Japanese corporate culture explains why experts have taken a back seat in virus response


Amid concerns over the spread of COVID-19 in Japan, a question has emerged as to whether organizations in Japan are making sufficient use of expert input.

Despite the ongoing crisis, the government’s coronavirus task force did not convene its panel of experts to discuss measures to be taken in Japan to combat the spread of the new virus until February 16. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attended the first meeting for a mere three minutes, then returned home and attended subsequent meetings for an average of 12 minutes each.

Last week, the Abe administration recommended that all schools in Japan close for several weeks, despite experts doubting the usefulness of doing so. Masaki Yoshida, president of the Japan Society for Infection Prevention and Control, said closing schools where the virus is not present “won’t make any difference” and the fact that children will come out and even play with them. Closed schools will make it difficult to tell if school closures are actually working. On March 2, Abe admitted to making the decision without expert advice, based solely on his own political judgment.

Kentaro Iwata, a University of Kobe doctor who specializes in infectious diseases, boarded the Diamond Princess cruise ship docked in Yokohama on February 18 while in quarantine due to the spread of COVID-19 in edge. He posted a pair of YouTube videos (later deleted) in which he reported that “there was no one in charge of infection control as a professional” and that “the bureaucrats were in charge of everything” . There has been a lot of international criticism of Japan’s handling of the Diamond Princess outbreak, and the subsequent identification of the infection among the released passengers, as well as the officials involved in the quarantine, has been embarrassing for the government.

The strict requirements that Japan has in place to test people for COVID-19 are also of concern. Elderly patients, for example, can be tested after having had a fever for at least two days, while that waiting period is four days for most others. Because of these rules – combined with the limited number of test processors and the reluctance of hospitals to perform the tests – many people who believe they have contracted the virus have not been able to get tested. This despite the opinion of many experts that faster and wider testing would be beneficial, and in stark contrast to South Korea’s testing of more than 10,000 people per day.

Additionally, as previously reported in The Japan Times, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare website uses poor quality machine translation for much of its provision of information in foreign languages, including those relating to COVID-19, with ministry official Takuma Kato stating: “Our ministry does not have a dedicated team of staff specializing in communication in English. After this article was published, the ministry said it would start using professional translators for updates to its website.

Before I go any further, I will note that as an American, the following comment in a recent discussion among Japanese policy experts by Richard Katz, New York correspondent for Toyo Keizai, also reflects my sentiment: “It goes without saying. saying that criticism of Japan’s actions doesn’t mean other governments have done a better job. Conversely, the disarray and politicization of the issue by my own government in Washington is no excuse for the problems in Tokyo.

Experts and generalists

There seems to be a common thread behind all of these examples of problems with Japan’s approach to the COVID-19 epidemic: a lack of focus from experts in shaping policies and carrying out operations that require attention. specialized knowledge and experience.

The underestimation of the role of specialist expertise is a common trend among Japanese organizations, and this context may be at the root of some of what can be observed in reactions to the novel coronavirus. The difficulty in fostering and using expert knowledge has its roots in many of the characteristics of Japanese organizations.

A key factor to take into account is that most Japanese organizations focus on creating generalists, which hinders the development of specialists. It starts with hiring, where most employees are hired in one batch immediately after graduation. Rather than being recruited for a specific position, new employees join the company as a whole. They participate together in a generic orientation of new employees, then are assigned to their initial roles. They will then be periodically rotated in different departments, often resulting in tasks that have little to do with what they studied at school or with their previous assignments. With rotations occurring every few years and across different divisions of the organization, employees do not have the opportunity to develop in-depth expertise in a given area. The result is an army of generalists. It is as if Japanese organizations train every employee so that they have the capacity to one day be a senior manager of the organization – which has its merits but also means that the functions in the company that would generally be managed by a person with extensive experience are rather managed by relative amateurs.

As an example, I recently met a manager in charge of global IT at a large Japanese company. He said that until three years earlier he had spent his entire career in various sales roles. He was then suddenly and unexpectedly put into computing.

“Learning computer science from scratch was really exhausting, and the first two years were really tough,” he told me. He now heads the company’s global IT group, with people based around the world reporting to him. I wonder if these employees, who were probably hired for their computer training, noticed that their boss has only three years of experience in the field.

A matter of money

Another reason why Japanese organizations tend to avoid experts and instead rely on their own internal resources can be attributed to budget constraints. Whether you hire them or use them as consultants, experts can get expensive. In the case of the aforementioned IT manager, his company probably thought he was saving a lot of money by putting one of his existing employees in the role, rather than spending the money to hire someone with experience in managing global IT systems. .

There may be times when the organization realizes that it is necessary to seek outside expert advice. But when outside experts are called in, even those who are highly respected for their experience or position, it can be difficult for them to get their ideas heard. This is because they are outsiders and have not developed the relationships and connections with key decision makers necessary to be influential. Be part of nakama (the group) in an organization, and the ability to achieve consensus through nemawashi (lobbying discussions) can be crucial, but often impossible for an outsider, regardless of their expertise.

The reliance on in-house generalists, reluctance to spend money on experts, and a willingness to listen only to qualified insiders in consensus building could be explanations for how Japan is handling COVID-19. Hopefully, these organizational factors can be overcome and the appropriate expert advice will be put to use as Japan faces this unique challenge.

Rochelle Kopp teaches at Kitakyushu University and consults with both Japanese companies operating globally and foreign companies operating in Japan. She recently posted “Wakaru Gaikokujin Manga to no Hatarakikata” (“Learn to work with non-Japanese people through manga.”) You can find her on Twitter at @JapanIntercult.

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