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Amid anxieties around the spread of COVID-19 in Japan, a question has emerged as to whether organizations in Japan are making sufficient use of expert input.

Despite the unfolding crisis, the government’s coronavirus task force didn’t convene its panel of experts to discuss what measures should be taken in Japan to combat the new virus’ spread until Feb. 16. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attended the first meeting for a mere three minutes and then went home, and has attended subsequent meetings for an average of just 12 minutes each.

Last week, the Abe administration recommended that all schools in Japan close for several weeks, despite experts doubting the usefulness of doing so. Masaki Yoshida, chairman of the Japan Society for Infection Prevention and Control, has said that closing schools where the virus is not present “will not make any difference at all” and the fact that children will go out and play even with schools closed will make it hard to tell whether the school closures are actually working. On March 2, Abe admitted that he made this decision without expert input, solely based on his own political judgment.

Kentaro Iwata, a doctor at Kobe University who specializes in infectious diseases, boarded the Diamond Princess cruise ship docked in Yokohama on Feb. 18 while it was under quarantine due to the spread of COVID-19 onboard. He posted a pair of YouTube videos (subsequently deleted) in which he reported that “there was nobody in charge of infection prevention as a professional” and that “the bureaucrats were in charge of everything.” There has been a lot of international criticism of Japan’s handling of the Diamond Princess outbreak, and the subsequent identification of infection among passengers released, as well as government workers involved in the quarantine, has been embarrassing for the government.

Also of concern are the strict requirements that Japan has put in place for testing people for COVID-19. Elderly patients, for example, can be tested after having had a fever for at least two days, while that waiting period is four days for most others. As a result of these rules — combined with the limited number of test processors and the reluctance of hospitals to perform the tests — many people who believe they may have contracted the virus have not been able to get tested. This is despite the opinion of many experts that faster and broader testing would be beneficial, and contrasts sharply with South Korea’s testing of more than 10,000 people per day.

Additionally, as reported previously in The Japan Times, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare’s website uses poor quality machine translation for much of its foreign language provision of information including that relating to COVID-19, with ministry official Takuma Kato saying, “Our ministry doesn’t have a dedicated team of staff specializing in English-language communication.” After the publication of this article, the ministry said it would start using professional translators for updates on its website.

Before going further, I will note that as an American the following comment in a recent discussion among Japanese policy experts by Richard Katz, New York correspondent for Toyo Keizai, reflects my feeling as well: “It goes without saying that criticism of Japan’s actions does not mean other governments have done a better job. Conversely, the disarray and politicization of the issue by my own government in Washington does not excuse problems in Tokyo.”

Experts and generalists

There does seem to be a common denominator behind all these examples of problems with Japan’s approach to the COVID-19 epidemic: A lack of putting experts in the forefront of setting policy and carrying out operations that require specialized knowledge and experience.

Undervaluing the role of specialized expertise is a common tendency among Japanese organizations, and this background may be behind some of what can be observed in the reactions to dealing with the new coronavirus. The difficulty in fostering and utilizing expert knowledge has roots in several of the features of Japanese organizations.

One key factor to be aware of is that most Japanese organizations focus on creating generalists, which prevents the development of specialists. This starts with hiring, where most employees are recruited in a single batch immediately after graduation. Rather than being recruited to take a specific job, the new employees join the company as a whole. They participate together in a generic new-employee orientation, and are then assigned to their initial roles. They will then periodically be rotated to different departments, often ending up in assignments that have little relation to what they studied in school or to their previous postings. With rotations happening every few years and throughout the organization’s different divisions, employees don’t get the opportunity to develop deep expertise in any given area. The result is an army of generalists. It’s as if Japanese organizations are training each employee to have the capacity to be a senior manager of the organization one day — which has its merits but also means that functions in the company that would typically be handled by someone with deep experience are instead handled by relative amateurs.

Case in point, I recently met a manager in charge of global IT at a large Japanese company. He said that, up until three years prior, he had spent his entire career in various sales roles. He was then suddenly and unexpectedly put into IT.

“Learning about IT from scratch was really exhausting, and the first two years were really tough,” he told me. He is now leading the firm’s global IT group, with people based around the world reporting to him. I wonder if these employees, who were presumably hired for their IT backgrounds, have noticed that their leader has only three years of experience in the field.

A matter of money

An additional reason that Japanese organizations tend to avoid experts and rely on their own internal resources instead can be traced to budget constraints. Whether you hire them or you use them as consultants, experts can be expensive. In the case of the aforementioned IT manager, his company was probably thinking that it saved a lot of money by putting one of its existing employees into the role, rather than spending money to recruit someone with experience in managing global IT systems.

There may be times when the organization realizes that it is necessary to look outside for expert opinions. But when outside experts are called in, even ones who are highly respected for their background or position, it can be difficult for them to get their ideas listened to. This is because they are outsiders and have not developed the relationships and rapport with key decision-makers needed to have influence. Being part of the nakama (the in-group) in an organization, and the ability to build consensus through nemawashi (lobbying discussions) can be crucial, but often impossible for an outsider — no matter how much expertise they have.

Reliance on internal generalists, reluctance to spend money on experts and willingness to only listen to those insiders skilled in consensus building could be explanations for how Japan is handling COVID-19. Let’s hope these organizational factors can be overcome and appropriate expert advice be leveraged as Japan confronts this unique challenge.

Rochelle Kopp teaches at Kitakyushu University and consults with both Japanese firms operating globally and foreign firms operating in Japan. She recently published “Manga de Wakaru Gaikokujin to no Hatarakikata” (“Learn How to Work With Non-Japanese Through Manga.”) You can find her on Twitter at @JapanIntercult.

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