What I learned by watching Davos from afar

One of my dreams is to be paid to attend the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

It’s the best place to network with famous leaders and the guests there this year included President Donald Trump and Greta Thunberg.

When I worked at the BBC, I was always jealous of colleagues who were assigned as journalists to Davos. Now I am a freelance reporter, it’s out of my price range as conference registration, travel and a hotel room are all incredibly expensive.

Fortunately, I can get a taste of what’s being debated through the media.

Climate change and its economic impact was the most discussed topic at Davos 2020.

Jiji Press reported that the Bank of Japan Governor, Haruhiko Kuroda, said Japan’s economy probably fell into negative growth in October-December 2019, partly due to damage from a series of powerful typhoons which struck the country.

World of work

Another point of discussion was the impact of technology on work.

Jonas Prising, the chairman of the huge international personnel company Manpower, told the conference that “we are currently in a very good period for labour markets globally.”

He claimed that rather than reducing job opportunities, technology is creating jobs. “Automation and technology is having a very positive impact in terms of overall job growth,” said Mr Prising.

Yet he also noted that there are some people who are frustrated because they don’t have the right set of skills to take advantage of globalisation.

Immigration opportunities

Japan has a low unemployment rate – only 2.2 percent in November 2019 – so there is much talk about bringing in more foreigners to fill some of the vacancies.

Mr Prising said: “Demographic rates and birth rates are dropping all over the world, so many countries need immigration. It is important to ensure the health of the labour market and to enable economic growth,” he said.

My friend Yuuichiro Nakajima from Crimson Phoenix was invited onto the BBC to talk about Japan’s tight labour market this week.

He explained that managers are having to make some tough decisions, such as cutting the opening hours for restaurants, petrol stations and convenience stores.

Mr Nakajima said that that the government is trying to encourage immigrants to come to work in Japan, so it is issuing more visas, especially to skilled foriegn workers.

The role of women

He also explained that many more women are now part of the workforce than previously.

“I think there is a bit of a conundrum there, because the more women, especially the younger ones, you encourage to enter, or remain, in the labour market, the less likely they are to produce offspring, or to put off having children to a later age,” said Mr Nakajima.

He went on: “Unless the government encourages women to be productive in terms of producing more children as well as be productive in the labour market, then I think we are going to continue to be in a bind.”

Deputy PM Taro Aso calls Japan a nation with single race

Japanese Finance Minister Taro Aso. Pic: AP 

I’ve only recently become aware that Japan is racially diverse. Like many outsiders, I initially assumed that because it is a very homogenous society, all Japanese people come from the same stock.

Yet I now realise that there are several distinct identities among the indigenous people of Japan. And although there is one dominant group, sometimes referred to as the Yamato Japanese, other ethnic groups include the Koreans, Ainu, Oroks, Taiwanese, Ryukyuans and Nivkh.
Northern culture

The Ainu, which came originally from the Northern part of Japan, including Hokkaido, have their own language and culture, which some people are trying to save from disappearing.

They have been successful in raising their profile. For example, an image of an Ainu woman was used as the main publicity picture for a recent exhibition about manga at the British Museum.

The Ainu were recognised as indigenous under legislation which went through the parliament in Tokyo last year. Now the government’s official policy is “to make efforts to support the Ainu people and eradicate discrimination against them.”

Racial controversy

The Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso stirred controversy when he mentioned race during a speech this month.
He said: “There is no other nation but (Japan) where a single race has spoken a single language at a single location and maintained a single dynasty with a single emperor for over 2,000 years,” said Mr Aso, who is also the finance minister.

“It is a great nation,” he concluded.

Mr Aso was criticised in the press for apparently ignoring the social contribution of the Ainu and other ethnic groups.

His later said: “If my remarks caused a misunderstanding, I apologise and will correct them. I have no intention of denying the government’s policy.”

Foreign presence

In covering the story, reporters from Associated Press informed their readers that “Japan has 2.7 million foreign residents, more than 2% of its total population of 126 million, according to government statistics.”

Apparently, international couples comprised more than 3% of the marriages in 2017. Last year, Japan relaxed visa requirements to allow more foreign people to work there.

The Chinese perspective

I briefly discussed Mr Aso’s remarks during a meeting I held this week with senior Chinese diplomats. They were careful not to criticise the deputy prime minister. But one of the Chinese officials reminded me that China is also an ethnically diverse country, with widespread regional differences.

“We believe it is common sense that all ethnic groups are equal,” the diplomat asserted. “It is not a matter of so-called political correctness but it is fundamental to China’s identity.”

He went on to explain that the government’s policy is to encourage everyone in China to learn Mandarin, as this helps with their education and prepares them to do business with other parts of China.

I hope that I’ll be able to continue learning about the ethnic mix of both China and Japan. I’d particularly like to hear directly from members of minority groups, so that I gain more insight into a fascinating issue which is often misunderstood by foreigners.

Good news for the salaryman – you can go home early!

The Japanese are famous for working long hours in the office and I am afraid I have often hear foreigners complain that this doesn’t make them particularly efficient.

However, things are changing. Working hours in Japan have dropped for several years, according to a report I received this week from Oxford Economics.

I was surprised by this. But the report explained that many more women and elderly people have joined the labour force as part-time workers.

This has had a big impact on the working lives of traditional salarymen – people who used to give the impression of working like slaves.

Less pressure

Fortunately, the pressure on these poor souls seems to be easing as some of their work is now being taken up by the part-timers. You often see these people on the checkouts of department stores, or helping out on the railways and buses.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has encouraged companies to improve the work-life balance of their staff. This means many bosses now hesitate before pressing their teams to sacrifice their evenings or weekends for the sake of the corporation.

The good news for the part-time workers, including many women, is that hourly wages keep rising. But the head of Oxford Economics’ Japan team, Shigeo Nagai, notes a downside to this trend. He claims that family incomes are not rising due to an overall decline in working hours. In other words, if he main breadwinner is working less, this has an impact on the income of the family team.

Tight labour market

Mr Nagai believes that this is an inevitable result of the country’s ageing and shrinking population and he reckons that “the current expansion of employment, led by rising participation of women and elderly, will eventually end.”

As the Financial Times pointed out recently, a quarter of Japan’s population is over 65, making it one of the world’s fastest-ageing nations.

The FT says the very low unemployment rate – it was only 2.2 per cent in November 2019 – is caused by demographic change and shows that the country has “a chronically tight labour market.”

Money puzzle

But that leaves a puzzle. If the labour market is so “tight” why aren’t people’s incomes rising?

Given the stiff competition between companies to find staff – and the relatively small pool of people looking to find a new job – you would have expected employers to offer more money. Yet on the whole, they don’t seem to be willing or able to do so.

Jobs for life

One theory favoured by Mr Nagai and others is that Japan’s lifetime employment system holds back wage growth because it has restrained base-pay growth for regular workers.

I have heard this problem mentioned many times at meetings about Japan’s economy and I know that it is an issue which worries politicians, civil servants and the people who run the Bank of Japan. Yet no-one seems to be able to find a solution.

Of course, many people in Japan are relatively well off. The staff of the big successful companies can expect a good pension and a great deal of job security.

So for some the rewards are good. Yet as Oxford Economics notes: “stagnant household income been a major constraint on Japan’s economic growth.”

Carlos Ghson: The media are not delivering the full facts

Before the authorities in Japan can bring Carlos Ghosn to justice, they must answer two pressing questions.

Where is he?

And who is helping him to stay on the run?

The international press has given extensive coverage to Mr Ghosn’s story, focussing on claims he left Japan on December 29th, months before he was due to stand trial in Tokyo for financial misconduct.

Yet much of the coverage has been confusing and misleading. In my view, it is in danger of undermining trust in some of the world’s most respected media institutions.

Disputed facts

Let’s start with a “fact” that has been covered by nearly all the media: that Mr Ghosn has fled Japan and returned to Lebanon.

This is being reported due to a “statement to the media” which was said to have come directly from Mr Ghosn himself.

Yet there has been no clear information about who received this statement or from which email address it was sent.

If Mr Ghosn wants to communicate with the media, why doesn’t he contact one of the many journalists who have been assigned to the story?

Between them, CNN and the BBC employ five thousand journalists. Not one of them has been able to obtain any confirmation that Mr Ghosn is really in Lebanon.

Warning sign

Another warning sign is that the press are quoting “an anonymous source” who allegedly acts as Mr Ghosn’s mouthpiece.

This source, who has apparently spoken to the Wall Street Journal, is quoted as saying that Mr Ghosn was “tired of being an industrial political hostage.”

I say to the Wall Street Journal’s editors: tell me your source and prove it is from a credible person.

Conspiracy theory

Much of the media says that Mr Ghosn employed a group of helpers who helped him flee Japan.

One of his legal team in Tokyo – Junichio Hironaka – said that “he must have had a large organisation to pull this off.”

The press loves a conspiracy theory.

The Times newspaper said: “The businessman who is 5’6” is believed to have been carried out of his apartment in Tokyo in a large musical instrument case by band members in an operation assisted by former special forces members.”

The Times told its readers that its story was “based on Lebanese and Japanese media reports.”

In fact, the story about the musical instrument case originated as a joke on a Lebanese TV station called MTV.

Paid Assistants

There may be people who are helping Mr Ghosn but it is difficult to see how he can pay them.

Since his arrest in November 2018 he has been either in detention or held on bail. At the heart of the case against him is the allegation that he understated his pay by tens of millions of dollars.

If Mr Ghosn does not appear in court, the Japanese authorities plan to confiscate all the 1.5 billion yen ($14 million) he posted as bail.

Meet the press

One way for Mr Ghosn to deal with the media would be to hold a press conference. But who would organise a press conference on behalf of a fugitive who is now subject to a red notice from the international police group Interpol?

Let’s imagine for a moment that the “presser” is held in Lebanon. The moment Mr Ghosn breaks cover there will uproar.

And as he leaves the venue, will he not be followed by a mob of reporters, paparazzi as well as secret agents or even bounty hunters?

Mr Ghosn was offered the chance to put his case at the court hearing in Tokyo. He made the fateful decision to leave Japan. Wherever he is now and whoever is helping him, it’s only a matter of time before the media uncovers his hiding place. And when the press find him, the story will explode back into the headlines.