Businesses Made in Nippon

Employment Diversity at Nihon Rikagaku Industry

Economy Society

Nihon Rikagaku Industry, a small Japanese chalk company, has been making a major contribution to improving the lives of people with learning difficulties by offering them employment opportunities for over 50 years.

One Teacher’s Plea

The story of how a small Japanese company came to play a pioneering role in providing employment to intellectually disabled people begins 53 years ago, in 1959, when Ōyama Yasuhiro, a senior executive at Nihon Rikagaku Industry Co., Ltd. (based in Kawasaki City, outside Tokyo), received a visit from a teacher at a nearby school for the disabled.

Ōyama Yasuhiro, now the chairman of Nihon Rikagaku Industry.

The teacher was eager for two of his students to have an opportunity to work at the chalk-producing company. They were both 15-year-old girls who were likely to be placed in a welfare facility for life if they could not secure employment before they left school.

The teacher pleaded with Ōyama to hire the young women. At first Ōyama was skeptical and told the teacher it was out of the question. But the teacher did not give up so easily. He visited the company another time, only to be turned down again. Then he came back a third time to make a final request to Ōyama:

“I understand that you might not be able to hire my students full-time, but would you consider giving them the chance to work at the plant for a few days? I just want them to have the experience of what it is like to work before they leave school.”

The teacher’s heartfelt plea swayed Ōyama, who agreed to take the two students on for two weeks. “When the teacher said it would be their only chance to work in their whole lives, I felt I had to do something,” Ōyama recalls.

Ōyama set the two young women to work applying labels to the factory’s products. They became completely absorbed in their work. The sight of the two girls working so hard inspired everyone else at the plant, too. In fact, the regular employees were so moved that on the final day of the two-week stint around a dozen of them went to Ōyama to ask him to hire the young women as full-timers.

Nihon Rikagaku employees absorbed in their tasks at the company’s chalk plant.

The employees were dismayed at the thought that the two girls would have to enter an institution at the tender age of 15 unless they found jobs. They promised Ōyama they would keep an eye on the young women on the job. This heartfelt plea won him over and in April 1960 the two intellectually disabled women became company employees.

Experiencing the Satisfactions of Work

Even after hiring the two women, Ōyama was not sure that it had been the right decision. He wondered whether the women might have been happier in an institution for people with intellectual disabilities, rather than working in a company.

Soon after, when attending a Zen Buddhist ceremony, Ōyama asked the monk whether he had made the right decision. The monk told him: “Human happiness stems from four things—being loved, receiving praise, being useful to others, and feeling that you are necessary. The last three of these can be experienced through work. That kind of happiness could not be experienced at an institution.”

This comment spurred Ōyama to start actively recruiting employees with disabilities, as he recalls: “The idea really hit home to me—that happiness comes from feeling you’re needed, and from becoming independent by working and earning your keep. I realized I was in a perfect position to offer people that sort of opportunity.” He soon set about hiring many more employees with intellectual disabilities.

Workers making chalk at the Nihon Rikagaku plant.

Japan passed the Act on Employment Promotion etc. of Persons with Disabilities in 1960, but people with intellectual disabilities were not covered by the law until 1987, more than two decades later. Without any backing under the law, companies wishing to hire the intellectually disabled had to manage on their own as best they could. There were no manuals or other special training resources available. Instead, they had to rely on trial and error.

At Nihon Rikagaku Industry, Ōyama realized that whatever other limitations they may have had, his intellectually disabled workers were at least able to distinguish between colors; after all, the fact that they were arriving safely at work each day meant they were able to understand the difference between red and green traffic lights. Ōyama hit on the idea of using colors to clarify the work process for disabled employees.

As a trial, he set the employees to measure out the raw materials used to make chalk. He found that with the help of the color coding, they were able to concentrate fully on performing their task. It became clear that if the company could create a suitable working environment, the disabled would be able to display their potential.

The real question, Ōyama thought, was whether the employees with intellectual disabilities were capable of producing the same results as other employees. It turned out that the answer was yes—and in fact productivity actually began to rise as a result.

This success spurred the company to hire more employees with disabilities. At present, 57 of the company’s 76 employees have an intellectual disability—and roughly 60% of them have severe disabilities.

A scale for measuring the raw materials used to make chalk (left) and the finished product (right).

Lots of Room for Improvement

Unfortunately, relatively few companies in Japan have been as proactive as Nihon Rikagaku Industry in hiring the disabled. Statistics in the “Report on Status of Employment of Disabled Persons in 2012” reveal that around 380,000 disabled persons were employed by private companies as of June 1, 2012—a 4.4% increase over the previous year. This meant that by 2012, the disabled accounted for 1.69% of the overall workforce. Both of these figures represent all-time highs.

However, less than half of Japanese companies (46.8%) had reached the statutory 1.8% employment rate for disabled workers, as stipulated under the Act on Employment Promotion etc. of Persons with Disabilities.(*1) Some large companies have been hiring more disabled employees in recent years, but small and medium-sized companies continue to lag behind.

Nihon Rikagaku Industry, for its part, has a workforce made up of more than 70% disabled employees. In October 2009, then Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio visited the company, and in a policy speech he referred to the company as an example of the sort of “mutually supportive society” his government was looking to encourage. In February that year, the company won the Shibusawa Eiichi Prize, which is awarded to the leaders of pioneering companies.

The benefits to society of employing the disabled are considerable. The government has to spend around ¥5 million per year on each disabled person who is institutionalized. This means that it costs over ¥200 million for a disabled person to spend 40 years (from age 20 to 60) in a welfare institution. In other words, the five employees who have worked at Nihon Rikagaku Industry for that amount of time have saved the government ¥1 billion.

On a visit to Belgium, Ōyama learned of a system in that country designed to make it easier for illiterate workers to find employment. Under the system, companies who provided job opportunities were assisted by the government, which covered the cost of the workers’ wages.

Ōyama suggests that a similar system would be effective in Japan. The government might provide an annual minimum wage (approx. ¥1.5 million) for disabled people employed by small and medium-sized companies, for example. He is convinced that a system like this would allow Japan to make a great leap forward in terms of employment opportunities for the disabled.

But until such a system is in place it may be difficult for other companies to follow the example of Nihon Rikagaku, as Ōyama recognizes:

“We are just a tiny company. We were able to do what we have done because of the nature of the chalk business; it’s an industry with very little involvement by large companies. It would be hard for an ordinary company to implement the same measures. So I’m certainly not saying that every other company should necessarily follow our lead.”

Even so, the company has already helped to invigorate Japanese society by giving people with disabilities a chance to experience the satisfaction and sense of achievement that can come from working for a living. Perhaps it is companies like this that will help the Japanese economy to become more robust in the future.

Corporate Data
Company name: Nihon Rikagaku Industry Co., Ltd.
Address: 2-15-10 Kūji, Takatsu-ku, Kawasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture, 213-0032
Representative: Ōyama Takahisa, President/CEO
Business: Manufacture and sale of Dustless Chalk, Kitpas writing materials, sheets for white boards, and anti-skid shoe soles
Capitalization: ¥20 million
Employees: 76 employees

(Article originally written in Japanese by Nagasawa Takaaki. Photographs by Kimura Junko of Jana Press.)

(*1) ^ In April, 2013, the statutory employment rate was raised to 2.0%.

chalk disabled intellectual disability Nihon Rikagaku Shibusawa Eiichi Prize