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Japan's official seal culture an obstacle to full-scale teleworking amid virus fears

This image shows a typical Japanese business scene where a person puts an official seal on a document. (Getty)

TOKYO -- As more and more companies adopt teleworking amid the spread of the novel coronavirus, some workers still have to go to offices just to affix official seals to documents -- a custom unique to Japanese corporate culture.

"I come into the office every week to put a seal on documents. It's such a waste of time," complained a woman working for a major manufacturer in Tokyo.

While the company introduced remote work in early March, the woman in her 40s needs to show up at the office once or twice a week by taking a 30-minute train ride each way just to receive her superior's seals on application forms for the settlement of expenses.

Naturally, her boss also comes into the office to give the stamp of approval to those and other documents. Overall, the superior works at the office three to four days a week.

Even though the woman can technically fill in the application forms on her computer, workers are required to print them out, have them sealed and submit them. Each document needs to be stamped by five people, including herself, her boss and an accountant.

Some positive aspects of teleworking include not having to ride packed commuter trains and less travel to and from her office. But she finds the official seal culture a waste of time, and says, "Teleworking is intended to reduce the risk of getting infected (with the new coronavirus). I hope these outdated customs will be removed."

The same issue was raised during a meeting in early March held by a group of companies in the Tokyo metropolitan area that are promoting remote work.

Ai Hamamoto, a public relations official at Venture Republic, a Tokyo-based operator of a travel comparison site, said she also needs to turn up at her office at least once a week.

"We have to come into the office when we need to get the company representative's seal on documents such as contracts. Even though we can make electronic contracts with some clients, there are still some major firms and local governments that require paper contracts," she told the Mainichi Shimbun.

At the meeting, a case example of a company that has digitized 70% of its contracts while reducing the use of seals as much as possible was introduced. Mofmof, a Tokyo-based software development company, has been using the "Cloudsign" e-contract service since 2015. Users of the system turn their contracts into PDF formats and communicate with their clients via email.

"An average of 20 hours or so is required to prepare several dozen sets of contract documents every month. Even though we still have paper contracts, the progress of e-contracts has spared the trouble of sealing and printing, saving us five to 10 hours," said Anna Takanashi, a public relations official at mofmof. "Some in our company say we should charge commissions from clients that require paper contracts."

According to a survey targeting 111 people who are teleworking, which was conducted in March by Paperlogic Co., a Tokyo-based firm providing systems for digitizing books and contracts, the most common challenge about remote work was "difficulty in communicating with others," followed by "affixing stamps."

A November 2019 questionnaire targeting 111 office workers who use seals in all transactions and settlements also found that some 70% of respondents felt the use of seals "burdensome." While some were supportive of seals, saying they "represent dignity," half of the respondents wished to switch to e-contracts, citing reasons including the diminished role of seals as a means of validation.

Legally speaking, many corporate documents are already allowed to be digitized under the electronic books and documents preservation law enforced in 1998 and the so-called e-document law implemented in 2005, which allows for preservation in computers of documents that are required to be retained under the law. These laws cover some 90% of corporate documents that are mandated to be kept, such as contracts and business reports.

According to Hiroshi Tajima, a marketing official at Paperlogic, the legislation has allowed for many documents to use the e-signature system. In the real estate industry, the digitization has not only raised work efficiency but also cut the cost of stamps to be attached to paper documents.

"Even if a company tries to promote digitization, it faces hurdles when its business partners show no understanding. We hope the prevalence of teleworking will make more companies become aware of the advantages of digitization," Tajima said.

(Japanese original by Harumi Kimoto, Integrated Digital News Center)

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