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Japan

Osaka / rooftop urban garden

Hoewel ik het hier al weer heb gehad over een volgende werkreis naar het Oosten, ben ik momenteel nog druk bezig met het opvolgen van gelegde contacten en opgedane kennis in Tokyo toen ik daar in mei was. Want dat was een erg succesvolle week, dus daar wil ik juist veel mee gaan doen in Nederland.

Door te laten zien wat er in Japan speelt op het gebied van MVO en duurzaamheid (zoals duurzame stedelijke ontwikkeling, waar ik gisteren ook over schreef) hoop ik ook aan een Nederlands publiek te tonen dat hier interessante dingen gebeuren en dat er raakvlakken liggen voor Nederlandse organisaties.

Maar waar laat je dat zien? Bijvoorbeeld via de (nog relatief jonge) site Katern: Japan waar vandaag mijn eerste artikel over MVO in Japan verscheen. Binnenkort verschijnt deel 2.

Walking...
via Flickr/David O

Attractive and well-maintained public pedestrian space is probably essential to a smoothly functioning democratic society, because we are forced to develop and maintain a civic awareness there, our activities are visible and we can meet as equals

This quote comes from Just Enough: Lessons in living green from traditional Japan, the book I’ve been drawn into the past week. It’s a great book, lent to me by a friend, about what Japan in the late Edo period (18th/19th century) looked like: a self-sufficient and sustainable society. The book follows the narrator on his visits to friends and acquaintances and shares with the reader what he sees: by telling us the story, and showing us with great illustrations. The book is amazing in its richness of detail and the amount of research that must have gone in to it. Not only is the book a good way of learning what kind of elements a sustainable society can have, it is also a great way of learning more about what people lived like at that time (so I now think it should be compulsory reading for anyone studying Japanese, like I did).

But back to the quote. At the end of each chapter, the writer Azby Brown shares lessons learned: what elements of Edo Japan can – or should – we integrate in our modern societies? Many of them I’ve come across at different places: eating local, waste = food, and many others. But the above quote stood out to me immediately.

I’m a walker. Despite being very Dutch, I don’t enjoy cycling (in fact, I can’t remember the last time I took my – broken down – bike out of the garage). I’m happy just walking through cities, turning in to streets that seem interesting and exploring a city that way. But this quote highlighted some other aspects of city walking that I hadn’t really thought of much before. Interaction with others, and the link to a democratic society. And it makes sense, because by walking I feel part of the city and I feel connected – even if only slightly – with the people around me.

The quote also reminded me of a discussion I had with urban planner/architect Christian Dimmer in Tokyo, and his ideas on how cities can become a more sustainable urban space. It’s not just about having green buildings, energy-efficient infrastructure and renewable energy sources. It’s also – mostly? – about the people. If you cannot create a sense of community in a city than all of the rest becomes a lot more difficult to realize successfully. But governments and top-down planners seem to forget about this social dimension of cities too often, maybe because it’s also seems to me to be one of the most difficult things to get right.

One initiative in Japan that is trying to bring attention to this dimension of urban development is the Tohoku Planning Forum, which brings together professionals in urban development to find ways of involving local communities in developing reconstruction plans in the tsunami-hit area of Tohoku in Japan. This article also explains some more of the initiative’s objectives and ambitions for the future.

However, talking to different people including Dr. Dimmer in Tokyo, my impression that urban development in Tokyo is very much top-down driven was definitely confirmed. In a way, that’s understandable. But, like the above quote also shows: you can’t create livable cities without involving the people and communities that are supposed to live there.

There does seem to be quite a bit happening in the field of (sustainable) urban development in Japan – even if China takes the spotlight currently – but my impression is also increasingly that this market is much more difficult to penetrate as a European urban planning or architecture firm. Not impossible, several European (including Dutch) architecture firms are active on the Japanese market. But the Chinese market seems to be much more receptive to outside expertise and knowledge.

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.

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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.

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.

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).

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.