Newly launched Japan & China blogs

Now go blog about this
via Flickr/nightthree

When ChinaFile was launched a few months ago, I looked on enviously. What a great discovery: a website full of relevant articles on any topic that is worth knowing about when it comes to contemporary China. With a few articles posted daily, my reading speed can’t quite keep up. But also: wouldn’t it be great if a similar website existed in the Netherlands, writing from the Dutch/European perspective on China?

Maybe I wasn’t the only one thinking this: over the last few weeks two Dutch websites have launched with one focusing on Japan and the other on China. Both of these websites publish regular articles on current affairs in either Japan or China, with a range of topics covered from design to social issues to politics and doing business.

Katern:Japan has been going for a few weeks now. The site is easy to navigate with the different categories listed at the top. With several writers there is a steady flow of articles published which are easy to read and cover many different issues. Interesting to follow for anyone interested in modern Japan, although I also noticed that a ‘economy’ or ‘business’ category seems to be lacking. Maybe this will change in the near future.

The newest ‘kid on the block’ is China2025, a ‘crowdblog’ with a similar format to Katern:Japan: a range of writers covering different topics. But only launched this week, it’s more difficult to assess how this blog will develop. The categories are a little harder to spot, they can be found in a tagcloud in the right column. I’m looking forward to see how this blog will develop from now onwards.

Uitpakken

unpacking / via Pinterest
via Pinterest

En daar zit ik dan, vroeg wakker door het tijdsverschil met Japan en dus maar alvast aan het uitpakken, wasmachine volstoppen, visitekaartjes ordenen en natuurlijk een beetje rustig wakker worden met koffie.

Het uitpakken is niet alleen fysiek, maar ook mentaal: de afgelopen week zoemt na in mijn hoofd, met alle gesprekken, nieuwe kennis, indrukken en interessante mensen die daar in samen kwamen. Er ligt een lange lijst acties naast me, variërend van opvolgmailtjes naar nog een aantal gesprekspartners maar ook het uitwerken van een aantal ideeën voor evenementen en andere projecten waar ik eens wat mensen in Nederland voor moet benaderen.

Maar waar begin ik. Met eerst alle blogstukjes schrijven over die dingen die ik wil delen over zakendoen in Japan, waaronder over import van biologische producten (waar volgens mij voor een paar bijzondere Nederlandse bedrijven interessante kansen liggen), mogelijkheden voor kantoorruimte, en ontwikkelingen op het gebied van duurzaam bouwen? Of begin ik met het maken van vervolgafspraken met relevante organisaties hier in Nederland? Of, ga ik toch eindelijk die summer school in China boeken omdat het gewoon zo nuttig is om regelmatig lokaal met mensen te praten en zo de meest relevantie connecties te leggen en de meeste kennis op te doen?

Eerst maar eens een nieuwe kop koffie…

Designing for the future

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This afternoon, I visited an exhibition in Tokyo called Design to change the future: Business with social innovation in 2030. Sounded promising, as did the location – next door to 21_21 Design Sight where I saw a great exhibition last year on local crafts from the Tohoku region (and if the long queue of people waiting there today is any indication, they have something great on again).

The Mirai Design exhibition tries to provide answers to the question: 社会課題を解決できるのは誰なのか? Or: Who will be able to solve the issues in our society?

A very relevant question, not just for Japan, and I was looking forward to see some creative and new initiatives or designs which might really be able to trigger change.

The exhibition was small and divided across five themes: energy, agriculture, education, community and resilience. Each topic had 3-5 examples of ‘solutions’ for a social or environmental issue.

However, walking through the exhibition and taking in these examples, I was underwhelmed. To say the least. All of the examples came from major Japanese – and a few foreign-based – companies, for example NEC, Mitsui, Fujitsu, etc. Of course, this isn’t bad. But I also wonder if real innovation will come from these large companies. Especially when I see many smaller scale initiatives starting up (in Europe or the US) which seem to challenge the status quo much more.

None of the examples were bad things, of course. And from their description, a clear sense came through of the companies’ conviction that they have a responsibility to contribute to society. This is one thing that also came up earlier this week, and was explained to me as a way of thinking originating in post-war Japan. At that time Japan’s economy was devastated and needed to be built up again: being ‘good’ companies and working as hard as possible at making money and thereby supporting the recovery of Japan’s economy was seen by many companies as their contribution to society as this would in turn enable Japan to grow more prosperous and provide for its population. This mentality is still visible in CSR-related activities as well, in which community engagement is a strong part of CSR policy. And it’s great that companies feel so connected to their local community.

Back to the exhibition, where the examples included the promotion of less industrial and more organic farming, volunteer work in the Tohoku region, organizing study tours abroad for volunteers, increasing the usage of organic cotton and game-ifying education.

In short, a nice exhibition of some nice projects. But all of these things are happening NOW (luckily). Don’t we need something more radical? I was hoping for a real look into the future: what could our world be like 17 years from now? That would be a great question for some creative and innovative thinkers & designers to work on and design for. I would love to see it.

CSR in Japan: the highlights

I’ve just finished my last meeting, closing off this week with an interesting dicsussion with officials from the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry and a Ministry of Foreign Affairs representative talking about CSR policy in Japan, but also answering their questions on CSR in the Netherlands. Interestingly, they see the Netherlands as one of the leading countries on CSR, accentuated by for example the GRI conference in Amsterdam this week, a new Dutch appointment at the OECD for the Working Group on Responsible Business Conduct and many Dutch speakers at the upcoming Global Conference on Responsible Business Conduct in Paris in June.

Their first question started with exactly this: why is CSR so important and prominent in the Netherlands…. I hope my answer made sense!

But looking back at this week, I have gained so much more knowledge and understanding of this topic in the Japanese context. So I am very happy with how this week has gone and the many different people I’ve had the opportunity to speak with. Of course, there is still much more to learn and many more people I would love to talk to. Next time.

As I’m sipping a coffee, I’m also mentally listing the main points of this week. I’ll add them here below in short bullets, in case it will take me a long time to write out all the things I’ve learnt more fully.

> main premise is that a company is part of society, and contributes to society;
> CSR is something a company just has to ‘do’, there doesn’t seem to be a discussion on the need for a business case, as there seems to be in the Netherlands. This only becomes relevant here when talking about sustainability & sustainable development;
> focus within local community: do good?;
> focus within environmental topics: do no harm;
> extensive tradition of reporting follows from major environmental incidents in the 1960’s & ’70’s but is also part of a business tradition of reporting on many things, including CSR;
> additionally: peer pressure in Japan is high, which is also an explanation for the high percentage of reporting companies;
> but, CSR reports seem to be somewhat limited: focus is mostly on environment, governance and domestic situation (in general);
> major international companies make the connection to the international discourse on CSR (relevance of supply chain, stakeholder dialogue, due diligence), but for many others this is still not quite there;
> only recently, issues such as human rights and labour are coming to be seen as part of CSR (which was also part of a METI-research project)
> ISO26000 is best known from the international CSR frameworks, and is government-backed; ISO-systems are very popular in Japan, but with this ISO26000 runs the risk of becoming a checklist;
> relevance of UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights is not yet well understood among business;
> sustainability is slowly seen as a business opportunity: sustainable building is ‘hot’, investment in renewable energy is increasing. But, incentive is also strongly financial;
> the local ngo’s have a relatively weak position vis-a-vis the general society and business.

Misleading the public – or, misleading me

Sustainability is not only something that should be on the minds of companies. But also on the minds of consumers. At least, that’s what I think (and admittedly, I’m a long way from being the perfect sustainable consumer – if that exists).

So, I’m also keeping an eye out here for what I see in the shops, out on the streets, advertisements etc – anything that can help me to discover how much sustainability is part of consumption in Japan (which is a country of consumers, much more than in Europe). This may be organic food, plenty of vegetarian choices (or even vegan food choices), fair trade products, fair fashion, etc.

Walking around Shibuya yesterday trying to find some great sushi (you would think it was on every corner in Japan… sadly, no), I was misled twice, thinking that I’d found something that fit this image.

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A very very common sight on the Japanese streets are convenience stores, small shops where you can buy pretty much anything you might need right then and there. Food and drinks mostly, but also magazines, and assorted other products. Lawson is one of the large chains for these convenience stores, and they pop up everywhere. However, I was surprised to see a new type of Lawson in the streets this time: Natural Lawson.

I walked into one last night to see what is ‘natural’ about this Lawson, expecting to find a store with only – or mostly, at least – organic or other fair products. The chain does have its own branding and its own packaging for products etc, so it’s not just a side-project I would think. However, in the shop itself I couldn’t spot much difference. Yes, there are a few shelves of snacks and food which look to be more from organic food brands. But the rest of the shop looked mostly the same as every other Lawson I’ve been in. I’m a bit puzzled why a seperate chain had to be set up for this, instead of incorporating the few shelfs of organic products in the regular Lawson’s. And probably increasing the chance of these products being bought.

So, I continued walking around still trying to find sushi. I was about to give up when I saw a huge sign of a restaurant called ‘Vege-Teji-Ya‘. A vegetarian restaurant in Japan… sounded promising enough to give up my search for sushi.

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Walking over to the restaurant, and getting a closer look at the advertisement and menu – imagine my surprise when somehow the name of the restaurant was anything but related to vegetables, but instead with just about every part of pork.

Sigh.

The sushi that I did find in the end was fortunately very good. Fortunately, especially, as it accidentally also turned out to be the most expensive sushi I’ve ever had. Oh well, another lesson learnt in Japan (i.e. if there’s no menu, ask for one to find out where exactly you walked into).

Must-have: the new Haruki Murakami

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Haruki Murakami is probably the best known Japanese writer outside of Japan right now. And he has been for quite some time. In the Netherlands, his books are very popular and many of my friends have read his work. Not surprisingly, maybe, I’m a big fan.

This is no different in Japan. There always seems to be quite a buzz when he publishes something new.

So when I heard about the publication of his latest book on April 12th, I knew exactly what was at the top of my shopping list: 色彩を持たない多崎つくると、彼の巡礼の年 (in English: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage).

It wasn’t hard to find: walking into the Kinokuniya-bookshop in Osaka when I arrived the books were stacked high (and in its 8th edition, 6 weeks after publication)

Women in Japan – a recent news overview

One topic that is coming up in many of the conversations here this week is the place of women in Japanese society: after years of coming to Japan I still see barely any change in the inequality between men and women here. There are various reasons for this I think, the corporate culture in Japan, how men view women, lack of facilities such as child care, and so on.

Not only has this come up in conversation, a few articles popped up this week that talk about this as well, and before starting a longer piece to go into more detail, I thought it’d be nice to give a quick overview of these articles.

The BBC wrote about women in Japan, with an article called The worst developed country for working mothers? A title like that doesn’t promise much good, and it explains some of the reasons why Japanese women are so little represented in the workplace.

This inequality between men and women also shows when the story of a man (not coincidentally, a foreigner in Japan) taking care of his children becomes a news item. Why should this have to be news?

And only today, I spotted an item about Hitachi’s pledge to up the number of women in its management: aimed to be at – a whopping – 8% by 2020…

Luckily, it’s not all bad: recently a group of women (Japanese and foreign) established the Nishinippon Business Woman Association: committed to promote women empowerment in the Japanese business world. Great initiave, also because it is (far) away from Tokyo where changes in the traditional role pattern have probably changed most so far.

And, I liked this innovative initiative started in Tokyo to enable women to be part of the workforce, especially when they are working independently: a co-working office with space for your kids.

Enjoy reading, and more soon.

Coffee & WiFi

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This is a regular view during my current workdays in Tokyo: working on my laptop with coffee, reading new material or preparing for a next appointment, in between meeting someone new. And yes, surrounded by many others doing something similar. Welcome to Starbucks in Japan.

Free WiFi in cafe’s doesn’t seem to be as ubiquitous in cafe’s here as it is in the Netherlands by now. So, Starbucks has become my lifeline – it seems to be the only place I can depend on to offer free WiFi (and power plugs, I discovered tonight).

Luckily they are everywhere. Unfortunately, you can’t just walk into a Starbucks and start surfing away – which was a surprise the first time I tried that. They ask pre-registration (at home, for example) so you can log in with your own name and password each time you’re in a new coffeeshop – anywhere in the country.

To take a break from Starbucks Caramel Latte’s etc I spent a few hours this afternoon at the Tokyo location of Seats2Meet, based in Ginza. I’d heard a lot about it, so I’m happy to finally have been there. It’s also led to many new ideas, so a post on co-working in Japan will hopefully follow later this week.

Planning for flexibility

The good thing about not having had enough preparation time for this week in the Netherlands? I still have some holes to fill up in my schedule this week.

I guess I knew this would work out. As this week progresses, I am finding more and more people to talk to. So, after the realization yesterday that NGO’s in Japan are generally considered to be fairly weak towards companies I now seem to have found an NGO who is active in monitoring corporate behaviour. And hopefully I’ll be able to meet with this NGO at the end of the week, to get the other side of the story. Good stuff.

CSR in Japan: transparency & trust

Do you gain trust by being transparent? Or do you become more transparent when people trust you?

These are some questions I’m left with after getting a bit more perspective on corporate social responsibility (CSR) reporting in Japan today. According to a 2011 survey of KPMG, 99% of Japanese companies publish a CSR report. An impressively high number, especially when you realize that there is no government regulation telling them to do so.

On corporate reporting

And, not only do many companies report – these reports are also easily accessible. No less than three (competing) Japanese websites focus on sharing CSR reports online and offer related services, such as extended search options, a report cover design award and seminars on this topic. But most of all: they offer exposure of these reports.

Today, I spoke to the people behind one of these websites, CSR Japan, about their work and about the characteristics of CSR reporting in Japan. I initially contacted this organisation as I assumed it would be the CSR association in Japan, much like MVO Nederland is in the Netherlands. The information on their website quickly showed their focus on collecting CSR reports (the website currently contains almost 500 reports of over 200 companies) and making these accessible.

I haven’t seen anything similar in the Netherlands, and I love how you can really search the relevant themes you want to know about – and it will give you the individual pages from the various reports. Imagine how much easier that makes it if you want to compare what various companies write about supply chain management, to give just one example. And on the plus side for companies who have their report listed here, they can get an overview of what pages have been viewed how often, and there’s a weekly ranking of the most searched for topics. This week, the top 5 consists of: company mission, work-life balance, investor relations, biodiversity and ‘relation with society and the environment’.

And as mentioned, CSR Japan is just one of three:

Eco Hotline has the largest collection with reports from more than 500 companies

CSR Toshokan has published reports from 400 companies

Each comes with their own additional services, of which Eco Hotline’s Report Cover Design Award is one example. [I will update this post when I have an answer to the question where this difference in quantity comes from. My guess is companies pay for the advantage of being listed, but I need to check]

Reasons for being transparent

So, why are these companies happily writing these reports, while in Europe there is a debate going on that making reporting mandatory will lead to higher costs for business? Why are Japanese companies doing this voluntarily?

CSR Japan explains this through the fact that there have been some major environmental disasters in Japan in the past (of which a well known example is Minamata). This has increased awareness from the public and from companies that it is important to be transparent about their business activities and their (environmental) impact.

Because indeed, the reports of Japanese companies seem to focus more (in comparison to for example European reports) on environmental than on social aspects of CSR. This also came back in other talks I have had today. The explanation for this may be sought in the fact that Japan has developed their own guidelines for reporting, but these focus solely on environmental issues: Environmental Reporting Guidelines by the Ministry of Environment. Luckily the other topics are partly covered by reporting through a combination of these guidelines, GRI and ISO26000.

What audience?

So, it appears that Japanese companies are mostly transparent about their activities – which is of course very good. We then spoke about who reads the reports and whether or not this makes companies vulnerable. In Europe and the US, NGO’s sometimes maintain a type of watchdog function to make sure that companies are behaving correctly – hence the vulnerability by reporting what you do, or do not do. Interestingly, Japanese NGO’s do not seem to have this function at all – and in fact are usually very trusting of Japanese companies. There are hardly examples of big campaigns being set up when something has gone wrong, because it turns out that much more than in many other countries the population of Japan overwhelmingly trusts its corporations. And doesn’t particularly think of the NGO-sector of being trusted to do the right thing.

This interesting bit of information comes from the Edelman Trust Barometer, which I heard about in a later meeting, and which surveys the level of trust annually across around 20 countries worldwide in the government, the media, business and ngo’s. This is quite a different view towards corporations than for instance in the Netherlands, where it sometimes feels that NGO’s have no trust at all in companies (and where in fact some NGO’s and politicians are calling for more regulation and monitoring on CSR topics to ensure that companies will not do anything wrong through their business activities).

I also feel that this situation changes the dynamic of CSR in Japan, compared to Europe. It may be too early to draw that conclusion, after only a few discussions. Of course you would hope that the watchful eye of NGO’s and consumers is not the sole reason for companies to behave responsibly. However, knowing that you are being held accountable for your actions – or maybe rather, knowing that no one is really watching what you are doing – must make for different choices in putting together and implementing a company’s CSR policy.

Which brings me back to the question: does transparency beget trust, or is it the other way around?