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Use “women’s power” to tackle talent shortage

AGEING of the society is a problem most European countries face nowadays, while Japan has been dealing with it for even longer than Europe. To cope with the challenges posed by the rapid ageing of society, labour markets need to be inclusive, Japanese Ambassador Akio Egawa suggests, saying that not only should the elderly be prompted to keep active, but also the power of women should be taken into account.

Japanese Ambassador Akio Egawa(Source: Jana Liptáková)

In his e-mail responses to The Slovak Spectator’s questions, Ambassador Egawa writes also about talent shortage, trade agreements with the US, and the Japanese cuisine “washoku”.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): The Japanese city of Kyoto has repeatedly topped the ranking of the best cities in the world, according to the readers of the Travel and Leisure magazine. What do you think is behind this success, and what are the lessons that Bratislava or other Slovak cities could learn in order to be more appealing to tourists?

Akio Egawa (AE): Everywhere you go in Kyoto, you will be immersed in its rich history and culture that spans more than 1,000 years: temples with beautiful Japanese gardens, streets unchanged for hundreds of years, traditional seasonal festivals. I can say the whole city of Kyoto embodies traditional Japanese culture and that is the charm of Kyoto. It has another face, however. Kyoto is a very innovative city, which has always been creating and absorbing something new. That is one of the reasons why global innovative companies like Kyosera, Nintendo or Omron are located in Kyoto and why Kyoto University is Japan’s biggest producer of Nobel Prize recipients in natural sciences. I think this “coexistence of tradition and innovation” makes Kyoto a much more unique and interesting city for foreigners.

Slovak cities and Slovakia itself are also rich in history and traditional culture. Bratislava may be less known to tourists than other cities in the region such as Vienna, Prague or Budapest, but it has its very unique attractiveness. It’s like a small but shining gem in Central Europe.  If I add one more thing to the attractiveness of Kyoto, it is “omotenashi”, the Japanese way of hospitality. Politeness or heartfelt service tourists feel in shops and restaurants or in contacts with the local people make them come back to Kyoto again and recommend family or friends to visit there.

TSS: The world has recently marked the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. What does this anniversary mean to the people of Japan, and how is the country managing to come to terms with this painful part of its past? What are the similarities, or differences, in the process of remembering and historical reconciliation, if you were to compare Japan and Slovakia?  

AE: After World War II, we, the Japanese people, with deep repentance for the war, made a pledge that we shall never again repeat the devastation of war or resort to any form of the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes. Since then, we have been keeping on the path to a peace-loving nation for as long as 70 years, as is stated by the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on August 14, a day before the anniversary of the end of World War II in Japan. The 70th anniversary of the end of WWII is an appropriate opportunity to renew our determination to take the lessons of history deeply into our hearts, to carve out a better future, and to make all possible efforts for the peace and prosperity of the world. Japan has repeatedly expressed the feeling of deep remorse and heartfelt apology for its actions during the war. In order to manifest such feelings through concrete actions, we have consistently devoted ourselves to the creation of peace and prosperity of Asia since the end of the war, keeping in our hearts the histories of suffering of the people in the region. Each of us, Japan and Slovakia, has its own history. However, I believe that the people of both countries, sharing such basic values as freedom, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, share a longing for a peaceful world without war.

TSS: In a recent Talent Shortage Survey by the ManpowerGroup, Japan placed as the country with the biggest lack of available skilled workers, with 83 percent of employers reporting that they struggle to fill jobs. In Slovakia, the number is significantly lower (under 30 percent), but foreign investors active in Slovakia cite the shortage of labour force for some job positions among the major challenges of the Slovak labour market. How is Japan coping with this problem? What are the strategies or policies that could help meet this challenge?

AE: The problem of human resource shortages is getting more serious in Japan in some areas today. In an ageing society, the demand for health-care service for the sick and the elderly is expected to expand substantially. The construction industry has difficulty recruiting young people because of their decreasing interest in the industry. In order to create better conditions for employers to secure the necessary personnel, the Japanese Government is now promoting measures to improve employment management in workplaces, to help matching needs between employers and job seekers and to support training for capacity building conducted by employers. In addition, the Government is encouraging employers to change the status of non-permanent employees to permanent and this should also help tackle the issue of human resource shortage. When we talk about this issue, we should not forget the importance of “women’s power”. In resolving many challenges we are facing today, it is absolutely necessary to increase women’s participation in society. Prime Minister Abe has taken up “creation of a society in which all women shine” as one of his high-priority issues and he is now actively taking initiatives to develop a better social environment for women’s participation both domestically and overseas.

TSS: The recent demographic statistics have shown that Slovakia is facing a problem with an ageing population, with the low birth rate being one of Slovakia’s major problems. Japan has been dealing with the issue of an ageing population already for several years now. What are the lessons that Slovakia could perhaps learn in this respect from Japan?

AE: In Japan, more than 25 percent of the population is now 65 years old or over and the number is estimated to exceed 40 percent in 2060. This “super ageing society” has been placed in the top priority issues of the Government for many years and various measures have been taken so far, including the medical and social welfare system reforms such as a shift of retirement age from 60 to 65. I think that information and communications technology (ICT) can play a key role in dealing with this issue, too. As one of the measures to cope with the super ageing society, the current Abe administration is promoting utilisation of ICT to realise a new society model. It is a project called “Smart Platinum Society”, in which people of all generations can enjoy active life by utilising ICT. In this “Smart Platinum Society”, even the elderly are expected to have healthy and independent lives, while actively working and participating in social activities with the support of ICT. The falling birth rate is the other side of the coin in the issue of an ageing population. The Japanese Government is now making efforts to create more favourable conditions for young couples to have and raise children by increasing childcare facilities, encouraging fathers to take childcare leave and so on.

TSS: Migration is one of the proposed ways to tackle the ageing society, but in Japan, as well as in Slovakia, the stance of citizens is rather reluctant. What are the reasons behind such a stance in Japan?

AE: The migration issues relate to various factors such as geographical environment, historical background as well as cultural elements including languages. I don’t think the Japanese society is exclusive. From old times, lots of people have migrated to Japan from China or the Korean Peninsula and they have fit in with Japanese society. If I give an example, the China Town in Yokohama city has a long history and it is a very famous and popular tourist spot among the Japanese people today. Today, more than 2 million foreigners live in Japan, which is an increase by about 60 percent compared to 20 years ago. In “Abenomics”, the economic policies of the Abe administration, utilisation of foreign human resources is regarded as one of the key elements to achieve economic growth in an ageing society with a low birth rate. From this point of view, the Japanese Government is preparing measures to promote acceptance of foreign talent in nursing services, ICT and other areas.

TSS: The negotiations over the TTIP free trade treaty between the US and the EU is a widely discussed topic in Slovakia at the moment. Japan is currently part of similar negotiations, over the Trans-Pacific Partnership. How do you view these two separate processes and what are the benefits of such treaties for economies of participating countries and the global economy in general?

AE: It is difficult to comment on the on-going TTIP process as Japan isn’t a party to its negotiations. Japan, in addition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), is currently engaged in negotiations with the EU on the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) and we are aiming to reach “agreement in principle” within this year. Participating countries of TPP account for 40 percent of the world’s GDP with Japan and EU at 30 percent. These are quite big shares. I believe that both the TPP and the Japan-EU EPA will bring economic prosperity to all participating countries and regions, including Japan and Slovakia. Free trade agreements and EPAs boost business activities among participating countries and regions by the creation of one large market and liberalisation of trade and investment. That is the greatest benefit of agreements of this kind. Moreover, I would like to point out that enhancement of economic relations strengthens ties between countries and regions politically as well.

TSS: Recently Slovakia has witnessed the departure of some Japanese producers or a reduction of their presence, for example Panasonic is leaving Krompachy or SEWS Slovakia announced the closing of its plant in Topoľčany. What reasons do you see behind this development? Do you have any information about potential arrival of new Japanese investors to Slovakia or extension of existing companies?

AE: I think there are many factors such as wage increase, market trend or change in global business strategy when a company decides on withdrawal or production cut. So it is difficult to comment on the reasons for specific business decisions. In general terms, I believe Slovakia is an attractive country for Japanese investors. We can see Slovakia’s potential as an investment destination, for example, in the recent opening of a factory of Japanese company Akebono Brake Industry in Trenčín. In addition, there was news about a Japanese investor that came back to Nitra a few years after the closure of its factory in the same city and the establishment of a high-tech joint venture between Japanese and Slovak companies. The Slovak government is emphasising promotion of innovation. I recently visited the Slovak pavilion at the EXPO 2015 in Milan, and there was an interesting display of some Slovak inventions, including the “flying car”, which was also reported in the Japanese media. As this invention proves, there are companies with high-technology potential in Slovakia. From this point of view, I am carefully watching the development of ICT and R&D sector in Slovakia.

TSS: Last year the Japan Center was opened at the Paneuropean University in Bratislava. How do you perceive this effort to enhance the interest in Japan among Slovaks?

AE: It was a landmark development that the Japan Center was established as the first institution in Slovakia which mainly engages in Japanese language education and promotion of Japanese culture. According to research conducted by the Japan Foundation, the number of Japanese language learners has increased by 40 percent from 2008 to 2012 in Slovakia. We are trying to encourage those who learn Japanese and to enhance interests among the Slovak people in Japan and the Japanese language through various ways such as scholarship, a Japanese speech contest and so on. I believe the Japan Center’s activities will significantly help these efforts of ours and contribute to the promotion of understanding of Japan among the Slovak people.

TSS: The interest in Japanese culture and food has increased among Slovaks in recent years, sushi restaurants have mushroomed in Bratislava. What are the areas of Japanese culture that are still less known to Slovaks and that you think would be worth getting to know?

AE: Japanese traditional cuisine is called “washoku” in Japanese. These days, the word “washoku” is getting more popular abroad, especially after being registered on the UNESCO World Intangible Cultural Heritage list in 2013. According to our research, there are about 40 Japanese restaurants in Slovakia today. Together with “washoku”, I would like to promote “sake”, Japanese rice wine, too. As for the areas other than cuisine, I can name lots of traditional culture, for example, stage performance “kabuki”, tea ceremony “sado”, Japanese flower arrangement “ikebana”, etc., but they are already famous abroad. I remember that I was a bit shocked, to be honest, when I saw Slovak boys pour cold water on girls and beat them with whips on the Easter. So I personally think our unique traditional annual events and festivals such as “Doll Festival” on March 3, or “Star Festival” on July 7 should be interesting for the Slovak people as well. I would like the Slovak people to discover fascination of Japanese cinema, too. There are many internationally acclaimed Japanese film works and directors. Our Embassy organises a Japanese Film Festival every year and I would be very happy if as many Slovaks as possible would come to see these films.

TSS: During your travels around Slovakia, which places of interest have caught your attention the most? What do you think could be of particular interest to tourists from Japan?

AE: Since my arrival in Slovakia in December, 2013, I have visited many cities and towns of all the eight self-governing regions. On each visit I was impressed by the beauty of nature, richness of history, traditions and culture, and the warm hospitality of the local people. Through my travel over Slovakia, I found out that Slovakia is a country endowed with plenty of tourism resources such as historical towns including Bratislava; the High Tatras, the Danube river, the Small Carpathians Wine Route, old castles, caves, hot springs, folk dances and music; I believe all of these are very appealing to Japanese tourists. I would like to do more to introduce attractiveness of this country to the Japanese people and I think more can be done on the Slovak side to promote Slovakia to the Japanese , especially travel agencies.

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