Digital Salarymen? – Teleworking and the Post-Coronavirus Japanese Economy

Digital Salarymen? – Teleworking and the Post-Coronavirus Japanese Economy

Aidan Gilbert, The University of Edinburgh – 29 March 2021

What does office life look like in Japan? Ask many a westerner the first image that comes to mind when mentioning working in Tokyo and you would receive a very familiar answer. Legions of suited up salarymen and women rushing from office to office, jam-packed commuter trains heaving into Shinjuku station, and cubicles of workers typing away deep into the night. Sound familiar? Since the country’s economic ascent in the 70s and 80s, impressions of Japanese working life have centred around this bustling corporate ideal. However, with advances in technology and coronavirus forcing employees home, are the days of Tokyo rush hour being relegated to the past? 

Truth be told, even before the pandemic, serious questions were being asked about Japan’s working culture. With long hours, strict corporate hierarchy, and cultural emphasis on workplace diligence, one would expect the country to have a high rate of productivity. However, the country places last in the G7 and below the OECD average in per-hour labour productivity, beaten out by other major economies such as the US, Germany, and the UK. For Japan, with its well-known ageing and shrinking population, this low figure is an issue of concern. If Japan wants to keep its place as a major global economy, it will have to squeeze every drop of productivity from its declining workforce. 

Enter Society 5.0. A bold plan by the Japanese government to futureproof the economy and prepare Japan for a new economic age. Through generous investment and integration with AI, robotics and remote working, the aim is to create a digitally integrated society that can grow and innovate from the comfort of home. Freeing up workers from manual, menial tasks, it is hoped that the future Japanese employee will have more time, greater access to information, and a higher standard of living. Of course, while ambitious, Japan’s foresightful planning means it is well-placed to realise this technological utopia. So how have efforts to implement this forward-thinking strategy gone so far?

On the teleworking front, there were already plans before the pandemic to try and get Japanese workers logging into the virtual office. Primarily aimed at reducing traffic in central Tokyo ahead of the Olympics, major companies such as Fujitsu and NEC made plans to send their staff to work from home. However, there was a major cultural resistance to doing so, with only 19.1% of employees open to the idea, with a smaller percentage still (8.5%) having experience of doing so. Japan seemed to be stuck in its non-teleworking ways come this time last year, but sudden change was on the horizon courtesy of the coronavirus pandemic.

With the declaration of the first state of emergency in April, teleworking looked to be on the increase in Japan. With fears of Covid-19 spreading indoors gripping the population, many companies took the plunge and had their staff connect from their homes. Surprisingly, this was matched with great enthusiasm with the Japanese workforce. In fact, 70% of workers surveyed wanted teleworking to continue even after the pandemic had come to an end, citing lack of stressful commutes and the ability to work in areas with lower living costs as major benefits. Unfortunately for them, this did not continue after the first wave of the virus had receded. 

While the government had set a target of 70% of businesses implementing teleworking, by July, only 31% of companies were working from home. More depressingly, 26.7% had done so previously but had now stopped. Even now, as Japan is gripped by another wave of infections, the number of employees working from home has continued to drop. Compared with the digital heights of the first wave, the total amount of teleworkers has fallen by 9.5%. For all the promise of Society 5.0 and previous attempts to digitise the Japanese workforce, why does it seem that efforts have stalled?

Truth be told, much of the Japanese system is resistant to change. Take, for instance, the reliance on traditional seals and paper to approve contracts, reports and other administrative work. Known as inkan or hanko, the seals typically contain unique characters to represent names or signatures. Despite emergency measures and risk of infection, this tradition was a headache for many organisations during the state of emergency as, no matter how much work was done online, many documents still needed to be processed physically. In other words, they could not be stamped from home. In response, the new minister for administrative reform, Taro Kono, recently announced he was abolishing the use of hanko in much of the government’s administrative processes. Since then, Hitachi has also announced it will be retiring the hanko by 2022. 

Moreover, Hitachi has also been a big proponent of teleworking. Despite wider trends of declining teleworkers, they have exceeded the government’s 70% target and plan to go beyond, having 85% of their employees working from home in the near future. Hitachi are not alone in this regard, with several major Japanese corporations also committing themselves to digitisation. Fujitsu took to this furthest when it announced it was closing half of all its office space in Japan and moving 80,000 of its staff to a permanent system of teleworking, flexible arrangements and “hot-seating”. While this digital transformation is still in progress, it seems major players in both the public and private sectors are leading the charge toward a teleworking future. 

So where does that leave the bustling commutes of downtown Tokyo that have become so ingrained into the west’s image of Japan? For many Japanese workers, as adoption of teleworking stalls, they look set to return. However, do not count out the lure of working from home just yet. This current moment represents a major opportunity for Japan to reform into a technologically connected, digital economy and drag outdated practice into the 21st century. With a government that has (so far) committed itself to digitisation and reform, there appears strong political desire to make this change permanent. Additionally, with major corporations shifting to teleworking, it may be that the current dip is only temporary, and that work-from-home practice will diffuse into the rest of the economy in the coming years. Perhaps the salaryman of the future, no longer rushing for crammed morning trains, will be able to hop on his computer and join his colleagues logging in from across a hyper-connected Japan.

Aidan Gilbert is a student at the University of Edinburgh, studying Japanese and Linguistics. He is in his third year and is expected to graduate in 2022. Always possessing a keen interest in East Asia, he has also taken modules in the histories and politics of Japan, China, and Korea. Outside of university and the role of student board member at the Asia Scotland Institute, he is also involved as an academic coordinator at the UK-Japan Student Conference. 

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