Creating a Blueprint for Diversity in Japan: An Interview with Yoko Kuroda

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Read the news about Japan on any given day, and you’ll be bombarded with stories and opinion pieces on how the country needs to internationalize. There’s a lot of talk and discussion about fostering diversity in Japan, however concrete action plans to achieve this goal are hard to come by.

That’s why I was excited to meet Yoko Kuroda, executive director of the Global Human Resource Career Support Association (GHCA). Through this organization and its flagship product, the Business Skills Test for Global Human Resources (G-ken), she has transformed words into actions with a practical process to gradually globalize Japan’s workforce.

Originally from Tokyo, Kuroda started working as a flight attendant for Japan Airlines (JAL) right after graduating from college. During the latter portion of her 23-year career, she became a manager at a JAL training center where she was in charge of training over 3,000 flight attendants from all over the world. After her time with JAL, Kuroda started working for One Stop Innovation, a startup that provides bilingual dispatch workers and training for Japanese and non-Japanese personnel.

Read on to learn:

  • How Kuroda became an “intrapreneur,” launching GHCA from within One Stop Innovation
  • Concrete advice on how to bring your own business ideas to life
  • How diversity can positively impact your company’s bottom line

After such a lengthy, successful career at JAL, most people would stop there. What motivated you to try something new and join a startup?

I loved JAL so much, and I’m proud to have worked with so many wonderful people. My career with JAL had a significant impact on my life. However, the time came when I needed to put my family first. So, in order to spend more time with my family, I decided to leave JAL for something new. One Stop Innovation was a great way to continue working in a global environment in the human resources field.

Can you tell me more about GHCA?

GHCA was established to provide career support for non-Japanese people who are working in Japan, or who want to work in Japan in the future. We aim to develop job skills and expand employment opportunities for foreign workers.

Our primary service is the development of a new standard for evaluating foreign candidates hoping to work in Japan. We offer the G-ken program and examination to certify job hunters.

It’s important to note that this exam is not a Japanese language exam. Instead, it focuses on business skills, etiquette, and customer care. Topics range from first impressions, grooming, greetings, posture, active listening, Japanese culture, and workplace manners and norms.

Those who pass this test are certified for basic communication skills, basic customer services skills, and cultural knowledge—the essentials required in order to thrive in a Japanese workplace.

Yoko Kuroda giving a G-ken seminar

Yoko Kuroda giving a G-ken seminar

Does this mean that G-ken examinees need to know Japanese before entering the program?

Language training is included, but basic Japanese knowledge is required because all of the training materials are written in Japanese. Just like with the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT), the G-ken has various levels. For example, having JLPT N3 is equivalent to G-ken G4.

Can you break down the program participants by nationality?

Currently, G-ken G2 participants are primarily from Asian countries such as China, Taiwan, Korea, and Vietnam. Despite the fact that the G-ken program was designed for foreign candidates, we even managed to attract Japanese participants! As we move down to the G3 and G4 levels, we see a wider variety of nationalities including German, French, Swiss, and Nigerian. Still, non-Asian participants represent only about .5% of our total number of participants.

So western countries represent a potential growth area…

Yes, I hope so. We welcome people from all over the world.

What inspired you to become an “intrapreneur” after joining One Stop Innovation?

Our clients had a need, and I happened to be there at the right time. They told us that non-Japanese employees were finding it difficult to build long-term careers in Japanese companies because they weren’t properly prepared for their jobs. This includes knowledge of business manners, Japanese culture, interpersonal skills, and more.

Our clients always said that a standard for evaluating non-Japanese workers would be very useful. So, I thought, why don’t I make that standard? And thus the Global Human Resources Association was born.

What challenges have you encountered and how did you overcome them?

At first, it was very hard to find examinees to take our test, since we were an unknown brand. Eventually, we attracted 550 examinees for the first test and 1,252 examinees for the second test in November 2017.

I had to do a lot of personal selling to promote our examination to potential examinees. This included literally going from city to city, visiting Japanese language schools and vocational schools. Also, my friends and family introduced me to key people such as teachers. I couldn’t have done any of this without the help of my friends, family, and network.

What advice do you have for those who want to live and work in Japan?

Learn to communicate non-verbally to achieve mutual understanding. Even without language, we can communicate through facial expressions, eyes, body movement, and posture. For example, standing with a beautiful posture shows respect toward the person you are facing. Grooming and tone of voice are also ways in which we communicate without uttering a word.

Many Japanese people may hesitate to communicate in a foreign language, but we notice the atmosphere. Sometimes, all it takes is a smile to have heartfelt communication.

It’s important to mention that the G-ken is not intended to “Japanize” people from other countries. Instead, it’s the first step in smoothly adapting to the Japanese business scene. Before you can create a truly global working environment, you have to adapt yourself to your current circumstances. We aren’t saying that Japanese manners are the best. Japanese customers expect certain behaviors, and to succeed in Japan, it’s important to meet those expectations.

Yoko Kuroda demonstrating how to make a good first impression

Yoko Kuroda demonstrating how to make a good first impression

I understand the importance of adapting to Japanese cultural norms, but after we have done that, how can we leverage our diverse backgrounds and experiences?

Once you’ve got the basics down, you can start to differentiate your behavior on a case-by-case basis, using your judgment. But I have to reiterate, that understanding Japanese work and cultural norms is a critical first step.

So, let’s imagine that I’m working at a Japanese company with the highest possible G-ken certification. Would that make it easier for me to express my cultural values to my colleagues?

Yes, because at this point your colleagues will have grown to appreciate you and will be more open to hearing what you have to say.

Got it. That’s an important point as I’ve seen many people try to skip that first step with disastrous results.

That’s why our goal is to ensure that the contributions of non-Japanese employees are appreciated in the workplace. A good way to think of all of this is with the famous quote commonly associated with Charles Darwin: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”

The act of truly becoming global happens after first adapting with tools like the G-ken examination. First, be appreciated in your workplace. From there, you can grow and create new things.

What is your vision for Japan’s future when it comes to business, government, and society?

To realize a society that celebrates diversity, one in which people of all cultures work together with mutual understanding and enhance productivity together.

Most people agree that diversity is a positive concept to pursue. However, diversity is also a complex concept that takes a lot of effort to achieve. What are the specific, measurable benefits of a more diverse Japan?

Japan is monocultural, but people have different strengths and weaknesses. Diversity gives us a greater array of strengths to work with, which can enhance productivity. For example, if everyone always thinks the same way, there is only one solution to every problem. Diversity brings more possible solutions to consider and allows us to find the best one for a particular problem. In other words, diversity enhances productivity.

Can you give us a specific example?

In our own organization, we have employees from other Asian countries. This instantly gives us the ability to spread the word about our services to the world in multiple languages. This is much faster and more productive than the process of outsourcing.

For example, it’s much more effective to have Chinese staff reach out to Chinese customers. They can assess their needs faster and more smoothly than our Japanese staff would be able to. It’s a small example, but it’s a realistic one that’s actually happening here.

Lastly, what advice do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs?

Listen to your inner voice, and if a particular idea excites you, that is what you should bring into reality. If you hesitate, someone else may beat you to it.

Start small, start cheap, and move quickly. Follow the Lean Startup model: have a trial and error cycle based on researching customer needs. Don’t wait for perfection. Just start working, and you can revise as you go.

Learn more by visiting the Global Human Resource Career Support Association website.