The Nikkei Business magazine almost seemed apologetic in its introduction to a special feature entitled “Japanese people are spoilt. Why we should aim for a competitive society” urging Japanese to be more competitive amongst themselves. “According to the OECD, Japan has the second highest relative poverty rate amongst member countries, 1/3 of the workforce are contract workers, and around 30,000 people commit suicide a year from financial hardship. So why would we want to urge Japanese people to become more competitive? We are not of course wanting inequality to intensify by having more competition. But trying to get rid of competition from society is bizarre. Japan is losing its influence worldwide both economically and culturally. Many see that too much egalitarianism is behind this. Reducing inequality by removing competition means that the country has lost its hunger.”
The examples the Nikkei Business gives of egalitarianism gone too far include the trend in school sports days for pupils building ever higher human pyramids, despite causing many hospitalizations each year. The pyramids become higher in order to ensure that every pupil plays a role. Sports days at schools are also run on an “All Must Win Prizes” ethos.
The Nikkei also describes a company where they have introduced a rule that all new joiners must spend some time working abroad in their 20s, regardless, when previously overseas expatriation was reserved for high flyers who had put the preparation in to going abroad. The reasoning behind this is that the President had declared that “we must develop our younger employees so they become global human resources.” “It has the result that even those who make no effort at all get to go abroad, which must be demoralising for those in their twenties” – says an employee of the company, now in his 30s, who had long wanted to be posted overseas, and is now seriously thinking of changing employers, to a company which will make more use of his English language ability.
The magazine cites a freshly qualified, ambitious engineer who joined a small Japanese company, in the hope that despite the lower salary, he would have more opportunity to take on responsibility than working for a major blue chip. However he was stunned to discover that all employees were expected to take turns to clean the offices and wash the dishes. “I am not asking for special treatment, but when we are facing such tough competition from Asia, surely it would be a better use of my time if I was working on our main business in the time that I have to use for dishwashing.”
” It’s a kind of risk avoidance” says George Hara of the Alliance Forum, which trains Japanese to work in developing countries. ” by treating everyone the same, they avoid being criticised by anyone, and lose sight of what is important”
Actually, says the Nikkei, depending on how you look at it, Japan is not such an unequal society. The percentage of national wealth owned by the 10% wealthiest of the population has actually decreased over the past 15 years, to around 48.5%, lower than the US (74.6%) and only one place above Belgium, which is the lowest at 47.2% amongst 46 countries in the Credit Suisse Global Wealth Report of 2014.
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