Low-tech Japan finds it difficult to work from home during a pandemic


Commuters wearing masks stand in a crowded train at Shinagawa Station in Tokyo. (AP)

TOKYO – When the Japanese government declared an emergency to curb the spread of the coronavirus earlier this month and asked people to work from home, crowds rushed to electronics stores.

So much for social distancing.

Many Japanese people do not have the basic tools to work at home. Contrary to the ultramodern image of Japan Inc. with its robots, its fine design and its many gadgets, the country is in many respects facing technological challenges.

But the biggest obstacle is Japanese corporate culture, experts say. Offices still often rely on faxes rather than e-mail. Many homes do not have a high-speed Internet connection and documents must often be stamped in person with carved seals called “hanko”, which serve as signatures. So many Japanese people really can’t work remotely, at least not all the time.

A survey by YouGov, a British market researcher, found that only 18% of recent respondents were able to avoid going to school or work, even though 80% of Japanese people in Japan are afraid of catch the virus.

In India, almost 70% of those interviewed stayed at home. In the United States, it was about 30%, according to YouGov.

One of the factors, according to Yuri Tazawa, a pioneer in Japan of “telework” or homework, is that Japanese workers often do not have clearly defined jobs like Americans, so companies expect that their staff are in constant communication with each other, work as a team.

“But it is a matter of life and death for workers and their families,” said Tazawa, president of Telework Management Inc. “We must do what we can do now.”

Tazawa offers an intensive online course on how to start working at home immediately, using only mobile phones, if a personal computer is not available. She calls the approach a “hypothetical cloud office.”

Unlike regular Zoom meetings, during which employees register and go out for discussions, she offers to use Zoom only for voice connections, keeping it throughout the working day so that employees who would normally share an office can feel as if they are in the same room.

“Telework is so important in the fight against the coronavirus,” said Tazawa.

Some of the biggest Japanese companies, like Toyota Motor Corp. and Sony Corp., have already announced work at home policies. The main problem concerns small and medium-sized enterprises, which represent around 70% of the economy.

Nicholas Benes, a corporate governance expert who offers a free telecommuting webinar for Japanese, said the interest was surprisingly low.

The lack of up-to-date computer systems means that Japan is lagging behind in the development of flexible working practices, office rules, management methods and even attitudes towards remote working. This is a factor that contributes to relatively low labor productivity.

“Teleworking requires managers to trust and delegate much more decision-making to employees as it takes too long via email or Skype to check with the boss,” said Benes, who heads the Board Director Training Institute of Japan, a non-profit organization that offers management and governance training.

Japanese companies still rely on nuances of face-to-face interaction, or the ability to “smell the air” or “read the air,” Benes said, using common vernacular expressions.

And then there is the fax machine.

A third of Japanese households have faxes, according to a government study.

It is rare to find an office that does not have one, unless it is a futuristic company like SoftBank that disapproves of such old-fashioned practices. Many respectable institutions avoid email and insist on receiving requests for information or other documents only by fax.

As the number of coronavirus infections increases, urban commuter trains are only slightly less crowded than their usual jammed state.

Futoshi Takami, an “employee”, as Japanese workers are called, said that he had to work from the office until mid-April, when he was finally told that he could work from home. But so far, he has few directives on what he is supposed to do. He could soon be assigned to online courses, he said.

Takami, who asked that his employer not be identified, said that he had introspected workplaces that seemed to value the rules of human life.

“I’m going to spend my time thinking about what I really want to do with my life,” he said.

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