Click to Bow: How Japan’s Work Etiquette is Adapting to the Age of Zoom

From Zoom seating charts to digital bowing, Japanese business etiquette gets creative.
Matt Selvam
illustrated by Matt Selvam
SG
January 12, 2021, 1:38pm
japan, coronavirus, business, culture, wfh, etiquette
Japan's recent surge in coronavirus cases has forced more companies to adopt work-from-home arrangements. Photo: PHILIP FONG / AFP

As the COVID-19 pandemic has forced millions to work from home, business etiquette is giving way to the realities of online meetings. Handshakes are impossible. Suits are optional, not that anyone would know what pants you’re wearing (or not).

But in corporate Japan, rules on how to show your boss respect and work with colleagues are making a seamless transition in the Zoom era.

With video calls replacing conference room meetings, Japanese companies are asking employees to follow seating arrangements based on their seniority. In a Zoom meeting, that means putting your face in the correct place on the screen: managers on the left, others on the right. 

Zoom Seating Chart

Japanese Zoom seating arrangements as organized by workplace hierarchy. Illustration: Matt Selvam.

The pressure to follow these rules illustrates Japanese corporate culture’s persistent adherence to a strict hierarchy in the workplace, despite a growing pushback from younger Japanese people.

It has also been a source of innovation.

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Shachihata, one of Japan’s largest makers of rubber stamps, recently released a feature on its digital stamping software that allows workers to show deference to their superiors remotely, in a practice called stamp-bowing.

Found in Japanese bank documents from as early as 2004, stamp-bowing is a form of signature that indicates one’s social status in the company, according to the degree of a stamp’s orientation. When signing documents, the senior executive must stamp their name in a straight, vertical line. Then, to stamp-bow, the employee next in seniority will turn their seal slightly left to stamp.

Stamp bowing

Stamps rotate toward superiors to show respect. Illustration: Matt Selvam.

Sealing documents with one’s family name inkan (stamp) remains the preferred method to sign papers in Japan, although claims of increased fraud and inefficiency have in recent years led some to call for an end to this traditional practice. 

In November, Taro Kono, a Japanese official overseeing administrative reforms, said the government would abolish the use of stamps for over 99 percent of nearly 15,000 administrative procedures. 

But Shachihata’s innovation has helped keep the practice alive. The company said it developed online stamp-signing software to transform “traditions for a better tomorrow.” From March to June last year, the number of companies using Shachihata’s digital stamp-signing feature increased by 30 times. Now, more than 270,000 companies use the product. 

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The company introduced the stamp-bowing feature in November following a customer’s suggestion. “Our goal is to meet our clients’ needs and improve efficiency,” the company said on its website. “In Japanese society, many documents need in-house approval before they’re sent to outside companies. Our new software makes the workflow much smoother without making fundamental changes to a company’s culture.”

Some companies have also begun implementing Japanese corporate hierarchies on Zoom. In September 2020, Zoom launched a feature that allows users to change the order of participants’ displays. To remind employees where they sit in the social pyramid, some companies drew comprehensive illustrations of what respectful group video calls should look like.

The most senior employee’s screen will sit in the upper-left corner. The second most senior employee’s screen will sit toward the top right. The more junior you are, the lower your face is shown on the screen. Many young Japanese Twitter users expressed dismay over these charts, claiming Zoom seating arrangements perpetuated hierarchical work culture.

Miki Matsuda, a 22-year-old illustrator based in Tokyo, learned similar Zoom etiquette for her former job and describes online seating arrangements as childish. “I don’t understand why that’s necessary. I get why it’s important  in a conference room, but on Zoom, all that matters is the size of the superior’s screen. Who cares?”

In addition to Zoom seating charts, the timing of when employees should enter and leave Zoom meetings is also not left to chance. Some argue that those at the bottom of the corporate ladder must always be the last to hang up.

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Hiroko Nishide, the head manner consultant of HIROKO MANNER Group, told VICE World News that increasing need for online corporate etiquette has pushed employers to define strict do’s and don’ts. But Nishide advised against formalism that could add to employees’ stress. 

“If an employee’s heart is in their action or words, they will always be respectful. The specific rules don’t matter,” she said. “Humanity and client-empathy are really the keys for any business. Business etiquette is merely an expression of respect.”

With more parts of Japan entering emergency lockdowns due to a spiking number of coronavirus cases, it’ll likely be months before employees return to the office. In the meantime, however, workers can pay their respects by rearranging their screen.

Follow Hanako Montgomery on Twitter and Instagram.