Japan Needs to Telework. Its Paper-Pushing Offices Make That Hard.

TOKYO — Officially, Shuhei Aoyama has been teleworking for a month. But that doesn’t mean he can avoid going to the office.

Several times a week, Mr. Aoyama makes a half-hour commute across Tokyo for a task seemingly more suited to the age of the samurai than of the supercomputer: stamping his official corporate seal on business contracts and government paperwork.

The stamps, known as hanko or inkan, are used in place of signatures on the stream of documents that fill Japan’s workplaces, including the hotel network that employs Mr. Aoyama. They have become a symbol of a hidebound office culture that makes it difficult or impossible for many Japanese to work from home even as the country’s leaders say working remotely is essential to keeping Japan’s coronavirus epidemic from spiraling out of control.

While the world may see Japan as a futuristic land of humanoid robots and intelligent toilets, inside its offices, managers maintain a fierce devotion to paper files, fax machines, business card exchanges and face-to-face meetings.

Essential documents are not digitized, and computer systems are obsolete and tied to offices. Middle managers in Japan’s team-oriented workplaces are hesitant to allow employees to work from home, with some fearful that they will slack off or even drink on the job. And the workers who do have the option of teleworking fear harm to their careers.

Forced to balance the needs of the office and the risks to their own health, employees like Mr. Aoyama, 26, say they are losing patience with the country’s work traditions. “It’s not so much our company’s culture as it is Japanese culture that’s causing the problems,” he said.

In other countries where people are staying home to limit the spread of the virus, many white-collar workers have made a fairly routine shift to Zoom videoconferences and electronic document signing. But in Japan, the world’s third-largest economy, the sudden need for social distancing has caught companies off guard.

“Many organizations that were not ready, not prepared, are being forced to do telework, which is causing lots of trouble,” said Kunihiko Higa, a telework expert at the Tokyo Institute of Technology.

“Many internal rules require face-to-face meetings,” Mr. Higa added. “They think they can’t manage workers who are not there.”

The Japanese government, too, can be an obstacle, even as it pushes working from home: Companies applying for telework subsidies have reported needing to print out 100 or more pages of documents and deliver them in person.

Before the pandemic, the government was pressing companies and local government offices to move their essential functions online. In a country plagued by natural disasters like earthquakes and typhoons, organizations have long paid lip service to the importance of telework for ensuring the continuity of business and governmental duties.

In the run-up to the Tokyo Olympics, which were scheduled to begin in July but have been postponed, the government pushed workplaces to allow employees to work from home, hoping to free up the city’s notoriously crowded public transportation network for a flood of spectators.

Many companies pledged to get on board. A survey in late February by Keidanren, Japan’s national business association, found that nearly 70 percent of its members had instituted or were planning telework policies.

But even as the government has now declared a state of emergency in major cities and is urging people to reduce human-to-human contact by at least 70 percent, few companies seem to have been able, or willing, to put their plans into action.

A survey last month by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism found that fewer than 13 percent of workers nationwide were able to work from home. Over 70 percent reported difficulties with telework.

The numbers are better in Tokyo. A survey conducted at the end of March by the city’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry found that 26 percent of companies had instituted teleworking. On Monday, two days after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe asked businesses to cut commuting to meet social distancing goals, commuter traffic in the capital was down significantly, and business districts were quiet.

Other cities and rural areas are unlikely to see such a dramatic shift. A study in late March by Tokyo-based Persol Research and Consulting found that in Nagoya, Japan’s fourth-largest city and one of the first places to be hit hard by the coronavirus, just 9 percent of permanent employees were telecommuting.

“Japanese companies, a lot of them, are set up on the premise that you’re all going to be in the same place,” said Rochelle Kopp, a consultant who specializes in Japanese business practices. “Even if you have a laptop, you can’t always take it home. There are a lot of software and hardware issues.”

“The inability to work from home is really hampering Japan’s ability to deal with Covid-19,” she said, referring to the disease caused by the coronavirus.

For several weeks before Japan declared the state of emergency, it avoided recommending the kind of stringent measures used by other nations to limit people’s movement. Many observers have attributed that reluctance to the damage it would inflict on Japan’s already-limping economy — damage that could be compounded if companies had to severely curtail operations because they could not easily shift to telework.

For the many workers in Japan who believe they face a false choice between their jobs and their well-being, few things have exemplified the dilemma more than the distinctive red imprint of the venerable hanko.

“Why do we have to put each other at risk just for something trivial like a hanko?” Yoshitaka Hibi, a professor of Japanese literature at Nagoya University, wrote in a Twitter post that was liked more than 28,000 times.

“This is our chance. For the love of god, someone please destroy this custom,” he added.

The practice of using stamps to seal official documents came to Japan from China nearly 2,000 years ago, but did not become a part of everyday bureaucracy until the late 19th century.

Today, the walls of discount sh
ops in Japan are lined with row after row of black self-inking stamps, known as shachihata, inscribed with common surnames. Chain stores design and carve individualized stamps on demand.

Japanese typically have at least two seals: a custom-made one that is registered with the government and used for formal documents, and another that is used in more informal situations. People often keep one at the entrance of their home for deliveries, another in the desk at their office and a third secreted away in their house for using on bank documents.

Corporations have their own individualized seals, often kept under lock and key, and produced only for use on important paperwork, such as contracts.

In traditional workplaces, as documents flow from desk to desk, even employees with only tangential relationships to the work described in them are expected to add their stamp, indicating that they have read and approved the contents.

Even the most technologically savvy companies have not been able to completely shake the habit. Line, the company that developed Japan’s most popular chat app, has largely eliminated the use of hanko in its office, designing an application that allows users to seal documents with a digital stamp.

But its employees, said a spokeswoman, Satsuki Motojima, still cannot avoid an occasional trip to the office to add their seal to documents required by the government or other companies.

Takao Tokui, the chairman of the All Japan Seal Industry Association, argued that hanko were an important part of the country’s “social infrastructure,” crucial to people who are less tech savvy, including the elderly and people in rural areas.

Still, change could come quickly, said Mr. Hibi, the literature professor at Nagoya University. Shortly after his tweet, the school said it would no longer require students to receive a hanko from professors to approve their classes.

“As it turns out,” he said, “all it took was for someone to say something.”

Hisako Ueno contributed reporting.

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