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Japan CEO aims for healthy, happy society by drawing from business leaders' dialogue

Artisan Group CEO Nobuhisa Kishi is seen in Tokyo's Minato Ward on Oct. 20, 2022. (Mainichi/Tadahiko Mori)

TOKYO -- For two decades, Nobuhisa Kishi, CEO of Tokyo-based Artisan Group, has been facilitating open dialogue among Japan's business leaders, with the aim of using their insights to tackle local -- and simultaneously global -- social issues. This year, he has committed himself to the topic of health-consciousness, which he believes can lead to a lifetime of happiness.

    As the CEO of Artisan, Kishi organizes First Wednesday, an exclusive forum for Japanese business leaders involved in global management to share knowledge for tackling social issues. The forum dates back 25 years, when Kishi, then an intern at the Wall Street Journal, was disappointed and puzzled to find that visits to the U.S. by Japan's political or economic leaders never made the headlines. He expressed this observation to Toyoo Gyoten, former Japanese vice minister of finance for international affairs, and was told, "It's not a matter of language; it's because there is not enough backbone to convey a message."

    Since then, Kishi has been working to unearth and convey the strengths of Japanese companies to the world, through First Wednesday. He learned that top companies both in and outside Japan actually have similar philosophies, and that social issues could be tackled productively through their dialogue and collaboration. However, he also realized that "Japanese companies tend to take a self-contained approach that is not useful for solving issues faced by society as a whole."

    One social issue Kishi wants to address is Japan's aging society. According to the Cabinet Office's fiscal 2022 annual report, those aged 65 and older now account for 28.9% of Japan's total population of around 126 million people. An aging society is an issue faced globally as well. In 2020, 9.3% of the world's population was aged 65 and older; by 2060, the figure is expected to hit 17.8%.

    Meanwhile, health care expenditures in Japan in fiscal 2021 totaled approximately 44.2 trillion yen (roughly $323 billion), according to health ministry statistics. Kishi believes that promoting health-consciousness in individuals instead of reacting after senior citizens develop illnesses will be cost-effective and also lead to a better quality of life.

    While he has experience caring for an elderly family member, he feels that most people do not take care of or invest in their own health, until they or someone close to them gets sick. A 2014 survey commissioned by the health ministry found that it was less common for people aged between 20 and 39 to be careful about their eating habits and other aspects of health, compared to the 65-plus demographic. Furthermore, 42.5% of health-conscious respondents said they began to appreciate their health after they or loved ones became sick, nearly twice as many as the 23% who said they had always cared about health.

    Another concern of Kishi is that as many people belong to only one or a few communities throughout their life, they tend to get isolated in old age, especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic. This view is supported by Cabinet Office statistics from a fiscal 2020 international comparison study, which targeted over 1,000 participants each in Japan, the U.S., Germany, and Sweden. Regarding interaction with neighbors, only 5% of Japanese respondents said, "We help each other when people are ill," the lowest percentage of all four countries. Japan also had the highest ratio of people lacking close friends besides family to discuss matters.

    Thus, as a new endeavor, Kishi launched the Integrated Healthcare Initiative in April -- the 20th anniversary of First Wednesday -- to encourage leaders to think outside the framework of their own organizations to tackle health-related social issues of Japan's aging society.

    Marui Group Co. Chief Well-being Officer Reiko Kojima gives a talk at an Integrated Healthcare Initiative session in Tokyo on Oct. 20, 2022. (Mainichi/Chinami Takeichi)

    The initiative is a series of interactive sessions led by guest speakers where leaders can share knowhow on health-related topics. Various companies participate in the meetings, including those belonging to the food, pharmaceutical, nursing care, retail, medical device, and other health-related industries. Other members were from research and medical institutions, media, and other bodies in and outside Japan. Guest speakers invited so far include a food culture expert, a former health ministry official, and the former global CEO for Nestle Nutrition.

    The guest speaker for the fourth session in October was Reiko Kojima, the company physician and chief well-being officer (CWO) of retailing giant Marui Group Co. Before some 20 participants, she started her lecture with the question, "What is health?" which elicited responses such as "Eat Well, Live Well" -- the slogan of food firm Ajinomoto Co. -- drawing laughter at the round table discussion. Kojima stressed that while many businesspeople, especially of the past, tended to equate "health" with the absence of illnesses, it has become increasingly significant in the modern age to have a holistic view of health, as a "state of complete physical, mental and social well-being," as defined by the World Health Organization in its 1946 Constitution.

    As a company physician, she has felt frustration over the lack of action among employees with health risks, who ignored her advice, saying they were too busy with work to get medical examinations.

    After trial and error throughout the years, she realized that "presenting risks is not enough to change individual behavior." She said, "One key to well-being is having individuals want to act and make their own choices."

    As an example, she introduced Marui Group's 10-year-plus endeavor to implement a system where workers must step forward to attend various company meetings, including those on project planning and health initiatives. Participants are chosen only among those who voluntarily "raise their hand" and submit essays stating why they want to join. As screening takes place without disclosing individual names or status, members comprise both male and female workers of all ages, including rookies.

    The ideas raised in the meetings are translated into action, such as the "Well-being Village" held in March at a Marui department store in Tokyo's Shinjuku. It featured products and services related to "femtech" (female technology), which are designed to help women with their fertility and menstrual cycles. While participation in these company meetings is optional, in the last 10 years, 82% of employees have apparently used the system to "raise their hand" in some way.

    Kishi thinks that Marui Group's case provides a hint for promoting health-consciousness among individuals. He told The Mainichi, "To ensure health in an aging society, people need to raise their awareness and change their behavior early. Kojima's endeavors can be applied to the challenge to get people to notice the significance of and enjoy taking care of their own health." He added, "I think that companies' efforts to promote well-being among employees will contribute to solving health issues in society as a whole."

    In the ensuing Q&A session, many executives praised Marui's novel endeavor and said they would consider taking a similar approach, as promoting well-being for individual employees seemed to enhance productivity. On the other hand, others were skeptical and demanded concrete data showing the relation between well-being and profit.

    The Q&A continued for nearly as long as the initial lecture. This aligned with Kishi's wish to create a platform where leaders can speak honestly and seriously, instead of a conventional meeting where no objections are raised. "My aim is to create a cycle where leaders stimulate one another and build up power as individuals, which then leads to growth of their respective companies, and also to members of society as a whole."

    In the next couple years, Kishi plans to use the knowhow gained from the Integrated Healthcare Initiative meetings to create a hub in a community of Japan that offers health services for residents, in collaboration with the initiative's member companies, hospitals, and local governments. He also dreams of expanding such communities where "the more you age, the happier you get" to areas around the world.

    He said, "Japan is advanced in the field of health, like its traditional culture of fermented food, which boosts immune response. I'd also like to convey Japan's strengths to increase health-consciousness abroad." The CEO remains ambitious to spread messages in and from Japan for a healthier world.

    (By Chinami Takeichi, The Mainichi Staff Writer)

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