Stamping Out Tradition? A Rethink of Japanese Work Culture Post Covid-19

The crisis surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed many pre-existing difficulties in Japanese work culture, some of which are inadvertently contributing to the spread of the virus in the country. Working overtime and socializing with colleagues and clients have long been considered a sign of social competence but the crisis has now led many to question the necessity of these core values.

Professor Hiroshi Ono, who has specialized in Japan’s work culture has gone as far as calling the coronavirus a “blessing in disguise” since it has exposed criticized aspects such as overtime, excessive bureaucracy and the hanko stamp system. These practices complicate the implementation of alternative ways of working, such as telework, which could positively facilitate social distancing regulations.

The Hanko: Small Stamp – Big Impact

A crucial part of Japanese working practices is the hanko, a tiny stamp, which is often used to sign-in, authorize documents, and complete business transactions. Many Japanese workers are voicing their frustration about the way that old traditions, such as the hanko, but also the use of fax machines as well as the frequent focus on paper are still deeply embedded in their daily work lives. Even applying to certain benefits from the economic stimulus package, which the government introduced to curb the effects of the current pandemic, will require stamping forms and documents or visiting offices in person. This may be one of the contributing factors as to why the trains were still filled with people in April who felt compelled to go to work.

The government is striving to reduce person-to-person contacts by 70 to 80 percent in order to reduce the risk of the virus spreading further and is now reviewing which changes have to be made to allow more people to work from home. On April 28, 2020, a government committee began discussing revisions regarding the current regulations and the possibility of digitalizing certain procedures, as well as ways to promote telework.

The transition towards a more digitalized work culture is already gaining in popularity and some companies have adopted digital hankos and signatures. However, concern as to whether a digitized contract without the hanko can be considered as authentic and legally binding is widespread.

Telework: A Welcomed Opportunity?

When it comes to working from home, Japan has proven slow to implement changes. However, more and more companies are now switching to telework in light of the coronavirus quarantine measures. Leading companies like Panasonic and Unicharm have set the tone by introducing effective telework measures, although many big firms have yet to consider this option as well as the possible benefits.

Other reasons for hesitation are related to concerns about data security and the current lack of digitalization across the board. However, it appears that cultural barriers also have a considerable bearing on many companies’ refusal to implement telework. Managers are skeptical since they cannot physically monitor their employees in a similar fashion and find this lack of supervision uncomfortable. Kentaro Iwata, an infectious disease expert at Kobe University argued, that Japan has historically never been very good at changing a strategy, since the notion of pursuing a plan B would imply a failure of the first plan.

Moreover, it has been a challenge to overcome the stereotype of the “ideal worker”, an employee who proves loyal and dedicated by spending long hours at the office. Haruka Kazama, an economist at the Mizuho research institute says that; “the Japanese still have this image that telework isn’t real work because you’re not physically in the office”.

The percentage of companies that have introduced telework, and employees engaged in it varies between 5.6 percent and 70 percent depending on the study and its focus. Around 40 percent of the respondents said that their company would not allow telework and another 41 percent reported that technology for this form of work was simply not available. But even if telework were to be introduced, workers would still often have to go to the office to print and sign documents, using their hanko. It has been shown that companies that implemented flexible work hours and introduced measures like telework during the crisis are enjoying higher levels of employee satisfaction. This can likely be the key to keeping qualified personnel. To support workers and to relieve the strained public transport system during rush hour the government has tried to introduce more flexible working hours, while also hoping that more flexible work schedules will reduce the gender-gap in the labor market. However, the effect has not yet been visible in Japanese society.

Ditching the Tie

Changing or adopting workplace norms nation-wide has been achieved in the past and the following example illustrates how effective the integration of that new norm can be. Among Japan’s white collar workers the dark suit can be very much considered the standard uniform and any divergence from this norm is strongly discouraged. Being individualistic is not appreciated since it disrupts the cohesion of the group. However, change from this rigid perception is not as cemented as one is led to believe. In 2005, following a spat of increasingly warm summers, the Japanese Ministry of Environment introduced the campaign “Cool Biz”. The campaign encouraged workers to wear more casual clothing, like short sleeved shirts, an open collar, and sneakers. It has been renewed every year to stop the intensive use of air conditioning.

The new dress code evoked mixed feelings at first and much effort was required to establish it as a cultural working norm, particularly when formal appearance at work is generally regarded as a sign of respect and conformity.However, several large companies tried to set an example by prohibiting ties at the office in summertime,which supported the gradual spread of the regulation within Japan’s work culture. Additionally, as the initiative came directly from the prime minister, it had a larger bearing in a hierarchical society such as Japan.

Time to Act?

The current quarantine situation could have the potential to modernize the Japanese work culture henceforth. As a catalyst of change that some have tried to push for decades. Many companies have noticed that telework is a viable working arrangement have been pleasantly surprised by the advantages of working from home. Using this juncture to implement changes regarding telework could improve the general work-life balance in Japanese society and may even force Japanese companies to reconsider other aspects of the country’s current working culture, such as the negative implications of overtime.

Since this is a deep-rooted cultural aspect it remains to be seen if long-lasting change will occur. However, to really instigate nation-wide change the initiative must come from “higher up”, as was seen with the “Cool biz” campaign which had a lasting impact as it was promoted directly by the prime minister and supported by larger companies.