An announcement was made last week stating that Japan will be closing all schools for the month of March as a precaution. All elementary, middle, and high schools will be affected by this closure. The measure affects 12.8 million students at 34,847 schools nationwide, the education ministry said.

“The coming week or two is an extremely important time,” said Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. “This is to prioritise the health and safety of the children and take precautions to avoid the risk of possible large-scale infections for many children and teachers who gather and spend hours together every day.”

Companies are now scrambling to accommodate working parents. In a country known for its long working hours and relatively little personal time, the shuttering of schools will deprive many families of much-needed childcare services; which are already few and far between in the country.

Companies are responding with a wide range of measures, including shorter business hours, teleworking, and flexible working times. These are all measures that the government has been trying to promote and implement for years to modernise the nation’s work culture and address extreme issues such as overwork-related deaths.

However, many are wondering if such changes will remain after the coronavirus crisis passes.

This week, more and more Japanese companies are having their staff work from home. Cosmetics giant Shiseido and major advertising agency Dentsu are among the many who are now encouraging staff to stay away from the office; a far-cry from their usual operations which often see workers staying in the office far longer than business hours require. It remains to be seen if these remote working changes will stick in the future.

Life Corp., the nation’s largest supermarket chain, has shortened operating hours at all of its 280 or so stores. Life supermarkets employ many women who work part-time while raising children, and the school shutdowns are expected to create staff shortages, said a Life representative. Japan is already facing an issues with regards to worker shortages, and the coronavirus is amplifying the issue immensely.

The restaurant and retail sectors also depend heavily on part-time workers. 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.

While many companies are scrambling to adapt to the sudden announcement by the government, some experts and HR professionals see an opportunity to improve working conditions for working mothers push the government’s work culture reforms further.

“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 non-profit promoting work-style reform.

Revamping Japan’s work culture has been a long-simmering problem, but due to a growing shortage in manpower and an ageing population, businesses are being prompted to press ahead with reforms. The widespread school closures could improve the situation by forcing more companies to get on board with the government’s reform push; but what might work well for Tokyo might not work well everywhere else.

The manufacturing industry in particular has responded rather coolly to the government’s initiative, arguing that it is not suited to non-service industries.


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