One of the major changes in Japan brought about by the coronavirus pandemic has been the number of Japanese companies instituting work from home (WFH) policies and allowing telework or remote work.

The question remains though, will the pandemic help lead to a revolution in working styles in Japan? And if so, what should foreign companies who deal with Japanese businesses expect moving forward?

Impediments to Change: Hanko Seals

Despite Japan’s reputation as a high-tech society by outside observers, Japanese businesses have been slow to integrate digital products or services within their operations to the same extent as many overseas competitors. Instead many Japanese companies have maintained various analog practices that have fallen out of favor elsewhere in the world. Both foreign expats and Japanese with international experience alike love to joke about Japan’s continued reliance on the fax-machine, as one notable example of this phenomenon. 

Interestingly, one of the bigger issues that has prevented real change from happening in business practices domestically is the use of personal seals or hanko (判子), which are used in various situations in Japan. For many personal and business transactions, such as signing contracts, these seals, which need to be manually stamped with ink, are used in lieu of signatures. 

Japanese hanko seal

Ready-made hanko featuring common Japanese last names, can be purchased at almost any stationery shop or bookstore in Japan

One might wonder how something so small and seemingly insignificant could hinder business operations. Despite instituting orders to work from home earlier in the year, some Japanese workers still had to go into the office simply to stamp paperwork with an office hanko, which, given the circumstances, has rightfully been put under the spotlight as an absurd practice.

Given how ingrained these personal seals are within Japanese society and business culture, digital signatures were not widely used in domestic businesses up until this point. This has meant that, compared to the rest of the world, Japan remains over-reliant on paper records, which can lead to difficulties when working with global companies who require the speed and quick turnaround offered by digital signatures. 

However, there have been some promising developments with regard to this particular obstacle to digital transformation in Japan. Most notably has been the recent statements by Japan’s Administrative Reform Minister, Taro Kono, who has made the phasing out of hanko in Japan a major priority since being picked for this position in September of 2020. If hanko are indeed successfully made obsolete for documents and contracts, we may see some major changes to bureaucratic practices within business and government and a rapid pace of digitization within Japan over the next few years.

Of course other issues as well have hampered any efforts to enact meaningful reforms to Japan’s notoriously poor work-life balance and its enduring culture of putting in hours of overtime—but that is really an entirely different topic in and of itself.

How are Japanese Companies Adapting to Work From Home

While prominent, larger Japanese corporations were able to institute work from home during the early months of the pandemic, it is still not nearly as widespread of a practice as in the United States or European countries.

Culturally too there are obstacles that Japanese organizations will have to overcome. With strict organizational hierarchies and a tendency for superiors to micromanage (by Western standards) being among the greatest hurdles.

Furthermore, in addition to the previously mentioned workers having to venture into the office just to stamp papers with their hanko seal, smaller organizations are often lacking the infrastructure for work to realistically be carried out outside of the office.

We must consider the fact that even if remote work becomes more commonplace, the majority of businesses in Japan are small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Even excluding those businesses and workers in the service or retail industries, this still represents a huge proportion of the population, and so for the time being work from home is primarily limited to white-collar professions, with the highest percentage of those with WFH policies being employed at larger corporations.

That being said, at those select companies that are instituting work from home policies—and seemingly doing so for the long-term—a number are taking steps to make such a transition possible. Some are providing stipends to help employees outfit their homes to create more conducive work environments.

For this reason, steady demand for electronics, accessories, and other items (peripherals, furniture, etc.) should be expected as a number of Japanese workers prepare for continued remote work and home office situations.

Additionally, solutions that enable communication and collaboration among teams, even those spread out across various geographic locations, will likely see even greater adoption. 

SaaS and Tech Solutions Helping Enable Work From Home in Japan

Even prior to Covid-19, SaaS solutions, such as Slack, had made their way into many Japanese businesses’ tech stack. Features allowing team members to chat and send documents, images, and other materials have helped contribute to some organizations’ productivity and general day to day operations.

slack japan homepage screenshot

Slack is one of the most popular solutions for Japanese companies’ internal communications

Finally, as with the rest of the world, conference call solution Zoom has entered the Japanese lexicon, and has proved invaluable during this time when in-person meetings have become much more difficult.

While teleconferences have been a staple of international business for a while, never have businesses had to rely almost exclusively on video calls to conduct their operations.

As solutions such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams have become commonplace in Japanese organizations, communication can be expedited, especially for business that deals across continents and time zones. With business continuing to globalize and business travel remaining a question, such solutions are quickly becoming an important, if not essential, tool here in Japan.

How are Japanese Workers Acclimating to Work From Home Arrangements

In large part Japanese workers themselves are adapting well to the shift in work from home, in terms of overall satisfaction and improved efficiency.

However, for every success case (literally), there are those who are struggling to adapt to some aspects of remote work. According to a survey conducted by one of Japan’s largest labor organizations about 52% of those who responded said they are working more than they were previously. 

In these individuals’ cases, the lack of formal boundaries between home and office makes it difficult for them to fully sign-out from work.

Self-discipline also becomes an issue as well, with some individuals lacking the ability to manage their time themselves arising as potential issues for employers.

Then there are also those who are so used to working as part of a team in constant contact with their colleagues, that they find working alone for extended periods of time difficult.

Ultimately it’s become apparent that there are many types of workers. There are those who possess more self-discipline and are able to clearly separate work and pleasure. These are individuals who can work alone and as part of a team. And there are those who require structure and more direction are finding it difficult to adapt to work from home situations.

What a Shift Towards Work From Home Could Mean for Japan

The impact of work from home has been noticeable here in Tokyo.

With the reduction of workers commuting to the office, as well as staggered commutes for those who still are going into their workplace, the morning and even rush hour trains are a bit more bearable compared to their previous, sardines-in-a-tin-can state.

Of course, the lack of tourists, millions every month prior to the pandemic, has most definitely also played a role in this phenomenon.

However, as the months pass we are now seeing more daily commuters on the trains and crowds in many business districts returning to pre-pandemic levels.

Indeed, as reported by the Japan Times, after the lifting of the state of emergency, the number of workers who were telecommuting in Japan decreased from a high of 31.5% during the emergency, to 20.2%. In other words, Japanese companies were quick to demand a return to business as usual, despite an uptick in workers’ productivity while working from home.

japan salarymen

In recent months more Japanese are returning to the office, which indicates a certain reluctance among Japanese management to accept work from home long-term

That being said, we may see some changes lead by those who will continue to work from home in the long-term. according to major newspaper, the Asahi Shimbun, 1 in 4 teleworkers in Japan are even considering leaving Japan’s cities for more rural areas.

If this indeed comes to fruition it would mark a massive change in terms of demographics, as for years we’ve seen the population of rural areas in Japan decrease as workers move to the biggest cities, such as Tokyo, for job opportunities.

With regional revitalization being a long-held policy goal for the Japanese government, this could be a tremendous chance for local communities to reverse the exodus of young workers and families. It may also help to ease the over-centralization of businesses and institutions in Tokyo and other major cities. However, such a movement away from the cities is still a major “if” and should be treated as such until more hard data suggests otherwise. 

Bottom Line

Regardless of the exact shape that work from home in Japan may take moving forward, which still remains very much uncertain, what can be said is that a major shift in attitudes towards work culture has at least taken hold due to the impact of the coronavirus. 

In contrast to the slow pace of change to corporate culture we’ve come to expect over the years from Japanese organizations, in the face of an immediate need to implement appropriate measures, Japanese businesses have made tremendous changes, especially when considering their starting point less than one year ago.

In order for work from home, remote work, and telecommuting to truly take off in Japan, however, some significant challenges still remain. Most notable is Japan’s corporate culture itself, which is not known for its flexibility or acceptance of alternative working styles and arrangements.

Although work from home is currently seeing wider implementation in Japan than we could have imagined within such a short time-span, in the absence of official legislation or announcements from Japan’s main business lobby the jury is still out when it comes to the long-term for this kind of working situation.

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Categories: Japanese Market