TOKYO: In the middle of 2006, Nissan Motor's auto development division summoned a team of 10 women to develop a small car that would appeal to female buyers. The team, made up of designers, product planners and advertising and marketing staff and ranging in age from their 20s to their 30s, came up with the Pino, a minicar to be produced in pastel colors and with a wide array of options, like cushions and special ashtrays, that it felt young women would want.
When the Pino was introduced in January, Nissan was hoping to sell 2,600 vehicles during the first month and beyond. It got 5,500 orders during the first month and has sold steadily above target ever since.
"You are able to make good products by letting women participate in all aspects of the business process," said Yukiko Yoshimaru, general manager of the diversity development office at Nissan. "That way, we can meet the customers' needs satisfactorily."
That Nissan even has a diversity officer may sound startling to those who are used to thinking of Japanese companies as dominated by men, and Japanese men at that. But the automaker has made visible progress on the diversity front under a management team that includes Carlos Ghosn and other French executives from Renault. Aside from bringing in foreign managers from overseas, it has increased the proportion of women in managerial ranks to 4 percent from 1.6 percent three years ago.
And Nissan is not alone in making a visible commitment to diversity. Big employers from manufacturers like Matsushita Electric and Toshiba to large lenders like Mizuho Corporate Bank are setting up departments, holding seminars for management-track women, and soliciting foreigners as regular, full-time employees to work at headquarters in Japan.
Of the 750 new employees Matsushita Electric hired last year in Japan, 30 were non-Japanese; of the 100 non-engineering positions, close to half were filled by women, according to the company. Nissan also boasted a 50-50 ratio of women to men for non-engineer new recruits last year.
"To meet the diverse needs in the global market, you need to have diversity in the composition of your employees," Yoshimaru said. "A homogeneous group can only come up with something homogeneous."
This is radical talk in corporate Japan, which previously took pride in its homogeneity, especially during the go-go years of the 1970s and 1980s, saying it make them efficient. Today the new buzzword is "daiba-shitii," or diversity.
As a general manager of diversity development office at Tokyo Electric Power, the largest electricity producer in Japan, Hiroko Amemiya's job consists of publishing in-house magazines and leaflets meant to raises awareness of the issue and holding seminars for employees and managers to discuss habits and customs in the workplace that might stand in the way of creating a diverse work force.
"There are certain ingrained habits and thinking that are difficult to shake off immediately," she said. "People say, for example, that women aren't good at driving. But some women are good at driving, and to conclude that women can't drive well leads to a bias, and bias leads to discrimination."
Japanese business, like Japanese society and many other countries, still has a long way to go to be truly gender- or ethnicity-blind. According to the most recent survey by the Ministry of Welfare and Labor, in 2003 women held just 3.3 percent of managerial jobs at companies with more than 5,000 employees - among the lowest in mature economies.
And only about 1.6 percent of the population was foreign-born at the end of 2006, according to the Justice Ministry - the highest it has ever been. Xenophobia still runs deep in certain segments of society, and "No Foreigners" signs are found in some commercial outlets in the countryside.
But things are changing - largely, say corporate managers and analysts, because they have to. Demographics and globalization demand it.
In Japan, one of the fastest aging societies in the world, labor is increasingly becoming a scare resource. A big lump of workers in their late 50s, the so-called baby boomers, are retiring, while the pool of younger workers is shrinking, driving big companies to scramble for workers to plug the gap.
"In certain businesses such as the info tech industry, companies are structurally and chronically short of workers," said Yukihiro Yamao, president of AXIS Consulting in Tokyo, an employment concern that has helped big Japanese employers like Fujitsu, Hitachi and their group companies find workers from overseas.
He has placed about 30 Chinese white-collar workers with Japanese companies in the past year and sees assignments from clients zooming to several hundred in a few years.
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