TheCity.ie’s Ayumi Miyano spoke with Tokyo-based businessman Sam Kennedy and Yoshihiro Tsuchiya of the Ireland Japan Chamber of Commerce about the threat to Japan’s business traditions with the coronavirus looming large over the nation and its economy.
The development of technology has completely changed how people communicates with each other, as well as the work environment. Now the global coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the trend of telework.
But traditional paper-based approval systems and on-site regular meetings may hinder people from catching up to the trend.
“A lot of data, a lot of our processes have to be done on paper,” said Irish businessman Sam Kennedy. He has been working for a Japanese company in the medical industry for five years. When he started to work there, a lot of Japanese office traditions — including paper-based communication — surprised him.
“A physical hanko form has to go to the next person and the next person. If you can’t do that, you can’t work, you can’t get a result. And we can’t change that process suddenly either,” he said.
“Hanko” is a Japanese word for a stamp. Normally workers are given their hanko with their names on the first day of their work in a Japanese company. Workers seal it after they make an in-house document, and the document will be circulated among their bosses for their approval. In a way, Hanko is like a signature, but it has more power than signatures do in many Japanese companies.
“A stump form has to go to the next person and the next person. If you can’t do that, you can’t work, you can’t get a result,” Kennedy said.
Web-based technology systems
During the coronavirus pandemic, Kennedy’s company started to implement a set of remote working systems, but he doubts whether the tactic can be widely used in his company.
“The problem I think for us and also for many Japanese companies is we don’t have technology for that and even if we had technology, staff don’t know how to use it,” he said.
“We also have a web approval system which is used for big decisions, but the supporting document for the system that you submit to be reviewed by the people who are approving, originally has to have a stamp on it. So, even though we have an online system, we can’t use it without stamping it,” he added.
Most Japanese companies have regular weekly or monthly meetings.
“We have a lot of set meetings, but whether we need to have those meetings are not is not always clear,” he said.
“We were planning on using Zoom for work, but I think the problem is a lot of people don’t have the IT equipment to be able to do that,” he added.
Traditional practices in Japanese working culture were highlighted in 2013 when the United Nations warned the Japanese government that extensive overwork of employees could be a cause of “Karoshi” (a death or suicide from exhaustion) in Japanese companies.
In 2018, 92 cases of karoshi were formally recorded by the Ministry of Health. That is equivalent to one case of karoshi occurring every four days.
In 2019, the Japanese government launched the campaign “Work System Reform”. The campaign introduced a new strategy to cap the amount of overtime. The regulations imposed a hard cap on overtime at 100 hours a month, or an average of 80 hours over multiple months, and 720 hours a year, starting in April of 2019. This 80 hours of overtime are also regarded as the limit to avoid karoshi — the so-called “karoshi line”.
“We’ve been trying to implement ‘Work System Reform’ for a long time — how to work better — but it has been all the time the same, it’s about overtime, it’s about meetings,” Kennedy said.
History of overwork — “You shouldn’t go home before your boss“
For most of the last 70 years in Japan, working long hours was treated as a virtue. The Japanese economy flourished in 1954 to 1973 by depending on heavy chemical industries, the expansion of markets, and growing exports. Although the economy was impacted by the oil crisis of the 1970s, Japan welcomed its asset price bubble as real estate and stock prices were greatly inflated.
The typical Japanese businessman in the bubble economy foresaw a “certainty” for promotion, big rises in salary and a bright future, says the acting president of the Ireland Japan Chamber of Commerce, Yoshihiro Tsuchiya.
“The longer we worked, the higher salary we will get — that’s what we believed”
When Tsuchiya started to work as a graduate in the 1980s for one of the biggest insurance companies in Japan, overtime was “normal” and sometimes he had to take a taxi at midnight after he worked overtime hours for a few days in a row.
“The longer we worked, the higher salary we would get — that’s what we believed. Japanese society and our company were clearly growing at that time,” Tsuchiya said.
“The ‘you shouldn’t go home before your boss’ mindset was widely believed to a certain extent, and it was a culture of the company. And it was not just work — companies were like family at that time. We always went for dinner or drink with our clients, and these engagements outside of work were regarded as ‘work’,” he added.
“But in a way, companies were taking care of their employees well, and it was a nice era I would say. At that time, It was easy to plan for a stable future and keep our hope. But now, everything has changed,” he said.
The bubble was burst in 1992 and it led to the “Lost Decade” of Japan. The country had been a leader of the global economy with world’s second-biggest GDP, until China overtook it in 2011, followed by the devastation of earthquake and tsunami that same year.
And now — the coronavirus pandemic.
“It is a time that people are starting to look at people’s working styles because of the coronavirus situation,” Kennedy said.
“When this coronavirus started, we changed the working hours from 9am-5pm to 10am to 4pm. So, everyone has to come to the office outside of the rush hour,” he added.
Ironically, the coronavirus pandemic seems to have some positive impact on Japanese companies’ working style.
“I go home on time all the time but I know some people don’t like that – my boss doesn’t like it”
“So, you come to the office no later than 10am and you leave the office no later than 4pm, that was the idea,” he said.
However, “nobody wants to be the first person to leave the office,” he added.
He commented that the notion of never leaving the office before your boss was still pervasive, particularly when coronavirus came.
“I go home on time all the time but I know some people don’t like that – my boss doesn’t like it. He never says it to me, but I know that he probably doesn’t like it,” Kennedy continued.
“I know that probably it will cause problems for me if I want to get a promotion or get more responsibility, I won’t be seen as a ‘team player’ as much as somebody who can do a few hours more overtime everyday. And that’s unrelated to the amount of work you did.
“Even though the rule is very strict now, everyone is waiting until somebody else leaves the office. I thought that was a ‘real dangerous’ culture,” he said.
Despite his hope, the coronavirus pandemic might fail to reform Japanese working culture.
“To be honest, I expect everything will go back to normal after the pandemic ends – but my dream is that it won’t.”