How has the Novel Coronavirus changed the way Japanese companies work?   Vol. 2 Emergency - Stay HOME

July 29, 2020 [No.76-2020]

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. 2 Emergency - Stay HOME

The state of emergency started on April 7th. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said it would end in about a month. The term was set taking into consideration “Golden Week” – one of Japan’s longest holiday seasons, from the end of April to early May. 

Following the state of emergency, many a company tried to transform their work style to tele-working. It, however, was easy to say, but difficult to do. Some companies successfully adapted to full-scale or almost full-scale tele-working. It was relatively easy for new companies and IT related companies. But it was another story for manufacturers. They had to keep operating with protection measures. Some “established” industries or companies, who had been reluctant to introduce tele-working for security and work discipline reasons, had so much difficulty in introducing tele-working. They had to have their employees work at the office, or just stay home in the name of “self-development”. 

Japanese employment culture seemed another big reason for difficulty in adopting tele-working. This is related to “membership-type” employment, in contrast with “job-type”. Under the job-type employment culture, a company employs workers because it wants them to do jobs. On the other hand, under the membership-type employment culture, a company employs workers because it wants them to become members of the company. Because of that, Japanese companies retain workers even when there is no job for them to do. There is no clear job description defined, so Japanese workers think of and create their job, by reading their boss’s mind, or learning from the workplace atmosphere (silent expectations). 

Such Japanese style, naturally, did not fit to tele-working. People were at a loss what they should do, without seeing their boss’s faces, without feeling the workplace atmosphere. It was not only workers, but also managers that were also at a loss. At Japanese workplaces, managers tend not to set clear goals and targets at the beginning. Instead, they keep watching their people working, feeling the total team performance and progress, and give the respective employee orders and suggestions. But under a full-scale tele-working environment, managers could not do the same thing.

Japan’s relatively delayed DX (digital transformation) was also a disadvantage. RPA (robotic process automation) has yet to happen at many companies, and so much work has to be done manually, which means people must come to the office. Invoices are mailed, not e-mailed, to offices, so accountants had to come to the office to pick them up. At the office, official approval needed to be stamped with a “hanko” (seal), which has not been replaced by digital signatures, so managers had to come to the office to stamp “approved” on sheets of paper. The worst was government administration. They advertised “electric submission available” to the public, but the reality was, all the processes after submission had to be done manually. The submission process itself was just too complex, so many people made mistakes, and in the end they had to go to government offices to make corrections or do it all over again at the office counter. 

With so much confusion, Japan went into the “Golden Week” from late April. Normally, millions of people travel during Golden Week – for holidays or to visit relatives. But this year was an exception. For example, Tokaido Sanyo Shinkansen bullet trains, which run between Tokyo and Kyushu stopping over at Nagoya, Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe, Hiroshima and so on, had 94% less passengers. The government named this year’s Golden Week “Stay-home Week” and requested people to stay home. Their effort might have been effective, but not only for that. People were carefully watched, neither by the government nor by police, but by surrounding people. They were called “Jishuku Keisatsu” (Self-discipline Police). Jishuku Keisatsu called police when they found a person without a mask on the street. When they saw a shop open, they put a sheet of paper saying “Close! Discipline yourself”, on the door of the shop at night. 

The Japanese government set a goal of reducing people’s person-to-person contact by 80% to enclose the virus and stop it spreading, to make infection end. The goal, however, was not finally achieved. The number of people travelling long distance was dramatically decreased, but there still were many people moving in and around town. The infection slowed down, but was not stopped. The effort was not enough. After all, the state of emergency was prolonged, for one more month. 

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