As the world grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of people from different regions of the globe have had to change their ways of doing business on a daily basis. Although the world may share common obstacles, every country’s workforce must adapt to changes specific to their business culture. Having worked with Japanese customers, we decided to take a look at how Japanese business culture has changed since the outbreak of COVID-19.
It goes without saying that COVID-19 has had a negative impact on the vast majority of companies worldwide. Even back at the beginning of the crisis Japan, the world’s third largest economy, saw gross domestic product fall 7.8% for April and May 2020, according to the website Trading Economics. But rather than focusing on the economic impact of COVID-19, we want to discuss how certain shifts in business practices may have lasting positive effects on the way Japanese companies operate.
The pandemic has consequently forced Japan to reckon with many of its long-standing business traditions. Since Japan started using bullet trains for domestic travel, it has been common practice for business people to travel roundtrip from eastern Japan (Kantō, home to Tokyo), to western Japan (Kansai, home to Osaka and Kyoto) on the very same day. All for the sake of a business meeting, workers would tack on approximately five hours to their already demanding work day by commuting from one region’s business center to the other. In the wake of social distancing restrictions, this business protocol has become fuyō fukyū, “non-essential and non-urgent.” As the ubiquity of online meetings has taken hold, over 50% of working people have benefited from a reduction of commuting hours.
Moreover, once people were forced to stay at home, they were significantly less inclined to work overtime. The disappearance of overtime work has given people more free time to spend with their families which, in turn, may encourage workers to strive for a better work-life balance, something historically missing from Japanese business culture.
Hanko. Source: commons.wikimedia.org.
Online meetings not only give employees more free time, they allow companies to function more effectively, albeit by forgoing certain customs. Traditionally, before two companies agree to cooperate, companies have to visit their prospective client’s office for an official visit. Business discussions are not appropriate during these first meetings as it is more an opportunity to introduce parties to each other as a matter of respect. Only after this initial meeting do actual business discussions start. This sudden shift away from official visits makes companies more efficient, but the meetings certainly become less personal, and it is more difficult to build long-term trust between business partners. With this, actual online business culture has changed as well. One of the most interesting changes is the loss of the custom of exchanging business cards.
In Japan, business cards are essential as they contain the name of the person, their job title, and department. When meeting multiple people at once, one needs to know which person has the highest rank so they will always be prioritized. One example would be addressing the top-level person in emails first, followed by other people, depending on the hierarchy. As people are trying to avoid any in-person contact, they are rarely giving or receiving business cards. This decrease in business card exchange has certainly had a negative economic impact on the huge business card publishing industry. At the same time, the online business card exchange app Eight, owned by Sansan, Inc., is flourishing with constantly increasing stocks, driven by campaigns encouraging a shift to an online business card exchanging culture.
With the shift to online meeting platforms, Japan has also struggled with finding ways to express the seniority of each person on the call. One of the ways to achieve this was with Zoom meetings, which allow users to use a custom gallery view to sort participants’ videos. There are manuals and guidelines on various Japanese blog sites on how to highlight the most senior person to be shown as the main view person, what would traditionally be referred to as kamiza (directly translated as “god seat”).
With the state of emergency issued on April 7th, 2020 by the former prime minister Shinzo Abe, people almost fully shifted to online meetings, and the language also slowly started to change. An example of this would be aizuchi, a type of conversational feedback common in Japan, involving nodding and saying short phrases such as “indeed” or “I see,” and used to indicate that the listener is paying attention. In Japanese, people typically tend to nod in order to express the fact that they are listening. The shift to online appointments also meant the disappearance of this habit, as people would be muted and completely avoid these tendencies.
Furthermore, people also tend to have their cameras off unless necessary, making the situation sometimes hard to read, as the language itself can be very vague on its own. Co-author Tomomi Kawano has written on LinkedIn about other linguistic effects that these times have had on the Japanese language.
Many of us have heard of using a seal instead of a signature in Japan. A company’s official seal (In Japanese, shokuin) is used for official documents. The Japanese even invented a robot for adding the seal — COBOTTA. Companies are unable to perform business operations without this seal. Now, Japan is experiencing a shift where people are trying to drop the usage of the seal because, once again, using it would require direct contact between workers. One of the early adopters of this new seal-free modality in Japan is the city of Fukuoka in western Japan, where they managed to process 80% of document types without a physical seal being imprinted on them.
COVID-19 has had an enormous impact on everyone in the world. Japan has been facing the same situation as everyone else, but with its own domestic challenges. There has not just been a tremendous economic impact, but also a cultural impact on society. Some of the changes were certainly negative, but we’ve also witnessed some positive ones. To watch this region in the coming months will certainly be a very interesting experience.