Holding Mercari’s D&I Training for Management at Tokushima City Hall: A Discussion with the Mayor #MercariDays

On January 10th, @soramix from the Public Policy Team (who has been dispatched from Tokushima City Hall to Mercari for one year), @maz from the Language Education Team (LET), and @gabe from the Global Operations Team (GOT) went to Tokushima City Hall and held Mercari’s Yasashii Nihongo Communication Training and Unconscious Bias Workshop as diversity and inclusion (D&I) training programs for management.

After the training, the three of them sat down with Tokushima mayor Sawako Naito, who emphasizes the importance of D&I in her work, to discuss how vital D&I is and what lies ahead.

Featured in the article

  • Kumiko Asasora(@soramix)

    Kumiko works for the Public Policy Team at Mercari. She joined Tokushima City Hall in 2010, where she worked on tasks such as issuing family registers in the Resident Registration Division. She then moved to the Civil Engineering Policy Division, which is in charge of redevelopment projects and bidding for public works. She was selected as a member of a project team working directly under the mayor established in December 2021 to formulate a basic plan for revitalizing the city center, which was a major focus area for Tokushima City. She worked as a principal member of this project from its launch until its recognition in March 2022 by the prime minister. Following this project, she was dispatched to Mercari for training for one year beginning April 2022. At Mercari, she is a member of both the Public Policy Team in the Management Strategy Office and the D&I Team, where she has been involved in partnerships with local governments, Mercari Workshops, Mercari Donation, Mercari Shops, and the Unconscious Bias Workshop.

  • Masayo Oyamatsu(@maz)

    Maz is a member of Mercari’s Language Education Team.
    After working at a foreign international distribution company, she began working as a Japanese trainer in 2013. She has been in charge of Japanese education for overseas exchange students, businesspeople, and future nurses and caregivers. She joined Mercari in July 2018. She developed Mercari’s Japanese language program and speaking test and leads the Yasashii Communication in-house training program. At Mercari, there are many teams with a mixture of members who are more comfortable speaking Japanese and members who are more comfortable speaking English. With the Yasashii Communication training program, Maz helps employees with different language backgrounds learn how best to meet halfway.

  • Gabe Beckerman(@gabe)

    Manager, Global Operations Team 2 (GOT)
    Gabe was born and raised in the U.S. and first came to Japan at the age of 16. He has lived in Kyoto and Toyama and is now based in Tokyo. After graduating from Tufts University, he worked as a Coordinator for International Relations on the JET Program and then at Sojitz Corporation as an in-house translator. He joined Mercari in September 2018. In addition to his work as in-house interpreter and translator, he is also lead for the Unconscious Bias Workshop.

Thinking about unconscious bias on a personal level

@soramix: In today’s Unconscious Bias Workshop held for Tokushima City Hall management, we received some great comments from employees. One participant said, “This training made me realize that unconscious bias could affect even how I interact with other employees in management positions. It made me want to really think about my thoughts and actions.” Another said, “Being actively aware of our own unconscious bias will probably lead to times when we only notice something was biased after we’ve already said it. I hope that we can create a work environment that welcomes open and understanding communication.” I felt that if more and more employees are conscious of these takeaways, we’ll start to see real change in the organization.

Mayor Naito: People really become the most engaged in the group work part of workshops like these. It makes me realize that everyone has so much to say; they just don’t have many opportunities to put these thoughts into words. We didn’t hold training programs offered by private-sector companies until recently, so at first, some of our employees weren’t very interested, but recently more and more employees have been commenting on how training programs have evolved. Through these opportunities to try something different from our usual work, I hope that the employees in charge of running training programs can notice things they weren’t aware of before, think about how they can apply those things to their own work, and explore what kind of programs a city hall needs in this day and age.

Tokushima mayor Sawako Naito

Language as a barrier to the basic human right to education

@maz: We also held the Yasashii Nihongo Communication training program today. The number of non-Japanese citizens is increasing all over Japan. Learning how to work with and support a multinational population is a challenge that all local governments will have to take on. But if you don’t have any experience with this, it’s really difficult to get a sense of what needs to change and how.

Through this Yasashii Nihongo Communication training program, I got the impression that the city hall employees hadn’t really discussed how to share this issue with those around them. This goes for all local governments, not just Tokushima City Hall, but I hope that training programs like these are able to create opportunities for employees to really think about these communication-related challenges.

Mayor Naito: The number of people living in Tokushima City whose first language is not Japanese is increasing year after year. Families with children in particular face many problems. To name a few, some children can’t keep up at school because they don’t understand the Japanese in their textbooks, and some parents or guardians struggle to understand the handouts their children bring home.

To begin solving this problem, we allocated budget at the beginning of this fiscal year to launch a new project to support these children and families. We already had a project with people supporting Japanese language education, but that wasn’t enough. I don’t know if I can say for sure that all employees truly understand the background and intention of this project yet, and it isn’t easy to work within budget constraints, but we’re working to tackle this issue to ensure that anyone can enjoy life in Tokushima City regardless of their nationality.

@maz: Education is a basic human right. Language should never be a barrier to receiving an education.

We can connect this to the Unconscious Bias Workshop we held today, too. One reason this problem occurs is because of the biased thought that anyone who lives in Japan will naturally pick up the language over time. People tend to assume this about children in particular; it doesn’t occur to most people that maybe children are struggling because there isn’t enough Japanese language education provided to them.

We can speak Japanese fluently not just because we were born and raised in a Japanese-language environment, but because we had Japanese classes as part of our education. It’s the same for non-native-Japanese speakers. Without actual Japanese language education, you can’t learn how to speak it. We need to really think about how to provide that language education. But right now, there are students out there who get labeled as troublemakers or problem children because they can’t follow their teachers’ instructions, without any consideration for the language barrier that’s causing this problem. They aren’t receiving the care and support that they really need. I hope that Tokushima City’s initiative spreads across the country and helps reduce this educational inequality as soon as possible.

Mayor Naito: I actually have some experience with this myself. When I was 15, I participated in an exchange program and studied abroad in Texas in the US. There were practically no Asian people in the area; the population was about 1/3 Black, 1/3 Hispanic, and 1/3 White. It was a small town with farms full of horses and cows; the kind of place you’d expect to see cowboys in. Thanks to warm support from my teachers and kindness from everyone I met there, I had a great time. But when it came to school, subjects like math were no problem, but I found it difficult to understand everything that was being said and express my thoughts in English. I was going to English conversation classes, but this kind of experience really makes you think. I felt some racial discrimination while I was there, too.

Many people think of Japan as an ethnically homogeneous country. There is still some prejudice against non-Japanese citizens and people who don’t speak Japanese as their first language, especially in more rural areas. Thinking about those people and the difficult experiences they must go through was one of the reasons I started thinking about language bias.

Creating a kinder community one step at a time

Mayor Naito: One thing that’s especially difficult in promoting D&I is the misconception around promotions. Some think that I as mayor would promote female employees to management roles simply to make up for the relative lack of representation in these positions. I post on Twitter about empowering women and promoting women to management positions, and I work on projects such as training women to work in tech and providing opportunities for girls in middle and high school to receive free tech education. But in doing so, I’m asked by many people, both residents and City Hall employees, why I’m only providing these opportunities to women when the message is meant to be about providing opportunities to everyone. That’s exactly why I want employees to take D&I training programs like the one we held today.

@gabe: When it comes to D&I, I want people to be more aware of unconscious bias, especially in making HR decisions. For example, suppose a man and a woman apply for the same position, with similar resumes and CVs. Even if their qualifications are the same, there are cases where the man will be chosen simply because of the name at the top of the page.

And that’s assuming that the gender ratio of candidates is even in the first place. It’s usually not, which makes it a struggle for us at Mercari to keep things balanced. This is particularly a problem in tech fields—there are relatively few women engineers out there. There’s a growing movement to increase the number of women engineers across the software industry, and I think it’s a problem that all of society needs to face. I think it’s extremely valuable that Tokushima City has taken the lead in tackling issues like these and continued to speak about equality. Things may not change overnight, but it’s important to continue to provide these opportunities.

Mayor Naito: Tokushima City Hall has established five values. The second is “fairness,” referring to always thinking about what it truly means for something to be “fair.” We’re basically asking people to think about why there are so few women in tech. For example, did you know that Japan lags behind other countries in the rate of women who pursue higher education in STEM fields?

If you confront what “fairness” really means, you start to notice all sorts of imbalances and contradictions in society, whether you like it or not. In particular, when it comes to women employees here, I feel like sometimes people make assumptions that at first glance seem like they’re trying to be considerate—thinking that a woman might be busy taking care of her children or might not want to be in a department that has a lot of work. This kind of unconscious bias excludes women from opportunities that they may actually want.

@maz: This is true of tech fields, too. If you want to know the real reason there are so few women in these positions, look at the state of fundamental education: people label girls as being suited to humanities, not sciences, and there are still people out there who think that girls shouldn’t go to college. Women are influenced by these stereotypes from a young age and start believing them, closing the doors to so many opportunities. I didn’t notice that I had unconsciously accepted these labels until I was already an adult.

Mayor Naito: When it comes to tech education, if we say anyone is welcome to join, it inevitably ends up being dominated by men. We try to ensure psychological safety by specifying that, say, a particular course is specifically for women, or that we welcome members of the LGBTQ community. We also support Waffle Camp, which is an online program that provides a community for learning programming and skills for website development, based around the concept of “supporting the girls who will make tech more colorful.”

Additionally, we focus on reskilling for women. With the current structure of employment in Japan, women tend to end up in non-full-time or non-long-term positions, so we aim to provide opportunities for women to learn new skills and gain the tech knowledge needed to work anywhere.

Some people question this approach by saying that this will just lead to talent leaving Tokushima for big cities. But I think even in Tokushima, it’s important for women to have opportunities to earn Tokyo-level wages and pass it on to the next generation. The city has been working to train women in tech for two years now, and next we plan to focus on the idea of “local production for local consumption” for talent. We hope to create a cycle where people who take training programs go on to teach other people in their hometown so those people can also get certifications and earn higher pay, and then pass it on to the next person. I think that this initiative will lead us to a solution for the wage gap between the countryside and big cities, and even help us revitalize the countryside. I’ve been bringing up the topic of training women for tech fields at Gender Equality Bureau Cabinet Office meetings for a long time, and now it’s actually part of the basic policy.

@soramix: This is changing the subject a bit, but are there ever times when you feel like you face problems as a female mayor?

Mayor Naito: Well… To give one example, I often get asked how I manage to balance parenting, housework, and my work as mayor. My response is always, “Have you ever asked that question to a male mayor?” I was elected as mayor when I was 36, and now I’m 38. It’s a prime age for men to be parenting, too. But no one ever asks men how they balance work with parenting, do they? So why do they ask me? It’s thought of as normal for women to take childcare leave, but men make the news for taking just five days of childcare leave.

@gabe: When we talk about unconscious bias and D&I as a whole, people say that Japan isn’t that familiar with the concept because it’s an island country. But personally, I think that that makes it an even better opportunity. Because the US is such a diverse country, many think they already have a proper understanding of D&I. However, our experiences can limit our ability to really understand D&I from a more objective standpoint. But in Japan, many people recognize this as an area they aren’t familiar with and think of this kind of training as a good opportunity to learn. People can actually be quite open-minded, curious, and willing to listen.

@soramix: In Tokushima City Hall, like anywhere else, there are some employees that like sitting down and talking with other people, and some that don’t. In talking with the mayor today, I realized once again that we should aim to become an organization where we recognize what makes every individual unique and feel comfortable relying on each other, rather than forcing people into certain categories and pretending that that’s normal.

I’ll be returning to Tokushima City Hall in April, and when I do so, I hope that I’ll have more opportunities to run employee training programs internally and to speak about D&I to residents of the city and the prefecture, in addition to my regular work.

Mayor Naito: There’s no need to stop at training programs within City Hall, either. I think we should consider programs for residents and for other local governments within the prefecture, too. You’ve had such a special experience; I’d love to see you share it with other towns.


Mercari develops and provides the unique Yasashii Communication and Unconscious Bias Workshop training programs.

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