, Kumon said he was aware of the notion that the difficulties faced by Japan may not be altogether similar to those of other developed nations. Still, he concluded on the optimistic note: "All of us can change."

Copyright ツゥ Japan Times
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