A foreign perspective: Japanese work-life with Covid-19

A foreign perspective: Japanese work-life with Covid-19

2020. It’s the year we can’t wait to end.

As we look forward to the coming year, it’s a good time to reflect on how the COVID-19 pandemic affected business here in Japan. 

A year of changes for Japanese business

This year was devastating for the world economy. Every industry in Japan felt the negative effects of the pandemic. Companies were forced to make drastic changes.

Many of these changes were positive. Some companies chose to implement telecommuting in response to the government’s stay at home recommendations last spring. Other companies made structural changes that they had been considering for several years.

Several large corporations instituted permanent telecommuting for the majority of their workers. They are embracing the change to a “job-based system” that rewards achievement over hours worked. Many companies and their staff are happy to make this change. They cite worker satisfaction and decreased company overhead as benefits. Others are reluctant to change from the status quo.

It’s been a trying year for Japanese business. But for most Japanese citizens, there has been a sense that Japanese people are going through this stressful experience together.

But what’s the experience been like for foreigners working in Japan in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic? Has the experience been different for foreigners than it’s been for their Japanese colleagues?

Challenges for foreigners working in Japan

Most foreigners who come to Japan for work arrive excited to be here. Most expect the experience to be challenging and are enthusiastic to take on the challenge.

Inevitably, there are ups and downs to living in another culture. Culture shock sets in and everything feels strange for a time. Even those who studied Japanese before arriving still notice a language barrier. There’s a constant sense that even with good Japanese language skills, they’re missing many cultural undertones. They know that they never completely understand what’s going on. But that’s all part of the adventure of being an expat.

For many Westerners coming to work in corporations in Japan, in addition to these expected challenges, many are surprised to find different corporate management styles unlike those they were used to at home. Hierarchical management structure, which may lack open communication between levels of management and staff, leaves some workers feeling isolated within the company, according to Glassdoor.com.

COVID-19 increased the challenges

For people around the world, high levels of stress and depression are sadly too common this year.

Now, imagine what it would be like to be a foreigner with limited language skills experiencing the challenges of living and working in a foreign culture and corporate environment. For them, the stresses of the pandemic are magnified.

Many are concerned about medical care. They know that the Japanese medical system is world-class, but many are afraid they wouldn’t be able to understand what’s happening to them in a Japanese hospital if they were seriously ill.

Pandemic stresses on and off the job

Early in the pandemic, many foreign employees in Japan were confused. Some observed their colleagues to decide the best course of action to take for work.

“We had a prime seat to watch this crisis unfold,” said Y and A, employees of Japanese multinationals, Rakuten and Sompo. “First it was seen as an Asian crisis, so people from overseas would contact us to ask how we were doing and if we were safe. Then, it quickly became a global crisis with scores dying in the west. Everything was grinding into a halt.”

“In Japan, the situation was vague,” they continued. “The world, including our Japanese colleagues, was generally in agreement that the Japanese government was lying because of the Olympics, and we needed to be careful.”

“After the lock down, our companies were officially enabling and encouraging remote work, but most of our Japanese colleagues were going to the office, so we followed. It was then clear that Japan was handling the health situation better than the Western countries, so we felt safer and we got sick of staying at home.”

Arthur, who works for a major US IT firm, observed similar behavior among his colleagues. He said that even though his company shut down their office for the year, early on, many colleagues were so determined to come to work that the company had to install security measures for spying on employees to make sure they were not working from the office.

“We figured that many Japanese did not want to work from home,” he said. “It seems unacceptable to them from reasons ranging from physical space to interfering with family life. They just won’t have it.”

Other foreign professionals noted the uncertainty they felt after trying to decipher company bulletins written in Japanese.

“Even though I can read Japanese fairly well, I’m still uneasy when I read university memos about students having the virus in Kansai,” said Floyd Graham, a professor at a university in Kansai. “I’ve wondered whether I have students in my classroom with the virus. I need to ask my Japanese colleagues for clarification. I always feel like I don’t have a clear picture of what’s going on.”

He went on to say that back home in the U.S., he’d travel to work by car, as most people do. He’s not comfortable riding the train to work in Japan this year because of the pandemic.

“My biggest worry this year hasn’t been about the coronavirus here in Japan,” said Dana Lingley, professor at Doshisha University in Kyoto. “I’ve worried more about my aging mother back in Canada. Who’d take care of her if she became seriously ill with the virus?”

He noted that similar stresses felt by foreign workers here in Japan during the pandemic must be affecting their focus at work.

Lingley also pointed out differences he saw in how Canadians were reacting to the virus. His home province of Ontario is under strict lockdown that’s enforced by the police. “But here in Japan, staying at home is voluntary and people here seem to be less worried about spreading the virus,” he said.

“Most foreigners I know haven’t been going out to restaurants and bars this year,” said another university professor in Kyoto, who preferred to remain anonymous. “Yet you still see crowded shopping streets and packed restaurants in Osaka.”

She mentioned that travel restrictions for foreigners this year had also been a concern. She knew that if she had left Japan during the restrictions to care for a family member, she couldn’t have returned for an indefinite period of time. She said that the travel restrictions on foreigners made it clear to her that even with her permanent residency, she was still not on the same level as her native colleagues.

The pandemic has caused high levels of stress for people around the world as we try to stay safe and understand what’s happening around us. Foreigners in Japan have felt added pressure as they try to understand what’s happening while living in a culture very different from their own.

The year of change comes to an end

Let’s be done with 2020 and take what we’ve learned from these changes and look forward to a healthier and more prosperous year in 2021.

Article by Joe Nattress

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