Meet the woman bringing mindfulness to the Japanese workplace

Like so many in the corporate world, Kimiko Bokura began her path to mindfulness with a personal battle.

Burned out from running her own business, and suffering from stress-induced health issues, Bokura enrolled in a 9-week mindfulness program in California. She had her doubts, of course, knowing little about the neurological benefits of meditation at the time, but on the advice of a friend, she gave it a try.

Fast forward 10 years and Bokura is the first-ever Japanese trainer certified in Google’s Search Inside Yourself mindfulness program, author of Silicon Valley style, lessons to optimize your mind and heart and the founder of the Mindful Leadership Institute in Japan, an organization that “supports individuals, teams and organizations in developing mindfulness, clarity, wisdom, compassion and inner sustainability.” Last month she stopped by Rakuten Crimson House in Tokyo to share her thoughts with members of Rakuten’s brand new internal Mindfulness Network, one of the first organizations of its kind among homegrown Japanese companies.

Mindfulness defined

Mindfulness was defined by Jon Kabat-Zinn, considered by many to be its “godfather,” as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” Bokura prefers a simpler explanation: “paying attention to the present time while relaxed.”

Whatever your definition, scientists agree that mindful leadership is an effective way to create a happier, healthier and ultimately more efficient work environment.

Silicon Valley has taken notice. Google, Facebook, Asana and other companies have all adopted mindfulness practices in key areas of operation, while NYU’s Stern School of Business now teaches mindfulness to MBAs.

In contrast, Japanese companies have been slower to embrace mindfulness.

“When we founded the Mindful Leadership Institute in Japan four years ago, few leaders knew what mindfulness was. We avoided the word ‘meditation’ for that reason, going with ‘attention training’ instead. A lot of the work was in demystifying the concept of mindfulness,” said Bokura.

Despite these early challenges, however, Bokura and her cofounders stayed the course, educating companies across Japan about the proven organizational benefits of mindfulness.

Mindfulness expert Kimiko Bokura is bringing Google's mindfulness management training program to top Japanese companies.
Mindfulness expert Kimiko Bokura is bringing Google’s mindfulness management training program to top Japanese companies.

“According to some researchers, 20 – 30% of Japanese workers potentially suffer from minor to severe depression, and this needs to change,” explained Bokura. “It has a lot to do with our relationship to work and how we have been trained to drive ourselves.”

In companies like Rakuten, however, which recently bestowed “network” status to what was formerly a mindfulness club (thereby allowing core members to promote mindfulness as part of their work and reach a wider audience), Bokura sees hope for the future of corporate Japan.

“It’s clear to me that Rakuten values originality and accepts its employees for who they are as individuals, something that is not always the case in traditional Japanese organizations.” said Bokura. “Allowing individuality and providing a sense of safety for employees is an important way for a company to increase innovation and productivity.”

Rakuten’s Mindfulness Network now has more than 230 participants, many of whom attended Bokura’s presentation, and that number is growing every month. Led by Lead Scientist at the Rakuten Institute of Technology Udana Bandara, the group’s mission is to share the benefits of mindfulness with curious newcomers, as well as work with other departments to help create a better work environment.

“Personally, I think a ‘network’ is a brilliant way for employees to contribute, engage and strengthen our company culture,” said Bandara. “Currently there are three networks (Mindfulness, Family-Empowerment and LGBT) and I am hoping to see many more wonderful networks in the near future.”

With more and more Japanese companies embracing mindfulness in the workplace, both Bokura and Bandara are optimistic about the future. If the capacity crowd at Bokura’s presentation is any indication, mindfulness training is here to stay in corporate Japan.

The Mindfulness Leadership Institute will be hosting their 3rd Mindful Leadership Symposium in Tokyo on September 9th. Visit here for more information.

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