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Three years ago, Kaori and her family escaped the bustle of Osaka and moved to Gojo, a small, mountain-ringed city in Nara Prefecture known for its well-preserved townhouses and abundance of nature.

In retrospect, it was a move that was ahead of the curve, with COVID-19 spurring more urbanites to show an interest in relocating to rural regions. But while Kaori has been able to avoid jam-packed commuter trains and enjoy weekend canoeing expeditions, there’s been one setback: Her company doesn’t allow her to work remotely.

“I can probably do 90% of my tasks from home, but the people at the top are against the concept,” says Kaori, a 37-year-old mother who works in human resources for a small manufacturer with around 50 employees, speaking on condition that she only be identified by her first name due to privacy reasons. “There’s this mentality among the digitally unsure older generation that it’s not work unless you show up to work.”

Kaori is not alone in her frustration. The pandemic was expected to trigger a major shift toward working remotely in corporate Japan, where face-to-face meetings are valued and long hours are often considered a sign of loyalty. But 20 months since the nation reported its first COVID-19 patient, the concept appears to be losing steam — at least for now — as many workers remain bound to their offices, especially those like Kaori working for small and midsize firms.

As the delta variant raged across the nation last month, leading to record numbers of infections, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga asked the nation’s major business circles to help promote remote work in a bid to reduce the number of commuters by 70%.

He had good reason to make the renewed pitch. The latest figures released in July by the Tokyo-based nonprofit the Japan Productivity Center, for example, showed that the work style had been adopted by only 20.4% of the workers surveyed, a figure that hasn’t changed much over the past year. What’s more, the ratio of those working remotely full time in July fell to 2.4%, compared with 3.6% in April and 4.7% in January.

What does that mean?

“The number of days remote workers are going into work is increasing and the return to the office is progressing,” the organization said in its report. “It’s necessary to monitor ‘telework fatigue.’”

A lack of digital infrastructure and an archaic corporate culture that values long working hours and face-to-face meetings is slowing down the nation’s push toward working remotely. | GETTY IMAGES
A lack of digital infrastructure and an archaic corporate culture that values long working hours and face-to-face meetings is slowing down the nation’s push toward working remotely. | GETTY IMAGES

Take a 38-year-old woman who works for a web marketing firm in Tokyo. While her company recommends its staff work remotely two days a week during a state of emergency, the practice is rarely observed now as employees get used to the pandemic and the frequent emergency decrees.

“Despite being an IT firm, the president and managers around him are very traditional and top-down when it comes to work ethics,” she says, declining to be identified. “I’d love to telework, but since the head of my department doesn’t work remotely, I have to be present at the office whenever we have meetings.”

Behind the phenomenon may be Japan’s corporate culture, which emphasizes unity and in-person communication, she says. The nation is also one of the oldest in the world, with 28.7% of the population age 65 or older, while the average age of corporate presidents in Japan has risen by 0.2 years to a new record high of 60.1, according to a 2020 nationwide report conducted by Teikoku Databank.

“But it reaches a point of absurdity when 10 of us crowd into a meeting room wearing masks to video chat with a client who is working remotely,” she says. “I don’t think the government can achieve the 70% reduction goal.”

Despite a slow start to the vaccine rollout, Japan has managed to avoid the worst of the pandemic, with around 1.66 million cases and 17,097 COVID-19 related deaths as of Sept. 18, according to the health ministry. Still, the country has been battered by five waves of the virus, with case counts in August soaring to more than 25,000 per day, overburdening hospitals and forcing some to turn away patients.

While the government has declared one state of emergency after another in an effort to curb the spread of the virus, which has seen restaurants and bars asked to close early and to refrain from serving alcohol, it has maintained a hands-off approach when it comes to remote work.

Corporations aren’t forced to offer the working option to its employees — it’s on a voluntary basis. The result has seen a widening gap between employers who have embraced working remotely and those who have decided to give it a pass, especially between larger tech companies and smaller firms.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has asked the nation’s major business circles to help promote remote work in a bid to reduce the number of commuters by 70%. | BLOOMBERG
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has asked the nation’s major business circles to help promote remote work in a bid to reduce the number of commuters by 70%. | BLOOMBERG

In April, mobile and online services company DeNA Co. announced that it will move its headquarters to a shared office space. In its press release, it said less than 6% of its workforce came to the office in March, and it expects the remote work arrangement to continue after the health crisis subsides.

Meanwhile, Deloitte Tohmatsu Group returned two floors of a building near Tokyo Station this summer, and reports have said Yahoo Japan Corp. will be vacating 40% of its Tokyo office space, or around 30,000 square meters, by November when leases expire. Since the onset of the pandemic, only around 10% of Yahoo’s staff have been working in the office.

But while some larger firms are accelerating the pace of downsizing office space, a majority of smaller firms appear to prefer keeping their workers in the office.

According to the trade ministry, 99.7% of all businesses in Japan are small or midsize. These companies employ around 70% of the working population and account for a significant portion of economic output.

While they are the cornerstone of the service sector and play a critical role in the manufacturing and export supply chain, they’ve also been the slowest when it comes to introducing flexible work arrangements.

In a survey conducted by the Tokyo Chamber of Commerce and Industry in May during the third state of emergency, 38.4% of the small and midsize enterprises in the capital that responded said they had implemented remote work. That was 27.8 percentage points lower than when the organization conducted a similar survey during the previous state of emergency that lasted between January and March.

The latest figures released in July showed that working remotely had been adopted by only 20.4% of the workers surveyed. | REUTERS
The latest figures released in July showed that working remotely had been adopted by only 20.4% of the workers surveyed. | REUTERS

“Remote work will likely stick with big tech companies and startups, but I believe many others may revert back to traditional work styles,” says Ryusuke Ishii, a researcher at the Japan Research Institute and an expert on human resources. He cites three primary factors inhibiting the proliferation of remote work in Japan: type of occupation, working environments and management mentality.

People working in jobs requiring their physical presence, including those in the service industry, health care professionals and blue-collar workers, don’t have the luxury of staying at home like their white-collar counterparts.

Meanwhile, many small and midsize businesses lack the necessary hardware and software — laptops, data storage, workplace collaboration apps and so on — to support the work style, Ishii says.

Finally, Ishii says, “management, especially older managers, are used to allocating work to subordinates face to face, often through gestures and indirect communication. A Zoom call won’t do it for them.”

A 23-year-old woman who began working in sales at a major insurance company in April says her section doesn’t have a paid Zoom account.

“Since I joined, we tried working remotely for two days but soon gave up since the training curriculum would be cut off every time we reached the 40-minute free-call limit,” she says, asking not to be named. While many firms no longer allow her to book in-person sales appointments due to infection risks, she says her company considers it essential for insurance agents to meet potential customers face to face.

“I understand how that may be more effective in achieving our quota, but I still hope we can have the option to work remotely at least two or three days a week.”

Behind the low rate of telework may be Japan’s corporate culture that emphasizes unity and in-person communication. | REUTERS
Behind the low rate of telework may be Japan’s corporate culture that emphasizes unity and in-person communication.
| REUTERS

The government has been pushing remote work for years. Not only would it ease the notoriously congested rush-hour commutes in Japan’s major urban centers, the argument goes, but it could also offer a better work-life balance and encourage more women and elderly citizens to enter the workforce. And perhaps most crucial to corporations, young job seekers are increasingly raising the availability of working remotely as a priority when scouting for potential employers.

In a survey conducted in February by Gakujo Co., a company that runs a recruitment information platform, 57.2% of university students that responded who are expecting to graduate in April said they considered the availability of remote work important when applying for jobs. A little more than 77% said they’d like to use the work arrangement if it is offered.

“It’s becoming increasingly essential for corporations, including small and midsize firms, to offer the option of working remotely to lure workers,” says Mizue Murata, executive director of the Japan Telework Association, an organization that promotes the work style.

“Sure, there are many obstacles to overcome, but I don’t think Japan will revert to its old ways after the current crisis passes,” she says. “Corporations that have successfully adopted remote work understand how practical and efficient the arrangement can be. What’s more, the younger generation who will become central to Japan’s workforce are embracing the practice.”

Kaori, who works for the manufacturer in Nara, agrees. As an HR representative, she often interviews college students seeking jobs, some of whom appear to lose interest when she mentions that remote work is not possible at her company.

“We’ve managed to get the digital infrastructure in place, so we’re just hoping for the managers to give the go sign for us to implement remote work,” she says. “It’s a pity that we’re missing the opportunity to hire these young, talented people.”

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