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Coronavirus prompts Japan to reconsider long-hours office culture

Mask-clad commuters make their way to work during morning rush hour at Shinagawa Station in Tokyo on Friday. | AFP-JIJI

Source | | SHOKO ODA

The coronavirus outbreak is forcing Japan to examine some of its longest-held aspects of workplace culture in a country where spending long hours in the office is still regarded as crucial to success.

Authorities have urged companies to break long-standing taboos and encourage their employees to work from home to curb the spread of the virus, and Prime Minster Shinzo Abe’s call last week to shut down schools across the country has forced millions of parents into a work-from-home experiment the country’s firms are ill-prepared for.

Panasonic Corp., NEC Corp. and Mitsubishi Corp. are among the growing number of firms that have mandated or recommended remote work for tens of thousands of staff. The change is testing the ability of the nation’s companies to embrace a more flexible work style — overturning a workplace culture that dates back decades and values physical presence and endurance of long hours over productivity or efficiency.

“Employers are unable to evaluate workers appropriately, so they put emphasis on length of hours worked. Those who work long hours are rated highly,” Naohiro Yashiro, a professor at Showa Women’s University in Tokyo, said in an interview. “The failure to promote remote working is just the tip of the iceberg. The real problem is Japan’s low labor productivity.”

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