Postcard from Tokyo: Life in surprisingly low-tech lockdown Ambassador Melanie Brock Japan Ambassador Melanie Brock writes her Postcard from Tokyo for the Australian Financial Review.

While the Japanese have a great deal of resilience and are used to disasters, lockdown is testing their patience – and the old ways of working and studying.

People ask me how things are in Japan and I don’t know what to say. I want to say we are going to be fine and I really hope that is the case, but I just don’t know.

Even the Nikkei, the daily Japanese business newspaper, went hard in its call to the government to rectify what it sees as a big lag in COVID-19 testing, and a shortage in ICU beds.

What I do know about life today in Japan is that it is very different to what I am used to. Like everywhere, we are coming to grips with the “new normal” and battling on.

While the Japanese have a great deal of resilience and are used to disasters, this might be testing their patience.

The main question is about whether Japan has dodged a bullet or will suffer the awful tragedy seen in the US and some parts of Europe. Will Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s plan to manage the economy and at the same time protect the health of its people be successful?

Does the good health of Japanese people and their propensity to wear masks stand them in good stead? Again, I don’t know.

There is a lot of pressure on people at the moment: pressure to learn new things and adopt new working styles; to stay home; to do the right thing; pressure to make ends meet; and the pressure of not knowing whether Japan’s coronavirus strategy will work.

Here in Tokyo we are in what can be described as a semi-lockdown. A state of emergency was declared allowing prefectural governments to determine additional measures around schooling and the movement of people.

Japan’s leaders have called on the people to demonstrate restraint, to do the right thing, to follow social distancing and, where possible, stay home. That “where possible” is the tricky bit and might be why I’m so unsure of how it’s all going to pan out.

For now, schools are closed, employers have been asked to allow staff to telework and people have been asked to stay home until May 6, which means the extended holiday period of Golden Week will be spent at home. Whether or not this semi-lockdown is extended beyond that depends on us.

For many Japanese companies, remote working has always been an aspirational goal more than anything. Some had tried it out. Most hadn’t, and then suddenly they had no choice.

Surveys conducted last week, however, show that only about 20 per cent of the workforce is doing so remotely, meaning there are still too many people commuting on trains and out and about.

Some companies need senior staff to come in and do the banking. I know! Technology in many places doesn’t fit with the the image of high-tech Japan, with heavy reliance on faxes and face-to-face meetings. There is also a surprising lack of access to the cloud and too many security concerns.

Some companies need senior people in the office to affix their seal on documents. Others simply don’t have enough laptops or remote working systems in place. My ex-husband works for a big bank, but he has to go to work every second day as the home system isn’t set up yet.

And how are those people working at home coping with this new world? Most are happy not to be on the train and so exposed to COVID-19 – so that is good. There is less stress and most are enjoying the extra time at home with family.

However, at the same time, it’s hard to concentrate at home, and stressful being in the same place all day and in cramped quarters. The pressure to look after the children and do the housework falls to women, who are also working . Some have noted the pressure of having people peering into their homes during video conferences.

On the subject of Zoom, while Japanese workers are not living with endless video calls, on those I have been on, the difference between Australians and the Japanese couldn’t be more stark.

Mostly, Japanese meeting participants are much better dressed – no tracksuit pants on show there! There is more order to a Japanese Zoom meeting and much of that reflects non-virtual life, even down to some bowing at the start and finish of the session.

I still love that that during one meeting I was on with Australian colleagues, a fellow openly said he was having a glass of wine. Am hoping this will catch on here!

Big changes have been made to the area of “tele-medicine”, which has even dragged arch-traditionalists into the coronavirus age. It’s awful that it has taken a pandemic to bring about that change, but here we are.

Now, the onus is on the consumers of the new online medical services to support this change and to make it successful so that it doesn’t slip back once we are “through to the other side” (an expression I dislike and thankfully don’t hear in Japanese).

Online learning is an area where great change is needed, especially in the public school sector. These are not adequately equipped with remote learning systems and the ownership of laptops is very low.

There is great resistance by many educators and administrators to adopting remote learning, but parents are agitating. I have seen petitions circulating and lots of advocacy at grassroots level. Go you great mums and dads. Let me know where I can sign!

Private schools are better set up and better funded through fees – but that is hardly a uniquely Japanese disparity.

Deep resistance in parts to remote working, tele-medicine and online learning has prevented Japan from taking full advantage of digital transformation. However, the realities of a pandemic mean people now support it and this helps to ensure its success; the tragedy of the coronavirus in Japan might be offset by a change for the better in these areas.

The government is now pushing hard. And, as we all know, the Japanese are great adapters and innovators so the next few years are bound to be interesting.

Finally, I believe this is the time for Australia and Japan to come together, at least in these areas of online learning, remote work and tele-medicine. Let’s collaborate further and learn from each other. There will be some great business opportunities, too.

Sayonara for now, Melanie.


This article was first published in the Australian Financial Review. The use of this work has been licensed by the Copyright Agency