On March 2, 2020, the majority of Japan’s primary and secondary educational institutions abruptly ended the school year almost a month early in response to a surprise request made just four days earlier by Prime Minister Abe Shinzo. Citing the need for decisive action to stem the nationwide outbreak of COVID19, the government requested nominally voluntary school closures until the start of the new term in early April as an emergency precautionary measure. The announcement, like much of the Japanese government’s response, has ignited fierce debate, with questions raised both about the necessity of such a severe disruption and whether adequate consideration was given to the consequences. This sudden focus on how the government considers – or fails to consider – the needs of families in its policymaking is a valuable opportunity for progress on the country’s long-standing demographic issues.
The decision to close schools nationwide must of course be considered in light of the risk to Japan – a densely populated nation and with the highest percentage of elderly people in the world – should the disease be allowed to ramp up. A surge of COVID19 induced pneumonia cases in aging Japan could overwhelm the country’s healthcare facilities, a far graver outcome than the potential cancellation of the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics. While the epidemiological effectiveness of the school closures on preventing this scenario are still contested, what is clear is that the decision left millions of families in the lurch – particularly single parent households, those where both parents work, and those whose children are too young to be left unsupervised during the day. This failure to address the burden of additional childcare was among the criticisms that led to a televised address by the Prime Minister on February 29 in which he announced, among other things, a subsidy program to help those who take time off to care for their children.
Without a dedicated minister for children and families, their interests will continue to be under-served
This belated acknowledgment of the impact of the school closures on families highlights the need for a government institution, ideally a full ministry, dedicated to consulting, coordinating, and formulating policy on issues related to children and families. While Japan nominally has a “Minister of State for Youth Affairs and Measures for Declining Birthrate,” the position is just one of eight “minister of state” positions of varying levels of importance held concurrently by Liberal Democratic Party politician Miyakoshi Mitsuhiro. The lack of a dedicated minister or ministerial apparatus for this position demonstrates the clear lack of prioritization or consideration of issues related to families in the government’s decision-making. With Japan’s spending on children and families already among the lowest in the OECD, the lack of a dedicated advocate for these interests ensures that they will continue to be under-served by the government, particularly when decision making is under strain due to a crisis like the COVID19 outbreak.
Yet even as the COVID19 outbreak has highlighted the Japanese government’s failure to consider families and children in its decision-making, it has also demonstrated some of the ways in which public policy favoring families might be pursued. The measures to stem the spread of the disease which the national government asked companies to take have had the unintended, but demographically significant side effect of promoting more family friendly workplaces. These include allowing employees to avoid commuting at peak times, to work from home, and to use their paid vacation more flexibly. Alleviating the congestion of morning and evening rush hour commuter trains in Japan’s major metropolitan areas by eliminating arbitrary start and end times would reduce a recognized source of chronic fatigue and stress, while enabling parents to better address the needs of their children before and after school. The potential benefits of teleworking – until now relatively limited and uncommon in its adoption by Japanese companies – becoming a socially acceptable and more common method of working are even greater. This would allow a much greater degree of flexibility in Japan’s labor force, encourage better prioritization of tasks within companies, and give workers, especially parents, an invaluable tool to better juggle their various responsibilities and achieve a healthy work-life balance. Normalizing the use of paid vacation and eliminating the culture of “toughing it out” by working when sick would have a similar positive impact.
The measures taken to combat COVID19 could start a much-needed national conversation on reforming Japan’s working culture
These measures, along with those of some localities and companies which are attempting to curb excessive overtime in order to prioritize health and reduce vectors for disease transmission, could begin a much-needed national conversation on Japan’s work culture and how to replace it with one that is more compatible with the country’s long term demographic needs. However, the impact of the measures so far has been muted, albeit not insignificant, and thus any long-term effect remains uncertain. The congestion of public transport in the Tokyo Metropolitan area during peak hours is still significant; the primary decrease has been in the number of students commuting, suggesting only a relatively small number of company employees are taking advantage of time shifting or teleworking. This is backed up by many companies reporting they lack the infrastructure to enable large scale teleworking – despite the technology having existed for well over a decade.
The long term societal and demographic impact of measures put in place to combat the spread of COVID19 will ultimately depend on the length and severity of the outbreak. While the school closures are already prompting an important discussion, whether or not that ultimately results in more family-oriented policies remains to be seen. Similarly, whether Japanese companies will ultimately feel the necessity of measures such as teleworking – or succeed in their implementation – is still up in the air. Yet these are exactly the kind of measures that are required to achieve the structural and demographic reform that Japan so desperately needs. It is critical, therefore, that Japan does not just return to “business as usual” once the outbreak has subsided. With the right attitude, the measures put in place to combat the epidemic could become the foundation for a new normal that is more productive, more family friendly, and more suited to the country’s demographic needs and the security of its economic future.