How has the Novel Coronavirus changed the way Japanese companies work?   Vol. 1 Outbreak to the State of Emergency

July 10, 2020 [No.75-2020]

Maita Tatsunobu,
CEO of HR Business Partner Inc.,
Professor of Globis Graduate School of Management


How has the Novel Coronavirus changed the way Japanese companies work? 
Vol. 1 Outbreak to the State of Emergency

In Japan, the COVID-19 crisis started in Japan’s northernmost island – Hokkaido. It is said the virus was imported by foreign tourists who had visited the Snow Festival there. At first many Japanese people probably thought this strange illness would start and end within Hokkaido, which is separated from the rest of Japan by the sea. But soon they found they were too optimistic. It was not long before they found the first cases in other parts of Japan, including Tokyo.

First, Japanese companies reacted to this situation by controlling or banning their workers’ travelling on business. Overseas trips were the first thing to be controlled. But at that time, the Japanese people were still thinking “business first”. Quite a few companies still sent their people to overseas countries including China, and the Japanese government still accepted people from overseas. Such an attitude was criticized by other countries where international travel was deemed to be the last thing to be allowed. Indeed, they were right… Soon Japan started facing an accelerated pace of infection. 

As infections prevailed and tens of new cases were reported daily, heads of the municipalities in the Tokyo Metropolitan Area started asking people to avoid the “3-mitsu” (3 closed environments called 3-Cs ) – Closed spaces, Crowded places and Close-contact settings. Restaurants, movie theaters, department stores, amusement parks, and so many other facilities voluntarily closed or shortened their opening hours. Other businesses tried to move to tele-working or shift business hours, so that their employees could avoid crowded commuter trains. But at this time, many Japanese workers were still working in their offices, because in the Tokyo Metropolitan Area they were living in small houses and they did not have a good environment to work at home. Many companies were not prepared for tele-working – not all workers were equipped with PCs or Wi-Fi modems at home. Quite a few Japanese traditional big companies banned tele-working for security reasons. Also, many big and old Japanese companies were not prepared for tele-working because their communication system was too old fashioned. Of course, there were hundreds of companies on the other hand who quickly moved to tele-working on the whole, but such a change did not contribute enough to dismiss 3-mitsu in urban areas. 

Despite people’s great efforts, the infection rate did not fall. Finally on April 7th, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared a state of emergency for Tokyo and 6 other districts and prefectures, and later for the whole nation. The state was set for about 1 month. He explained it was not a “lock down”, but was a strong request for people to stay home as much “as possible”. 

Following the government's declaration of an emergency, Japan's districts and prefectures prepared their respective concrete restriction policies. For example, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government defined the policy as follows: 

1. To be closed: Universities, gymnasiums, swimming pools, bowling alleys, skating rinks, golf ranges, stadiums, movie theaters, live houses, conference studios, halls, museums, libraries, department stores, shopping malls, barbers, night clubs, cafés, pubs, karaoke bars, pachinko parlors, game centers, etc. 

2. To be closed on condition: schools (except for universities), elderly care centers etc. 

3. No need for closure: hospitals, clinics, pharmacies, supermarkets, convenience stores, hotels, buses, taxis, trains, ships, airplanes, distributors, factories, public baths, restaurants (by 8:00 p.m.), financial institutions, public offices.

These Japanese policies, however, were criticized as “not enough” by other countries. Because the state of emergency was no more than “a statement”, which could not be legally enforced or result in any form of a formal penalty. The timing of the statement was also criticized as “too late” to control the infection rate. 

Indeed, Japan’s strategy seemed too weak and slow, compared to other parts of the world where almost everything was forced into lock down. Which view was right? God knew at the time. Did Japan make the wrong choice? We would see. 

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