Japan is renowned for its rich history, idyllic landscape and one-of-a-kind inventions. Aaron Scully, Global Sustainable Equities portfolio manager at Janus Henderson Investors, took a trip to Japan to learn more about the companies that operate there as well as its economic and political climate. These were his key findings:
The idea of sustainability is not new to Japan; the ancient concept of “Mottainai” – to respect and not waste resources – has sustainability embedded into Japanese culture. According to the UN’s Sustainable Development Report Japan ranks 19th out of 193 Member States in terms of its progress towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, putting it among the top countries in Asia with regards to sustainability. Indeed, Japan has become a leader in championing sustainability efforts in Asia with many of its policies and initiatives in line with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
It should perhaps have been no surprise then to be greeted by a billboard promoting sustainable innovation at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport and to come across an advert for Climate Group’s EP100 initiative on a TV in the back of a taxi. In my short time there it became clear that sustainability is a key focus for Japanese policy.
Japan has the highest proportion of elderly citizens of any country in the world, which puts a great deal of pressure on its labour force. This reality has been exacerbated by the measures imposed at the onset of the COVID pandemic, which saw a decrease in foreign workers and a smaller portion of the labour force return to work after restrictions were lifted. Difficulty finding workers was a common theme in the company meetings that I attended, with many management teams expressing that this could limit their ability to grow over the medium- and long-term.
Digitalisation can offer a solution to labour shortages in many cases by filling critical but often mundane roles. Doing so enables companies to realise efficiencies and creates space for more meaningful roles that are more appealing to workers. But while this may be a good solution, the Japanese economy is currently behind the curve when it comes to digitalisation relative to the rest of the Western world.
The good news for investors is that companies which offer automation and business solution services are well placed to benefit from this theme as the need for digitalisation increases. These businesses could include tools which support business operations such as TechnoPro, a technology-focused staffing and services company, or cloud computing tools such as those provided by Rakus, a cloud services provider for small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Digitalisation also allows for companies to utilise data-driven insights to better understand customers, identify inefficiencies and improve existing functions, which should ultimately provide benefits for all stakeholders.
It became apparent upon meeting many Japanese companies that they are becoming more aggressive in their intentions to decouple from China. This was evident in the fact that some of the companies that I met with are choosing to build manufacturing capacity outside of China and ensuring that critical technology is far from Chinese shores. While the extent of any threat that China poses to Japan is up for debate, these actions clearly signal plans to take back control of strategically important industries and operations.
It should be noted that Japan is not alone in these efforts. Companies across Europe and North America have begun reshoring operations and supply chains as the weaknesses associated with globalisation have become a reality over the past two years. Interestingly, we have seen many developed world policymakers put sustainability at the core of policies intended to rebuild a sustainable and digital economy. In a policy speech by Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, the intended post-COVID growth strategy “will work to resolve social issues, including digitalisation, climate change, economic security and science, technology and innovation”.
As the sun sets over an era of globalisation, we expect that the new environment – where economic security goes hand in hand with digitalisation and sustainability – will offer plenty of opportunities for investors globally.
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