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Management’s view on socio-cultural changes and the government response to COVID -19 in Japan

Management’s view on socio-cultural changes and the government response to COVID -19 in Japan


By: David Rincón, Managing Director Daabon Japan

With a population of 126 million people, the number of deaths caused by COVID-19 in Japan is marginal, standing at 6,000, in contrast with the 55,000 people that have died in Colombia, which has a population of nearly 50 million.

However, Japan has not escaped the social, cultural or economic impacts of the pandemic, and its government has been  criticized for its slow response, though the vast majority of individuals and corporations follow government guidelines with military discipline. Getting tested for COVID-19 in Tokyo can be complicated and expensive, perhaps being one of the reasons the recorded numbers are so low. However, human behavior has undoubtedly played a factor in reducing the spread. There is no hand shaking, no kissing, no hugging, no touching, no talking on the train, in elevators or indeed very little talking or raising of voices in any form. Silence and harmony are the norm in Japan. Even riding packed trains in the middle of rush hour can make you feel distant from others. Masks have been used in Japan for decades, before Covid-19, against the flu, hay fever and for many other reasons. Japan has social distancing in its DNA.

Prime Minister Abe declared the first state of emergency back in April 2020 for some prefectures where the virus was spreading at alarming rates. One of the government recommendations was for companies to have their staff work from home, which was extremely unusual given that Japan is a society of permanent presence at the work place. In fact, back in the 1990s the term “face work” was common, referring to people who spent an unjustifiable number of hours in the office simply doing nothing.

On 7th January 2021, Prime Minister Suga declared a second state of emergency, which was extended until 7th March 2021. This time the advice to the corporate world was to keep at least 70% of the work force at home, which was possible for large companies but quite challenging for small and medium sized companies that rely on day-to-day presential work to survive. In fact, many of these large Japanese conglomerates have implemented a “work from home” scheme since April 2020.

Apart from the damage caused to its economy, including the postponement and eventual cancellation of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics & Paralympics, I foresee that many workers will simply not come back to their offices, factories or facilities now that they have had a dose of ‘freedom’ and detachment from the workplace. I also foresee that this will trigger other sensitive social problems and worsen unemployment. However, I believe this period will result in greater efficiency in the workplace, implementation of management by objectives, more mobility, more labor rotation, less unnecessary business trips, less night drinking, less karaoke and more united families, increased digitalization, a reduction in the use of paper and more efficient processes, as well as the abandonment of many obsolete practices.