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An insurance company employee performs telework while taking care of her son and daughter at home during temporary closure of school due to the spread of COVID-19 infection in Tokyo on 4 March 2020. (Photo: Reuters/The Yomiuri Shimbun)

Authors: Machiko Osawa, Japan Women’s University and Jeff Kingston, Temple University

Telework is not a panacea for what ails the Japanese economy, but there are signs that the COVID-19 pandemic has shaken up corporate Japan as it sheds the hallowed hanko (personal seal used in lieu of signatures), leaves behind the fax and embraces remote work. But telework is also accentuating digital divides between larger and smaller firms, regular and non-regular workers, men and women, and urban and rural areas.

A March 2022 government report that draws on a survey of 40,000 workers provides the most comprehensive data on telework in Japan. According to this report, the overall rate of telework increased from 13.3 per cent of employees in 2016 to 27.3 per cent in 2021. In Tokyo alone rates surged from 16.9 per cent in 2016 to 42.1 per cent by 2021. At large firms of over 1000 employees, 40.1 per cent of workers engaged in telework compared to 19.2 per cent in 2016. For workers at smaller firms with 300–999 employees, the rate rose from 14.7 per cent to 29.1 per cent.

These are massive shifts in the employment paradigm in just five years.

Although survey methods and definitions vary, levels of telework in the OECD are mostly higher than in Japan. Australia, France and the United Kingdom reported a peak telework rate of 47 per cent, marginally higher than Tokyo. In Italy and Brazil less than 20 per cent of the workforce was working remotely as of 2021. Cross-nationally, industries involving physical production like health and social services, construction, transport and hospitality tend to have lower rates of telework, while higher rates are observed in digitalised sectors such as information and communication, financial and professional services.

Remote work is rippling across corporate Japan and …continue reading