The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

The world is undergoing rapid, unexpected, and dramatic change. While economies have generally been doing well, they are not without turmoil. Social and political trends are straining systems, alliances, and frameworks that have shaped the world and defined how we operate for more than half a century. Prosperity is precarious and the future is clouded.

To help bring clarity to 2020, Bloomberg held a summit entitled The Year Ahead on December 5 at its office in Tokyo. The event was also held in New York City November 6–7, and will take place in Davos, Switzerland, on January 21. Covering a range of topics and industries, the various panels and spotlight interviews at the Tokyo session put a Japan focus on issues affecting our connected world.

The first panel, Into the Next Decade, set the stage by bringing together three strong voices: Kathy Matsui, vice-chair at Goldman Sachs Japan Co., Ltd.; Yumiko Murakami, head of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development Tokyo Centre; and Anoop Sagoo, group operating officer for growth markets at Accenture plc. They focused on the macro trends—in areas of diversity, technology, and the environment—that will define global business and investor sentiment this year and throughout the decade.

One of the most visible trends of recent years is that of greater diversity. Whether in education, entertainment, or the workplace, the value of inclusion—and the strength it gives an organization—is being recognized more broadly than ever. But bringing everyone around to this way of thinking is not easy, and it is more difficult in some cultures than others.

“Today, the term diversity is part of the Japanese vernacular,” Matsui said, recounting her own experiences returning to work after the birth of her first child. “Japan used to have one of the lowest female participation rates in the developed world. Now it is among the highest.” Twenty years ago, the rate was 66 percent. Today it is 71, surpassing that of the United States and the eurozone.

That’s an important change when it comes to the economy. As Matsui explained, “Our most updated analysis shows that, if you can close the gender–employment gap, you can boost Japan’s GDP by as much as 15.5 percent.”

Thanks to a push by the Japanese government and forward-looking companies, there have been many gains—including an increase in transparency. Matsui cited the government’s move in 2016 to require companies to disclose gender-related statistics and set diversity goals. “These are not quotas, necessa­rily, but it’s a beginning. You can’t move the needle if you don’t know where the needle lies,” she said.

“We all know about the dearth of women in leadership positions—not enough managers, not enough politicians. We have unconscious biases still very deeply embedded in Japanese society. There is not enough daycare, not enough caregiving capacity. But at least we’ve got the conversation going.”

The context for this diversity discussion, she noted, has moved away from corporate social responsibility and human rights into the financial arena, where it has become an economic and business imperative.

Change is also being driven by Big Data, cloud connectivity, artificial intelligence, and automation. The latter two, in particular, have generated fear that jobs will be eliminated as humans are replaced with more efficient—and cheaper—machine labor.

Murakami doesn’t see this as an immediate concern. “At least for Japan, for the time being, we don’t really have to worry about people losing jobs. Companies cannot find enough people in Japan right now.”

In terms of automation and the adoption of technology, she said that there is very strong case to be made that the society and economy can apply this tech without seeing an immediate negative impact on the labor market. “Japan should seize this opportunity and really see what technology can do to address that shortage of labor. I think it is going to be a very interesting case study for other countries.”

Through his work at Accenture, Sagoo sees some very interesting tech developments in Japan. “When you look at what’s going on with the thinking around Society 5.0—and start to think through how you would create an environment for technology to better create connected living and access to services—I think it’s things like that which will help an aging population apply technology in a very different way to enable them to access things in a more convenient and competent manner.”

How that is done may come down to generational differences. Sagoo used communication as an example.

“The older generation will want to go and speak to someone face-to-face. The younger generations don’t work like that. I think you’ve all seen it in restaurants, where younger generations are out sitting next to each other and they’re actually not talking. They’re using messaging services to interact. So, technology [for them] has to be applied in a different way. If applied in the right way, I think it can be positive in both circumstances.”

Sagoo also noted that more and more of the fantastical technologies that we have seen in movies are now making their way into our everyday lives.

“If you look at the actual tech itself—whether it’s artificial intelligence, blockchain, or robotics—the real catalyst in business today has actually been the cloud. What sits underneath a lot of these technologies is the ability to actually use compute power and data to create more insight. That is what is driving this sort of multiplier effect that we are seeing right now.

“Artificial intelligence is becoming more and more prominent in day-to-day work simply because the compute power is avai­lable to actually do something will all the information. The pervasiveness of technology is fairly profound.”

As an example, Sagoo cited food production, something critical to our survival as the global population grows and climate change threatens our ability to feed everyone.

“Look at the agri sector in different corners of the world. People are using technology to increase crop yield and productivity. A couple of months back, when I was in China, I even met a company that started talking about connected cows—which I still haven’t quite worked out what that is—but that’s the pervasive nature of technology.”

Tech will also continue to be a liberating force for entre­preneurs and consumers.

“In developing economies, what we’re starting to see is that technology is the enabler to create microenterprises. It’s allowing people to access services that they wouldn’t normally access.

“And in developed economies, what we see is the platfor­mization of industries to try and serve consumers in a more integrated manner.”

The pervasive role of big tech is something that concerns many and is eliciting different responses around the world. Sagoo compared three types of government approaches, as found in Europe, the United States, and China.

“In Europe, you have a somewhat heavy-handed govern­ment response. In the United States, there’s a little more freedom for companies to experiment and—as Facebook once said—move fast and break things. And in an economy like China, [there is] a government-directed effort to try and introduce new technologies in a way that shapes and, in some ways, transforms society.”

Which might work best for Japan?

Matsui believes that, given the demographic landscape, Japan doesn’t have the luxury of choosing. Stressing that this is just her own personal idea, not a Goldman Sachs view on the subject, she talked about some of the actions that the Japanese government is taking, including the Act to Overhaul Laws to Promote Workplace Reform (Hataraki-kata Kaikaku Kanren Ho). Often referred to simply as hataraki-kata kaikaku and translated as workstyle reforms, these amendments to Japan’s labor laws set guidelines and place various requirements on companies. Most changes took effect for larger corporations last April 1, while smaller companies must begin complying on April 1 of this year.

Among the requirements is a cap on overtime hours for junior staff, Matsui explained, adding that the labor authorities are going to be inspecting a lot of large corporations to ensure compliance.

This ties into technology because, while there may be a cap on hours, there is not a cap on the work that needs to be done.

“You now have the inability to squeeze endless hours from each person. So, the reality is that it’s imperative that productivity improve. How are you going to do that if you don’t adopt a lot of these technologies?”

And that brings us back to the question of what role govern­ment should play in the adoption and use. “Governments around the world are grappling with how to regulate the technologies,” Matsui said. “How do you ensure that they are not invading privacy and taking personal information and abusing that information?

“At the end of the day, for this country in particular, there’s not much option—at least for now. I think it’s up to the Japanese regulators and government authorities to determine what is the right path, what kind of regulatory framework is optimal for at least taking advantage of, or leveraging, these new technologies to boost productivity—which is absolutely imperative—while, at the same time, protecting everybody’s concerns on these matters. It’s a fine line. It’s a delicate balance. But that’s my own personal view.”

From December 2 to 13, the 25th United Nations (UN) Climate Change Conference (COP 25) took place in Madrid, Spain. Murakami cited the gathering as discussions among political leaders there were taking place at the same time as this panel was sharing their outlook for 2020.

“We’ve been talking about the urgency of climate change for a long time. Unfortunately, these talks are not translating into actions—at least not in a timely manner,” she said. “Greenhouse gas emissions are still increasing. Last year, for example, energy-related greenhouse gas emissions increased after a three-year plateau. So, things are not changing as quickly as they should. The long-term impact of climate change we’ve be talking about is really not long term anymore. We see it on a daily basis.”

As an example of how climate change is impacting business, she explained how the top three Japanese insurance companies have adjusted their profit forecasts for this fiscal year downward due to higher-than-expected losses stemming from natural disasters that struck Japan last summer. In addition to seeing decreased profit, these companies are being forced to increase premiums. “[Climate change is] a very clear and present risk and, quite frankly, it’s making it difficult or everyone in terms of the cost of business operation. That kind of example you can find everywhere, in every country.”

But there is hope. Businesses are seeing the risks and taking steps to mitigate them through environmental, social, and governance (ESG) criteria.

“The ESG investment category is one of the fastest growing-asset classes and capital markets on a global basis, reaching somewhere around $30 trillion dollars last year. Japan is still a relatively small portion—roughly $2 trillion—but the good news for Japan is that the growth rate is the fastest,” Murakami said.

“It went from less than half a trillion in 2016 to over $2 trillion last year. That’s a pretty impressive growth rate. It makes me really optimistic because Japan has a number of very exciting technologies.”

Japan has great technology, she added, so the upside is really exciting when the capital market plays its role in terms of pushing these investments into the right places, where the right technologies are there waiting for investments. “That makes me feel as if Japan actually should be one of the most interesting countries when it comes to technology and investment.”

While Japan may trail other countries when it comes to ESG investment, Murakami sees potential benefit in being a latecomer. “There have been so many comprehensive academic studies and surveys—including by the OECD— that have been done in this area. Now we know, for a fact, there is a very strong positive correlation between ESG investment and strong corporate financial performance. We don’t have to say, Is it really going to happen? It’s definitely proven. So, I’m hoping that this is going to be a very big theme in 2020—not only for Japan, but in terms of global investment trends.”

Matsui added that the signatories to the UN’s principles of responsible investing are required to integrate ESG into their investment factors and process. Companies must have an investment policy that has at least half of their assets under management applied to ESG factors. Failure to do so over a two-year period would result in delisting.

“I would also add that the G of ESG is super important,” she said. “I used to say corporate governance in Japan was like an oxymoron. I’ve been doing my job for 30 years and it was just kind of a joke. Now, companies and asset owners are finally taking this issue seriously. Why? Because asset allocators are distributing capital to companies that care about governance and not giving it to those that don’t.”

Does this mean that, over time, the returns delivered from an ESG-compliant or sensitive portfolio may be superior on a risk-adjusted basis?

“Our analysis shows that ESG alone does not necessarily produce excess returns, but it is a very important risk mitigator for asset managers,” Matsui said. “So, I think this is a really burgeoning trend, one I think is going to be a tailwind for some of these big-picture issues and trends that we’ve been discussing.

“Of course, you can’t just be ticking off the boxes. And that’s a big debate. If you’re just ticking off boxes, it’s superficial, it doesn’t really mean anything. But, if you really, genuinely are taking actions to move the needle in some of these areas, on top of being competitive in your industry and having high returns on equity, that combination of the two can generate very powerful returns.”

Japan is coming off a highly successful sports tournament in the Rugby World Cup 2019, and the 2020 Tokyo and Olympic Games are right around the corner. Murakami sees these as a boon for business.

“A number of very high-profile international events are making people realize that Japan is an interesting country to watch from overseas. And I think that these international sports events are just triggers. Japan really can step up and play an even bigger leadership role—whether in a political or economic context—and that can be a very exciting outlook for not only Japan but also the entire region.”

But there is a wildcard on the horizon. What happens to Society 5.0 and the reforms set into motion by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his administration when his time as the nation’s leaders ends? Abe has said that, when his third term ends in September 2021, he will not seek a fourth.

Matsui said that the concern some have that the course will be reversed is a genuine one, but that she thinks two forces will come into play:

  • Geopolitical vulnerability
  • Debt sustainability

“It is my personal view that this country is sitting in the most geopolitically vulnerable position since World War II. And you can think about the long-term implications of this for its economy,” she said. “If you have an economy that’s stuck in no growth or in a coma, good luck, right? You’re going to be even more vulnerable. So, I think the urgency to get this economy growing, to get people optimistic about the future, is very real.

“The other force, of course, is debt sustainability. We’ve all become accustomed to zero interest rates or negative rates. That isn’t going to be the case forever. At some point, rates will go up. Then what happens to this debt burden that Japan is having to cope with?

“So, I think these two forces are going to continue to keep the pressure on. It’s not guaranteed that structural reforms will continue, but I think that the imperative to address those really big issues is going to continue no matter who is leading this country.” 

Christopher Bryan Jones is Editor-in-Chief of The ACCJ Journal. Originally from Birmingham, Alabama, he has lived in Japan since 1997.
Japan used to have one of the lowest female participation rates in the developed world. Now it is among the highest.