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Coronavirus crisis changing Japan's work culture

Julian Ryall Tokyo
May 6, 2020

For a nation that prides itself on technological innovation, Japanese companies have for too long relied on outdated technology such as the fax machine. But that is finally changing. Julian Ryall reports.

Coronavirus crisis changing Japan's work culture
Image: Reuters/Kyodo

The coronavirus pandemic is changing many aspects of the ways in which Japan works, with analysts suggesting that the crisis offers a chance for companies that still hold deeply traditional views of what work entails to ditch the old ways and catch up with their leaner and more nimble rivals overseas.  

There are arguably two most glaring symbols of just how old-fashioned and conservative the average Japanese company is: the fax machine and the "hanko," or carved official seal. 

A study by the government last year determined that virtually every Japanese company and one-third of all households still use fax machines — technology that dates from the 1980s — for a good proportion of their communications. Equally, the hanko is an unshakable requirement for every piece of official paperwork and the imprint has to be physically applied in tandem with or in place of a personal signature. 

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Technologically advanced

And while the drawbacks in an era of instant communication are evident, the fax and the hanko have endured in Japan — ironically, a nation that prides itself on its technological prowess. 

"We are seeing the coronavirus ushering in a new way of working in Japan, and I think it's about time," said Ivan Tselichtchev, a professor at the Niigata University of Management, who says the nation's attachment to the fax machine is particularly difficult to fathom, but is probably rooted in older employees' reluctance to trust modern technology. 

Criticism of the reliance on faxes has risen after a doctor used Twitter to criticize the legal requirement that hospitals and clinics complete pages of paperwork on new cases of coronavirus by hand and then send it all to public health centers — where the data is input by hand into a computer so authorities can monitor the spread of the disease. 

"Come on, let's stop this," tweeted the doctor, a specialist in respiratory medicine at a hospital. "Reporting cases in handwriting? Even with the coronavirus, we are writing by hand and faxing."

He added that the system is a throwback to the Showa period, the era that coincides with the reign of Emperor Hirohito, from 1926 until 1989. The doctor's tweet generated echoes of support, with one message reading, "This is 2020. Please stop this nonsense, Japan." 

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Changes coming

Professor Tselichtchev agrees that it is time for the office fax machine to be abolished, and he is confident that time is coming. 

"I think companies have been hanging on to their fax machines because of the perception that they are secure," he told DW. "Some people, especially those in their 50s and 60s, have a very deep apprehension about computer hacking, data leaks and the web in general, so they see the fax as safe. 

"But I already see a change happening," he added. "Older workers are beginning to retire and the new generation coming through are more comfortable with modern technologies. The fear of not having a physical paper document that can actually be held is fading." 

The government appears to be paying heed to calls for modernization, with Masaaki Taira, the minister who oversees Japan's information technology policy, announcing that from May 10, doctors will be able to send data on coronavirus infection cases to public health centers by electronic mail. 

Similarly, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe himself has instructed a review of the custom that requires official documents to be stamped with a "hanko" seal. He pointed out that insistence on applying a seal to paperwork flew in the face of official government guidelines for people to keep their distance from everyone else and avoid being in an office environment as much as possible. 

The evolution has been swift, with a number of companies coming up with ideas for "virtual hanko" that can be applied to online paperwork. 

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'More flexible and resilient'

Another change in the work environment has been working from home, another inevitable innovation as the authorities called on companies to reduce the number of people in offices by 80%. Achieving that would also dramatically cut the number of people crammed into commuter trains and buses and potentially sharing the virus. 

Makoto Hosomura works in a business that has traditionally required a lot of face-to-face time with customers, but he says he is adapting to a new way of working. "I am an importer of wines and I used to spend a lot of my time traveling to different restaurants and shops in and around Tokyo to meet customers and tell them about new arrivals or what would be arriving soon," he said. 

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"We cannot do that any more, so I'm working from home and I spend most of my day on the computer or on the phone speaking with clients," Hosomura said. "At first it was difficult. I've been doing this job for nearly 40 years and you get used to a certain way of doing things, and customers are the same. But that's just no longer possible.

"I'm looking forward to being able to see my customers again once the government does relax the restrictions, but I've also got used to working from home and I'm probably more efficient than I used to be," he admitted. "I don't think I'll completely go back to the way we used to work." 

Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at the Tokyo campus of Temple University, said he believes that Japanese workers — many of whom detested their congested commutes, long hours in the office and the inefficiencies of their organizations — will want to continue their new way of working once the lockdown is eased. 

"I feel that the pandemic will see all the arguments that were put forward in the past for not changing work habits simply fade into the rear-view mirror," he said. 

"It has already demonstrated that antiquated systems can be injurious to public health and the national interest, while the generation that is wedded to fax machines and so on is also fading away," he added. "I see Japanese work culture slowly but surely becoming more flexible and resilient."