hamada51_ TOSHIFUMI KITAMURAAFP via Getty Images_japanese work culture TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA/AFP via Getty Images

Making Japan Productive Again

If Japanese companies after the pandemic opt to resume a traditional work routine – with its long hours, strict schedules, exhausting commutes on packed trains, and minimal vacations – both people and the economy will suffer. Even small changes, focused on increasing flexibility, would make a big difference.

TOKYO – When I was teaching at the University of Tokyo in the 1970s, my daily commute lasted three and a half hours. But, one day, it threatened to last twice as long: with labor strikes having shut down public transportation, my only option was a much longer route using private trains and subways. Rather than spend nearly seven hours traveling to and from campus for a faculty meeting, I decided to work from home that day. To my surprise, the decision was met with censure from the dean of the faculty and disapproval from my colleagues.

Perhaps I should have anticipated that response. Japan’s work culture is not only notoriously rigid, but also highly social. At the kaisha (company), people gather and work together – usually for their entire careers. The question is whether the COVID-19 pandemic was the disruption Japan needed to break unproductive habits and inject new dynamism into working life.

The pandemic has undoubtedly transformed work elsewhere, with remote work and Zoom meetings becoming the new normal. But in a place like the United States, the prevailing working style was already more oriented toward productivity than rigid rules. In fact, part of the reason I assumed that skipping that seven-hour commute would be acceptable was that I had attended an American graduate school.

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