Time to ‘Talk the Walk’ on DEI in Asia


Fan Li


The Asia Philanthropy Congress 2023, held in Tokyo and Kyoto this month, marked its second year as a platform dedicated to fostering cross-sectoral collaboration to address social issues in the region. Organized by the Nippon Foundation, the largest foundation in Japan, the event brought together influential figures from foundations, philanthropy, NGOs, and other sectors across Asia, with a primary focus on the theme of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI).

Like many global trends from impact investing to ESG, DEI is another concept that has been adopted from ‘the West’ by an increasing number of players across sectors in the region. What does DEI actually mean for different stakeholders in Asian society? Is DEI in Asia lagging behind, as indicated by global benchmarks such as the Gender Gap Index, or is it just different? What is the expected role of philanthropy? These questions were discussed extensively during the event.

DEI Practices in Asia: A Rich Tapestry

Diversity is a given in Asia, as it is one of the most ethnically and linguistically diverse regions in the world. Yet, most Asian countries are dominated by a single race that has a strong emphasis on respecting its traditional values. Therefore, interpreting where Asia stands on DEI should be done with care and cultural context in mind. As Yohei Sasakawa, Chairman of the Nippon Foundation stated at the opening session:  ‘Asia needs to find its own approach towards DEI, and foundations in the region have been pioneers in leading some innovative approaches.’

This is my 2nd year attending the Congress. It’s one of the few large events in the sector that provides simultaneous Japanese and American sign language interpretation, which are apparently very different languages, like Japanese and English.

Disability inclusion was one of the main themes discussed at the event. Individuals with disabilities face pressing challenges in nearly all aspects of life. These difficulties have intensified over the past four years globally, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, climate-related disasters, and economic hardships. For a very long period of time, disabilities in Asia were seen as something to be overcome or pitied, not something to be accommodated through accessible infrastructure. This mindset has started to change.

Nevertheless, securing education and employment for people with disabilities is a significant challenge in Asia. According to Toshiya Kakiuchi, CEO of Mirairo Inc, more than 9.6 million people in Japan have disabilities. At least 40 percent of them are able to work, but less than 620,000 are employed. ‘Exclusion in education and employment for people with disabilities are highly interconnected. The number of university students with disabilities in Japan has greatly increased in the past 10 years, but it is still less than 2 percent.’

Mirairo Inc provides universal design supervision, education and training that incorporate the perspectives of people with disabilities. ‘We believe that expanding barrier-free access in Japan and Asia is an important step towards inclusion. Today, it’s much easier for people with disabilities in Japan to go out than any other country, ‘ Kakiuchi added. According to Japan National Tourism Organization, about 95 percent of train stations in Japan are accessible for people with disabilities.  In Tokyo, about 88 percent of stations now have elevators as opposed to 3 percent in Paris, 18 percent in London and 25 percent in New York.

The Nippon Foundation has been involved in activities to support persons with disabilities in Japan and around the world for more than 50 years. Sasakawa shared a recent pilot project of the foundation which undertakes the digitization tasks of the National Diet Library and entrusts the operations to 8 disability employment facilities. The project aimed at supporting employment in fields that were previously inaccessible to individuals with disabilities with a significant increase in wages.

Many congress speakers acknowledged that one of the essential motivations behind businesses embracing DEI in Asia is the demographic need. Shrinkage in the working-age population is now well-established in Japan, South Korea and China, and others will follow. In the midst of a manpower shortage, it is necessary to create inclusive and equitable workplaces and value the unique attributes and perspectives of individuals from all backgrounds.

Another important force is the changing values among young people, with an increasing focus on social impact in job searches. According to Haruka Mera, CEO of READYFOR, Japan’s largest crowdfunding platform, the younger generation in Asia is thirsty for change and looking for empowerment. ‘Many entrepreneurs in Japan decide to start business not to become rich, but to solve an issue that they care about.’

Necessity to Shift to a RightsBased Mindset

Asia’s diversity necessitates nuanced DEI approaches, considering cultural, linguistic, and ethnic differences. Some Congress speakers pointed out that addressing the ‘E’ (equity) issue, which is often overlooked in the narrative of DEI in Asia, requires a shift from a sympathy mindset to a rights-based mindset.

Fumino Sugiyama, Co-chair of Tokyo Rainbow Pride, pointed out that while public acknowledge on LGBTQ+ is improving in Japan (as in other Asia countries), the LGBTQ+ community is still invisible in most companies. ‘The problem is while acknowledgement is improving, the rules stay the same.’ Sugiyama is a former member of the Japanese women’s national fencing team and a transgender activist. He and his female partner are happily raising two children together, but they can’t get married because he is unable to change his gender on the household registration.

Japan does not recognize same-sex marriages. Several municipalities and prefectures issue same-sex partnership certificates, which provide some benefits, but they do not offer equal legal recognition. Sugiyama shared the story of Ibaraki prefecture,  the first prefectural government that accepted same sexual marriage in Japan. ‘The governor decided that the right has to come first as a priority, and public understanding and acknowledgement will follow.’

Sugiyama suggested that Japan can learn from its neighbors such as Nepal and Taiwan, where same-sex marriages have been legalized. ‘Sharing success stories originating in Asia would counter the perception that such progress is unattainable due to cultural differences.’

Evolving Role of Philanthropy

Today’s global landscape is fraught with humanitarian crises and multifaceted social challenges, and the expectations of philanthropy are under scrutiny. How can philanthropy adapt to meet contemporary needs? A session organized by the Sasakawa Peace Foundation took a philosophical dive to explore this question. Ryugen Matsunami, Chief Priest of Houdouji Experimental Temple in Kyoto, posited that current societal problems stem from division, an overemphasis on individual responsibility, and a lack of consideration for causality and relationships with others.

Shahira Ahmed Bazari, Managing Director of Malaysia’s Yayasan Hasanah Foundation, reminded the audience that the essence of humanity and giving transcends all religions. In Islamic belief, one is encouraged to take only what is enough, and give the surplus to society. Wealthy people have a responsibility to help the poor, animals and the planet. ‘As foundations, we need to think about how to use our capital as power to bring the world back to what it should be with generosity, kindness and justice.’

Another insightful session, organized by the Singapore based Temasek Foundation, took a close look at Asian foundations and NGOs on conflict prevention and peace promotion, and how fostering DEI within their initiatives enhances the effectiveness and sustainability of peace-building endeavors.

Peace-related philanthropy, especially conflict prevention and peace mediation,  constitutes a very small portion of grant-making in Asia. Akiko Horiba from the Sasakawa Peace Foundation shared the Foundation’s work on conflict resolution in the Deep South of Thailand by supporting official peace dialogues between the Thai government and armed groups as well as supporting capacity building for a variety of stakeholders in the region. Horiba emphasized that through these works on the ground, it becomes clear that a private foundation with relative political flexibility and independent funding can make a unique contribution in this field.

The most inspiring contribution came from 32-year-old Yosuke Nagai, who founded Accept International 12 years ago.  Accept International has been active in implementing de-radicalization and reintegration programs for defectors, prisoners, and detainees of violent extremist groups in Somalia, Yemen, Kenya, and Indonesia. Accept operates a ‘surrender hotline,’ offering refuge to those seeking to escape terrorist organizations.

When contacted, Nagai will go wherever he is needed, even if that means rushing to the frontline of a conflict with the help of a military escort.When asked how philanthropy could help in peace-building, Nagai pointed out that it’s not easy to win sympathy from potential donors towards Accept’s beneficiaries compared with other causes. He urged the audience to rethink the prospect of philanthropy and to not avoid difficult issues.

Start small, start fast, start now

These are the mantras suggested by Ferro Ferizka, Executive Director of the Pijar Foundation,  during special sessions in Kyoto for core members of the Asia Philanthropy Congress. There, they compared notes and discussed future collaboration and joint action. Participants were divided into groups to brainstorm on various agendas,  from youth development to capacity building to climate changes. Several proposals from participants marked a positive end to the event, including an Asia youth seminar to help young Asians understand more about their neighbors, field trips and onsite learning for core members of the Asia Philanthropy Congress, and the establishment of a task force to develop an Asia DEI framework.

Discussions at the Asia Philanthropy Congress strongly indicated that the journey towards DEI will persist with an awareness of the complicated culture context. My biggest takeaway was a ‘seesaw theory’ proposed by Sugiyama at the end of his powerful sharing. When confronted with difficult and complex social issues, many people tend to seek a position of neutrality, likened to sitting in the middle of a seesaw. However, if one side is already significantly heavier than the other, occupying the middle inadvertently supports the heavier (more powerful) side.

We should all reconsider our positions on the seesaw, both personally and organizationally.

Fan Li is the East Asia Regional Representative at Alliance magazine.

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