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Learning the Importance of Diversity and Acceptance from Ecosystems

Yoko Honjo
Sony Computer Science Laboratories, Inc. Research Activation Group

Exposure to diverse values in childhood and the search for my own identity

When I was in elementary school, my father was transferred to the industrial city of Belo Horizonte in Brazil and our family of four moved to Brazil from Japan. At the time -- the late 1970s -- there were still very few Japanese companies operating in the region, and my family was one of only a dozen or so Japanese families living there. I remember the local people labeled me as Japanese whatever I did, perhaps because Japanese people were so rare. I attended a local elementary school when I first arrived in Brazil but transferred to an international school later during our stay. There were students from as many as 20 different countries at times, so I was surrounded by people of many nationalities and races. Diversity means that people have different values and ways of thinking, so their claims to being "right" vary, too. I grew up in an environment where there were no standard values, and yet I had no doubts that I was Japanese.

After graduating from high school in Brazil, I went on to study at a university in Japan. Although I returned to Japan full of anticipation about life in my home country, I found it difficult to live in Japanese society without feeling uncomfortable. I felt there were still many gaps between my values and those of the people I met in Japan. I came to the fresh realization that growing up amidst diverse values had made me overly conscious of being Japanese.

Students of different nationalities and races attended the international school in Brazil.

Using Language Skills in Work Assignments Related to Overseas

After I graduated from university, I applied to Sony on the recommendation of one of my older sister's friends, who is an audiophile, and was accepted there. Sony's image has long been that of a global company, and I thought I could contribute to the company's overseas operations because I can speak several languages, including Portuguese and English. I also applied to work at Sony because I was struck by the book Made in Japan written by Akio Morita, one of the company's co-founders, and thought it would be great to work for a company like this.

After joining the company, I became assistant to Mr. Morita, who was Chairman at the time. I was responsible for using my language skills to support him on his overseas business trips and businesses-related to embassies in Japan. After Mr. Morita retired, I wanted to work in the field of monozukuri(product development), so I joined the computer display manufacturing marketing department before moving on to the VAIO notebook PC division. I also gained experience as a project leader (PL) for product models that were outsourced for manufacturing on an overseas OEM/ODM basis . In those days, it was rare for a female or non-technical employee to become product model PLs, and I think I may have been the first.

With Morita-san, who was Chairman of Sony at the time. One of many valuable experiences.

Respecting A Diverse Range of Researchers and Providing Support

I subsequently joined Sony Computer Science Laboratories (CSL) after being approached by a researcher who had established an independent company to apply in a social setting the location information-related technology he had been researching. My first job at CSL was to participate in a joint project with his company. I proposed to submit a plan to experiment navigation guides at the Tokyo National Museum in Japan using sensing technologies, since I had always been interested in art, and I had obtained a curator's qualification through a correspondence course offered by an art college while I was working, I was involved in this project for the five years, and during the course, I saw the guides be released as the official smartphone guide apps from the museum. The collaboration was successfully completed just recently after 10 years. I took part in the final debriefing session on the results of these activities.

In addition to corporate communications work at CSL, I currently provide support for disseminating the research results of individual researchers and collaboration with other companies. In keeping with CSL's mission. "Research for the Future of Humanity," our researchers aim to change the world through the results of their research. Individual researchers have their own vision and carry out research based on their own strong commitment. Their research reflects their own individual values, and since there are as many values as there are researchers at CSL, the environment coincides neatly with the overseas environment in which I grew up. It could be that experiencing diverse values during my childhood taught me that respect for others is an important element for working in such an environment. Some people are very rigorous and have strong beliefs, but I believe good communications are possible so long as we remember to respect the goals they each consider important.

Learning the Importance of Acceptance from the Earth's Ecosystems

At the moment, I am particularly involved in CSL's Synecoculture™ project. Synecoculture is a farming method that produces useful, densely mixed plants* using the mechanisms of the ecosystem. The individual plants interact with each other to grow, naturally enriching the soil in the process. In the earth's ecosystem, water, air, the seasons, and life forms all follow their respective cycles. As part of these cycles, I feel the boundaries between me and my environment are changing rapidly with time and the circumstances. Intellectually, I knew that we humans are part of the ecosystem, but I have come to experience it in my mind and body since I became involved in Synecoculture.

  • *Useful plants:Plants that are useful for human life, and are used in areas such as architecture, crafts, medicine, and horticulture, as well as for food

Absolutely no pesticides or fertilizers are used in Synecoculture. The power of living things such as insects and birds is utilized instead. However, I have an aversion to frogs, and dislike them intensely. When I mentioned this to a Synecoculture researcher, he told me I could not accept frogs because in my heart of hearts I wanted to eliminate them. This was not because I was a bad person, he said, but probably because it just seemed normal to me. He speculated that such feelings are the roots of prejudice and discrimination in the world. Today, diversity is a key issue in various fields, but I realized that diversity alone is not enough. We must also be accepting and tolerant at the same time. I've been learning a lot from ecosystems recently, especially how we can become friendly towards creatures we don't like, and how it may be the same in human society. In a diverse environment, it may not necessarily be the right thing to insist on equality across the board because each individual possesses completely different qualities. What is needed is the fairness that allows each of us to live a healthy life.

A Synecoculture farm in the rooftop garden of Roppongi Hills building in Tokyo. About 200 kinds of plants are grown here

I Want to Restore the Connection between Humans and the Global Environment

Last November, my father was hospitalized because he could not walk following a fall. My mother stopped taking meals because she felt guilty about being too weak to look after him, so I visited her for almost two months to eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner with her. I realized then that eating is the source of our vitality and hope for the future and have paid more attention to eating ever since. When I saw how my parents lost their will and confidence to live as their links to the world around them weakened, I realized that being connected to the ecosystem is vital. Inevitably, we all grow old, but we are still capable of maintaining deep connections with the ecosystem around us. Looking ahead, I intend to focus on activities that will restore the connection between humans and the global environment, and the awareness that humans are part of the ecosystem.

I am fascinated by the relationship between Synecoculture and natural ecosystems, and through this work I hope to foster understanding of the concept and enable people in different countries and regions to experience it. I was surrounded by people from many different countries when I was a child, but after returning to Japan, my interactions with people from different nationalities seemed to decrease gradually as I focused more on my identity as a Japanese. Becoming a closer observer of ecosystems has enabled me to reduce the boundaries between myself and my surroundings, and between myself and others. I believe that if we reduce these boundaries still further, we should be able to adopt different ways of embracing diversity in our work and our daily lives. Diversity is important, of course, but we must also become more accepting and forgiving, yet have the tolerance to relax sometimes and let things go. I want to create more space for various creatures, including humans, to live healthy lives.

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