Why Japan refuses to work from home—even in a deadly pandemic


 For the train commuters wedged cheek to jowl on the 7:45 a.m. from Yokohama to Tokyo, the message came too late. “Please think about working from home,” the public address system chimed as the crowd heaved onto the platform of Tokyo’s Shinagawa station in late May.

Such public service announcements are now a regular feature of commuting in Japan amid a COVID-19 state of emergency that the government last month extended to June 20. As a virus mitigation effort, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is urging people to work from home. His government’s goal is to cut the number of people heading to offices and job sites by 70% amid the fourth wave of COVID and less than two months before the Tokyo Olympics.

But even with the government’s urging, a growing COVID outbreak, and a slow vaccination campaign, Japan’s workers continue to trudge into the office. The latest figures from Tokyo-based non-profit Japan Productivity Center (JPC) show that remote work has ticked up to 20% across Japan since the start of the pandemic, just ten percentage points higher than "normal." By comparison, 44% of Americans worked from home during the pandemic, up from 17%. 

One Tokyo commuter blamed corporate bosses for the country’s failure to work from home. 

“Japanese ‘fossil’ salary-men cannot understand how to use Zoom or any other applications!” the commuter said in an interview, declining to be identified. “Because they can’t do their job, and they’re afraid their employers or younger employees will find them out.”

Researchers have a more nuanced take on why Japan refuses to work remotely. They cite the unstructured nature of Japan’s white-collar work, corporations’ failure to embrace technology, and an epidemic of ‘presenteeism’ that’s plagued the country far longer than the coronavirus. 

When WFH is optional

Japan has avoided the worst of the pandemic with nearly 764,000 cases and roughly 13,800 COVID-related deaths. Still, Japan has faced four distinct waves of the virus, three of which prompted government officials to declare a state of emergency. In the current fourth wave, cases have skyrocketed to as high as 6,000 per day in mid-May, while the number of "severe" cases reached a record-breaking 1,413 on May 28.

The government has stopped short of legally ordering workers to stay home or their bosses to keep them there. Instead, all restrictions are voluntary and non-binding, a tactic that befits a conservative ruling party that doesn’t want to be seen as putting Japan in economic jeopardy.

The thrust of the nation’s pandemic governance so far has been to “balance the prevention of the spread of infections and socio-economic activities,” as Suga put it after becoming prime minister last September.

A woman rides a train at Tokyo's Shinagawa Station. Japan's government has encouraged workers to stay home, but many are still commuting to offices.
James Matsumoto—SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

With the option to send workers home or keep them in office, the majority of Japanese employers have chosen the latter.   

In-person work suits Japanese work processes, which "are based on rigid protocols, personal interaction, constant training on the job, and group communication,” says Parissa Haghirian, a professor of international management at Tokyo’s Sophia University.

At Japanese firms, there are few defined job roles. Instead, workers rotate tasks and departments about every two years, meaning employers consider on-site training—usually by older staff—as vital.

“Overseas companies have a distinct division of work, in which every employee has his or her own responsibility and can be evaluated individually. In Japan, work processes are more interdependent and interactive; every team member is responsible for every part of the process,” Haghirian says. "This makes it often difficult to evaluate each team member’s individual achievements as well as divide processes and let people work from a remote place.”

Missed opportunity

Japan should be a leader in remote work. In a bid to tackle long commutes, punishing hours, and poor productivity, Japan rolled out the world’s first affordable “fast as light” broadband connections to the majority of homes in Japan over 15 years ago. At the time, Japan was also top in terms of mobile Internet use, outpacing the U.S. by a factor of ten 

But a triumphant digital transformation never materialized, leaving the world’s third-richest nation largely unable or unwilling to plug in at home. Some experts believe Japan missed the opportunity because its early push focused on hardware excellence and underestimated the value of software.

Now, “many companies lack the hardware, software, personnel, and organizational structure needed to telework effectively,” says Glen S. Fukushima, former president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan.

Perceived hurdles to working from home range from anxieties about security issues to a lack of digitization in the workplace, says Japan management consultant Rochelle Kopp.

"I think it's partially the paperwork and partially old-fashioned bosses who can't wrap their heads around the idea of remote work,” she says. Many employees don't have laptops they can take home, she says.

An April Japan Productivity Center survey of 1,100 employees of Japanese companies and organizations bears that out. The second greatest factor that prevents people from working in Japan after “poor physical environments suitable for remote work” was the lack of Wi-Fi or decent IT equipment.

Japan has been steadily abandoning the home computer, according to a Japanese government report published in 2019, with the household penetration rate falling from 83% in 2010 to 69% in 2019.

According to OECD figures, Japan’s access to computers from home has been dropping since 2013, whereas access in most other countries is rising.

Nor are many small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) willing to shell out for laptops for their employees.

“[Small- and medium-sized businesses] probably have cost and human resources constraints when it comes to supplying tech for working from home, even laptops,” says Akira Kakioka, who complied the report at JPC.

“It costs to purchase mobile tools for all employees. And they need human resources [professionals] who have the know-how to introduce and manage the tools necessary for telework.”

Based on conversations with executives and labor unions, Kakioka speculates such problems are unique to SMEs in Japan, agreeing with Haghirian that the lack of specialization in companies also means a lack of IT expertise. A knock-on effect of this, Kakioka says, is that there's little budget for IT, leading some SMEs to use outdated software.

There's also low uptake of tools such as virtual private networks, or VPNs. Only 1% of Japanese have downloaded a VPN compared to 11% for the U.S., according to data from Atlas VPN, a VPN provider.

Face time, all the time

What's more, Japan just can’t seem to break with its history of doing business in person. 

“Japan’s traditional business culture still runs based on the successful experience during the post-[World War II] era,” says Yoshie Komuro, president of Work-Life Balance, Co, a small firm in Tokyo dedicated to correcting some of Japan's notorious over-work practices. “During this period, many organizations [that] required employees' high levels of loyalty and obedience were successful. Although society has changed, many organizations are still in the process of changing.” 

Demand for in-person interaction among employees and with external clients and suppliers is especially strong among older and smaller companies, Fukushima says, and 99.7% of Japan’s businesses are considered small- or medium-sized. “Japan—especially outside of Tokyo—has a very ‘sticky’ and ‘wet’ business culture that values constant face-to-face communication,” he says. 

Some larger firms, notably big corporations headquartered in Tokyo, are finding their presence in the office less essential.

Tire maker Bridgestone Corporation told Fortune it has slashed its office attendance rate to 30% and started consolidating its offices in Japan from 47 to 34.

Bridgestone has deemed its remote work a success and plans to make the arrangement permanent for many of its employees once the national health crisis passes, says Bridgestone's head of communications Masashi Taniguchi.

The company did not set quantitative targets, such as a percentage of employees working remotely. “But in each department and team, bosses and subordinates communicate well and reach a consensus on whether the work would be more valuable remotely or in the office,” Taniguchi says.

Before the pandemic, Japan's workforce faced longstanding problems, like chronic overwork, low productivity, and too few women. Letting employees work from home may have helped ease all three, in addition to preventing the spread of COVID. But Japan's failure to more fully adapt means it will likely miss out on the carry-on benefits of remote work that some corporations elsewhere are warming to.

Kunihiko Higa, a professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology and remote work expert, doesn’t expect a breakthrough anytime soon but instead sees many missed opportunities.

“The Japanese government has been promoting telework since the mid-1980s, but efforts have not been effective so far,” he says. 

During the pandemic, the state has failed to set a good example by forcing federal workers to work from home and didn't address remote work as a strategic tool for organizations.

“Telework can be a very effective tool to solve many major management issues," he says. "If top management realizes this fact, their commitment for teleworking will be much stronger."

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