Japan has a reputation for being both hierarchical and patriarchal. One’s position in the hierarchy and the roles defined by gender continue to be reinforced by families, schools and employers. Further, Japanese customs and societal norms create structures that foster order and discipline, define relationships and sublimate the self for the benefit of the collective.
In practice, the push-pull of rigid structures and group harmony mean that even those at the top of the hierarchy find it necessary to limit their discretion in decision making to follow established precedent or to a consensus solution that results from extensive consultations among a team of mostly male senior managers. Although a cumbersome and often inequitable process, the Japanese will argue that successful group decision making that includes relevant stakeholders achieves a stable and focused set of policies which allows them to accomplish big projects that may span years and even decades.
On some level, it’s hard to argue with the success that has been achieved through consensus policies. Among OECD countries, Japan has among the highest expenditures on research and development according to an April 2012 report. On infrastructure investment alone, Japan has made advances decade after decade. During the 1980’s, the Japanese cut the ribbon on both the Seikan Tunnel (54 km) linking Hokkaido with Honshu and the Seto-Ohashi Bridge (9 km) linking Honshu with Shikoko. In 2010, Haneda Tokyo International Airport opened both a fourth runway and a new international passenger terminal. In the same year, the Shinkansen, or bullet train network moved over 300 million passengers annually.
The biggest challenge to this system is the emergence of the Millennial generation of Japanese women in the workforce. Like their counterparts around the world, these highly educated and often multilingual women are challenging the old pathways to leadership.
A groundbreaking study commissioned by Levi Strauss entitled Shaping a New Future indicates that Millennial women worldwide are more independent and focused on carving their own path in life. They also are actively looking for mentorship. But these Millennials view mentorship differently and now they are reinventing it. Rather than a one-to-one, inter-generational passing of advice, they prefer to engage with their peers and other women of all ages and in different parts of the world who have experiences in their areas of interest.
The findings in this study are playing out in Japan today. Although Millennial women are still a product of the same school system and socialization process as their mothers, there are signs that they will no longer sublimate themselves to some collective decision about their proper role or place in society. In a country of uniformity, they are prepared to stand up and stand out and accept the risks that come along with challenging conformity.
Japan faces a number of critical challenges in the decades ahead. The workforce is shrinking while the elderly population increases. Immigration remains highly restricted even as the country experiences a net population loss. GDP growth remains flat. Alternatives to nuclear power need to come online. What remains to be seen is whether these Millennial women can achieve shifts in national policy through the power of personal rather than collective leadership. My money is on the irresistible force of these young professionals who are at the vanguard of a new era in Japan.