• In a survey of more than 10,000 Japanese business, more than 63% projected that COVID-19 would have a "negative impact on their business performance";
  • But going online and remote working is creating opportunities for some business and forcing reflection on Japan's long-hours working culture;
  • More time spent at home is also prompting families to reconsider traditional domestic roles.

Tokyo is quiet. The spread of COVID-19 means schools are closed and people are working remotely without commuting in packed trains. Events are being cancelled and sports games postponed. People are refraining from going out at night to drink and party.

The coronavirus outbreak is tremendously damaging to Japan’s economy.

A rare late-March snow falling in the streets of Tokyo. Due to snow and Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike`s request to refrain from going outside, the city was quieter than ever. (Ryan Takeshita)
A rare late-March snow falling in the streets of Tokyo. Owing to snow and Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike`s request to refrain from going outside, the city was quieter than ever
Image: Ryan Takeshita

In a TDB survey of more than 10,000 companies across Japan, more than 63% of companies projected that COVID-19 would have a "negative impact on their business performance."

How the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting Asian stock markets
How the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting Asian stock markets
Image: Statista

As we look to the future, unfortunately, we must face the consequences of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games’ one-year postponement – both events were expected to “provide a spark for the Japanese economy”.

We need to make up for this by changing the way we work, using remote working and moving businesses online, to keep the economy running. We will also need to deal with changing family relationships as more people work from home.

What can each company, organization and individual do in this time of crisis? We face the inevitability of preparing for the "post-corona" era.

Hand-written signs show shortage of face masks
Hand-written signs show a shortage of face masks
Image: Ryan Takeshita

“The only thing I can do is to keep on working, even if remotely. I’m thinking of what I can do as an individual in this difficult situation.”

I heard this is a comment from an employee in his thirties who is working from home for a major company. Since his company instructed employees to work from home in late February, he has relied on smartphone chats and online video conferencing to get his work done, which was new for his office.

He says he also helps out his elder superiors, who are not as skillful with online tools: “I have tried to convince my boss to shift to online tools for months, but, cynically, COVID-19 forced them to make use of such technology.”

Empty train station in Tokyo
An empty train station in Tokyo
Image: Ryan Takeshita

In a survey conducted by Nihon Keizai Shimbun on nearly 140 leading firms in Japan, about 50% of businesses say they have switched to teleworking partially or in principle.

Japan is a country where spending long hours in the office, going to drinks with clients late at night and working overtime have, for decades, been seen as signs of success. This workaholic culture is beginning to change because of the virus. Companies are starting to realize that they can actually do remote work. Moves by leading companies such as Panasonic and Unicharm to introduce remote working hit the headlines every day.

The range of businesses and services now moving online is wide, from publishers making manga comic series available online to the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare teaming up with LINE Healthcare and Mediplat to launch an online health consultation service.

At HuffPost Japan we were planning to hold an event on 22 February, a time when the number of those infected was increasing on the large-sized cruise ship Diamond Princess.

The event was organized to discuss the topic of drug addiction. We were expecting 50 participants at the actual event but, as it turned out, the online event was watched by some 300,000 viewers – a 6,000-fold increase.

Working from home as an opportunity

For some people, the coronavirus crisis has provided them with an opportunity to rethink their relationships with family members.

Ms Mayumi Funaki runs Shipood, a firm that offers public relations services for companies, with her husband: “I was doing 60% of the domestic work and he was doing 40%, but that’s completely reversed. It’s more like 40/60 now because my husband is spending much more time at home.”

The average time spent each day on household chores (for a weekday) by Japanese couples is 263 minutes for the wife compared with only 37 minutes for the husband, according to a survey conducted by the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research. Women have typically shouldered responsibilities for “both work and home”.

Ms Eriko Miyamoto, a freelance editor/writer, devised a game that lets her eight-year-old son, now at home with his school closed, have fun while doing household work.

“Japanese men spend very little time doing household chores. I want my son to grow up into an adult equipped with excellent domestic capabilities,” she explains.

Some of the scenarios I have described so far are nothing but microscopic sketches; in macroeconomic terms, the pandemic will cause huge damage to Japanese society and the economy.

What is the World Economic Forum doing about the coronavirus outbreak?

Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic requires global cooperation among governments, international organizations and the business community, which is at the centre of the World Economic Forum’s mission as the International Organization for Public-Private Cooperation.

Since its launch on 11 March, the Forum’s COVID Action Platform has brought together 1,667 stakeholders from 1,106 businesses and organizations to mitigate the risk and impact of the unprecedented global health emergency that is COVID-19.

The platform is created with the support of the World Health Organization and is open to all businesses and industry groups, as well as other stakeholders, aiming to integrate and inform joint action.

As an organization, the Forum has a track record of supporting efforts to contain epidemics. In 2017, at our Annual Meeting, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) was launched – bringing together experts from government, business, health, academia and civil society to accelerate the development of vaccines. CEPI is currently supporting the race to develop a vaccine against this strand of the coronavirus.

The number of fatalities is rising globally as we are gripped by the anxiety of not knowing when it will end. I feel, however, that the subtle actions initiated by each individual such as remote working and the revitalization of the online economy can serve as crucial points in envisioning the future course.

Historically speaking, epidemics have killed millions of people but also have social impacts leading to cultural revolutions. Isaac Newton sat under that tree when he was social distancing from his college during the Great Plague of London.

Can Japan prepare for the post-corona era? That is the important question each individual should think about during the long-lasting fight against COVID-19.