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Japan rethinks work culture as coronavirus spurs school closures

School closures mean companies must be more flexible for working parents

The coronavirus outbreak has spurred more companies in Japan to introduce teleworking and flexible work times.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Companies in Japan are scrambling to accommodate working parents after nationwide school closures aimed at fighting the coronavirus went into effect on Monday, just days after the move was announced.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Thursday called for schools across Japan to remain closed until the start of the new term in April in order to help fight the spread of the coronavirus. In a country known for its long working hours, shuttering schools means depriving many families of much-needed child care services.

Companies have responded with a number of measures, including shorter business hours, teleworking and flexible working times -- all measures that the government has been trying to promote for years to modernize the country's work culture and address such issues as overwork-related deaths.

The question is whether these changes will stick after the crisis has passed.

Life Corp., the nation's largest supermarket chain, has shortened operating hours at all of its 280 or so stores. Starting Monday, doors open at 10 a.m. instead of 9 a.m. at all stores, while 86 stores are expected to close an hour or two earlier than the usual 9:30 p.m.

Life supermarkets employ many women who work part-time while raising children, and the school shutdowns are expected create personnel shortage, a Life official said.

Labor shortages are a chronic issue in Japan, and the coronavirus has already exacerbated the issue.

The restaurant and retail sectors also depend heavily on part-time labor. Zensho Holdings, which operates the Sukiya chain of beef bowl restaurants, will cut hours at or even close certain locations, in addition to streamlining its menus.

Odakyu Department Store, meanwhile, will close its Shinjuku and Machida locations at 7:30 p.m. daily from Monday through March 22. Normally, certain floors had stayed open until 10:30 p.m.

Tokyu Department Store will reduce its hours at four sites until March 18 at the latest. Hankyu Hanshin Department Stores will shorten its operating time by one to three hours through March 17. Electronics retailer K's Holdings will lop one to two hours off its usual schedule at half of its 500 or so stores across Japan until March 19.

Sapporo Holdings, a major drinks company, encouraged 1,500 of its domestic employees, including those in delivery and logistics, to work from home from Monday to March 13. The company spokesperson, who said he was in the middle of teleconferencing from home, told Nikkei that telecommuting was "working fine." He added, however, that some employees in logistics went to work as usual on Monday, as did all factory workers.

While companies scramble to adapt to the abrupt government announcement, some experts see an opportunity to improve conditions for working mothers and push the government's work-style reform further.

Schoolchildren in Osaka are informed on Feb. 28 that classes will be cancelled starting the following Monday. (Photo by Tomoki Mera)

"The nationwide school closure will give the parents a chance to think about how to take time off work instead of just focusing on staying in the office," said Yasuyuki Tokukura, who runs a nonprofit promoting work-style reform.

In 2018, the Abe government enacted work reform legislation that requires employers to ensure their employees take paid holiday and also sets a limit on overtime and gives more protection to non-regular employees through an "equal pay for equal work" provision.

In January, Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi, a rising political star who previously served as labor minister, became the first male cabinet minister to take paid parental leave to help care for his first child.

Revamping Japan's work culture has been a long-simmering problem, but the country's severe labor shortages are prompting businesses to press ahead. Convenience store chains such as Seven-Eleven Japan have started changing their 24/7 operations, giving franchisees the option of close stores during late night and early morning, for instance.

The increase in typhoons and other natural disasters in recent years has also encouraged some businesses to embrace teleworking as a way to deal with emergency situations.

Teleworking is also being promoted as a way to reduce congestion during the upcoming Summer Olympic Games Tokyo. Last July, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government launched a campaign asking businesses to implement telework as a trial run for the Summer Olympics. More than 600,000 workers estimated to have participated in the campaign.

Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike made teleworking a feature in her vision for the city unveiled last year.

So far, however, progress on introducing a more flexible working style has remained limited. Last summer, the number of passengers on public transportation dropped only 4.3% in Tokyo during a campaign to reduce commuting.

The widespread school closures could improve the situation by forcing more companies to get on board with the government's reform push -- but what suits Tokyo may not work everywhere.

Manufacturers in particular have responded more coolly to Abe's initiative, arguing that it is not suited to non-service industries like theirs.

Ota city in Gunma Prefecture, north of Tokyo, decided not to close its primary schools. The city is home to several factories, including those for carmaker Subaru. "People complained [to the municipal government] that they cannot take days off of work," said Takahashi Yoshiya, who is in charge of school education in Ota. "Tokyo's model for telework probably does not fit the rest of Japan," he said.

Additional reporting by Mari Ishibashi.

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