COVID-19 has disrupted a lot of plans. As we head into the second year of the pandemic, many of us are still waiting to move on with our lives.

This global uncertainty has hit those who were planning a move to Japan particularly hard, as Helena Sanmamed knows well. An industrial engineering student from Spain, she was supposed to begin studies at the University of Saitama this spring. However, the border is largely closed to those who aren’t citizens or current residents.

“What I find most stressful is the lack of information that we have,” she says. “Things would be less difficult for us if we had a timeline to follow.”

While the pandemic is indeed an exceptional situation, concerns about a lack of transparency and unclear timelines are familiar to businesspeople who’ve been dealing with Japanese organizations since long before COVID-19 even existed.

Experts on the decision-making and communications practices of Japanese organizations say that although the lack of information for those waiting to enter the country is unfortunate, it’s part and parcel with the way businesses, governments and other institutions normally form consensus.

“The Japanese look at life like a college entrance exam, always searching for the one right answer,” says Masaharu Shibata, an author and management consultant specializing in Japanese corporate behavior. “In times like these, when the situation is fluid and changing, there isn’t one correct answer. That’s when Japanese, and especially Japanese organizations, have trouble coping.”

The pandemic, with its many evolving variables including emerging coronavirus variants, waves of infection (both in Japan and overseas) and vaccine distribution challenges, is a prime example of the kind of situation that Japanese organizations find difficult to deal with.

“The multistep Japanese-style decision-making process can’t handle rapidly changing situations,” says Daisuke Tsuji, an administrative scrivener who is an expert in legal documentation and specializes in visa issues. “We see the same issue (when there is a) delay in issuing state of emergency declarations.”

In Japanese organizations, the path to reaching a decision is a complex and time-consuming one, requiring sign-off from multiple individuals from various departments and at different ranks. As each of these individuals needs to be convinced of a proposal’s merits, orchestrating consensus is a lot of work — all of which needs to be redone if a new solution is put forth in response to evolving circumstances.

Shuri Fukunaga, founder and CEO of communications consultancy Persuade Inc., further adds that “Japan is not very fluent at simplifying processes that are excessively detailed, and therefore burdensome when fast decisions are needed, such as in a crisis.”

Japanese organizations emphasize a system of rules, and if those rules can’t be applied to a situation, the response is often to change the rules and then deal with the situation, explains Timothy Langley, CEO of Langley Esquire, a Tokyo-based public affairs consulting firm. Although this takes more time, the decision-making process itself survives intact.

“While the result after such thought and effort is almost guaranteed to be better than a knee-jerk reaction in the end, there is that nasty detail of the damage done in the meantime,” he says. Langley believes that this approach generally explains why, when confronted by the unusual or unexpected, the response in Japan “is almost always laggardly, incomplete and meek,” public communication sparse, and “the disenfranchised are mere afterthoughts.”

Closed for the night: Pedestrians wearing protective face masks make their way at Shibuya Crossing after 8 p.m., where some of neon signs have been turned off on the first day of Tokyo’s third state of emergency, amid the COVID-19 pandemic. While some have questioned the decision-making process that goes into declaring a state of emergency or closing the borders, experts believe it is all part of the way Japanese organizations do things. | REUTERS
Closed for the night: Pedestrians wearing protective face masks make their way at Shibuya Crossing after 8 p.m., where some of neon signs have been turned off on the first day of Tokyo’s third state of emergency, amid the COVID-19 pandemic. While some have questioned the decision-making process that goes into declaring a state of emergency or closing the borders, experts believe it is all part of the way Japanese organizations do things. | REUTERS

A high-stakes situation

The health threat posed by the coronavirus makes border control policies highly consequential, and thus formulating them requires great care. That this could be a matter of life or death if things are done incorrectly exacerbates the typical stakes of the decision-making process.

Koichi Nakano, a professor of political science at Sophia University, notes that, in general, anything related to COVID-19 is “a very politically important problem, which significantly affects the health and safety of the populace, as well as the economy and the fate of the current administration.”

Because the issue of entering the country is highly politicized, final policy decisions are being made by a small number of people in the Prime Minister’s Office. Meanwhile, Nakano says that for other politicians and bureaucrats it becomes “the kind of ‘no-win issue’ that they would prefer to avoid.”

It is well-known that Japan’s various government ministries and agencies work independently from one another, and when it comes to the responsibility of processing new entrants to the country the situation is no different.

“Each part of the Japanese government doesn’t understand at all what the others are doing, and the information exchanged between them is just superficial,” Shibata says. The lack of coordination then impacts the ability to communicate with the public.

“This leads to multiple and often contradictory messages,” says David Wagner, a crisis communications consultant who has done work for the Japanese government. He cites debates over whether the Olympics should be postponed and communication during the 2011 nuclear crisis in Fukushima Prefecture as instances in which “competing entities produced competing messages.”

In January, for example, Prime Minister Yoshihde Suga said holding the delayed Olympic Games in Tokyo this summer would be perceived as a victory against the coronavirus, stating, “We will have full anti-infection measures in place and proceed with preparation with a determination to achieve the games that can deliver hope and courage throughout the world.” In April, however, Toshihiro Nikai, the secretary-general of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party, said canceling the Tokyo Olympics could be an option if the coronavirus spreads further.

A complicating factor

When it comes to whether or not to allow international students and other new residents into Japan, another complicating factor is that the issue involves non-Japanese individuals.

Langley says that, from the perspective of politicians and bureaucrats, dealing with anything related to non-Japanese is “more work, much more delicate, generates much more potential negative backlash and, even in the best cases, is not a career-enhancing move.”

Nakano believes that the current administration is insensitive to issues of discrimination, which he feels leads to insufficient communication with non-Japanese audiences.

“Similar problems can be seen in how the government handles issues related to refugees and immigrant labor such as foreign technical trainees,” he adds.

The focus on entry restrictions is also likely a result of the government having few other tools to prevent the spread of infection. Without the legal framework to implement a hard lockdown, the border is something that the government has control over.

However, “there is no way the government can communicate this without sounding prejudiced and unfair,” says Parker J. Allen, CEO of public relations consulting firm Parthenon Japan. “This is why I think we have not been hearing much about the situation from official sources.”

Unfortunately, experts are not optimistic for those hoping to enter Japan soon.

“I’m not sure whether the government is seriously discussing the timing to loosen the entry restriction,” says Atsuro Tsujino, an attorney at law who consults on visa issues at Kowa Legal Professional Corp. “It looks like they are really obsessed with holding the Olympics this year, and dealing with the recent surge of infections.”

Tsujino believes restrictions are likely to be kept in place until either the infection situation significantly improves, or the Olympics are over.

All this may be of little comfort to those waiting to get back to their initial plans, like Alisya Ozturk Schyns who lives in Belgium and was supposed to start studying at a language school in Japan in April.

“If we were given some sort of perspective, we could plan our life accordingly,” she says. “But right now we have nothing.”

For the many students and others who are waiting to get into this country, this whole ordeal may actually be the first lesson they receive on Japan and how its bureaucracy operates.

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