Japan’s strategy to include the disabled

Inclusive Economy18 Jun 2013Sachiko Nakagawa

Disabled people can be included in society through work integration social enterprises. What are Japan’s lessons learned?

Fighting against social exclusion is one of the most pressing public issues in today’s world. Youth unemployment has reached almost sixty percent in Spain. In the US, more than forty percent of single mother families live below the poverty line. And in Japan, only 5.4% of the 7.4 million disabled can find a job in the mainstream labour market.

In these circumstances, social enterprises are attracting considerable interest and expectations from academics and policymakers around the world. They aim at making a positive change in social and economic systems, achieving social inclusion of marginalized people and promoting democratization in social and economic spheres through the production of goods and services.1 Currently, more than 1900 social enterprises act as employers and vocational service providers for the disabled in Japan.

Through research on Japanese work integration social enterprises (WISEs) for the disabled, I found that it is necessary to solve the following problems for social enterprises to become a strong source of leverage for social inclusion. The first is gaining recognition among governments, for-profit companies and the public for these businesses as a ‘workplace’, and promoting their economic growth. According to the results of our recent survey, about eighty percent of the 350 Japanese WISEs are operated on less than $500,000.2 The average age of their workers is 45.8. In interviews, employees of WISEs said that many for-profit companies regard them as a cheap tool, and governments generally place orders from for-profit companies instead of from WISEs. Lack of placement, funds and young workers hinder social enterprises from promoting social inclusion effectively and sustainably.

The second issue social businesses have to deal with is spreading the way of assigning work on the basis of individual strengths, rather than just conventional occupational ability. For example, one WISE assigns the task of sewing to disabled users who have these skills and management of warehouses to those disabled users who are strong. Another divides bed-making into individual tasks, such as removing the sheets and covering the beds, to utilize the advantages of people with Pervasive Developmental Disorders, who can concentrate on one task for a long time. If such a way of assigning work becomes more common, many people could get the opportunity to be active in society.

On the basis of these findings from my research on Japanese WISEs, I suggest the following plans to achieve an inclusive society.

1. Providing learning by experience at workplaces and employment in social enterprises to primary, junior and senior high school students, and establishing systematic courses to study social business as an economic entity at universities.

2. Implementing model projects to encourage governments and for-profit companies to assign work on the basis of individual strength, and advising on how this can be established in each workplace.

3. Stipulating that for-profit companies and governments order part of their work from social enterprises. Showing good examples of this and teaching how to practice it will enhance more effective implementation.

4. Investigating the effects of social business and the assignment of work on the basis of individual strengths in order to determine how many people can get stable paid work and a peaceful life through this.

5. Exchanging experiences and opinions about what policies are implemented to tackle social exclusion, what kind of effects are brought about and what is further needed to integrate all people in society. This should be done at international economic conferences attended by heads of government and Cabinet members.

To make sure that these plans become reality, researchers and practitioners in the field of social enterprises consistently need to push governments to implement them through public campaigns, lobbying and formal and informal talks.

When social enterprises can be at the same level as other sectors in the economic sphere and people can accept differences and utilize them, healthy social and economic systems will emerge.


    1. see for example Bridge, S., Murtagh, B., and O’Neill, K. (2009), Understanding the Social Economy and the Third Sector, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan; Campi, S., Defourny, J., and Gregoire, O. (2006), Work integration social enterprises: are they multiple-goal and muli-stakeholder organizations?. In: Nyssens, M. (ed.), Social Enterprise. London: Routledge, 29-49; Laville, J.-L., and Nyssens, M. (2001), The social enterprise. Towards a theoretical socio-economic approach. In Borzaga, C., and Defourny, J. (eds.), The Emergence of Social Enterprise, London: Routledge, 312-332.
    2. I conducted the survey with my colleague, Rosario Laratta, between July and August 2012. Some results will be presented at the 4th EMES International Research Conference on Social Enterprise held on 1-4 July 2013 in Liege, Belgium.