THE ASAHI SHIMBUN
April 1, 2020 at 19:21 JST
The headquarters of trading company Itochu Corp. literally rolled out the red carpet for new employees on the morning of April 1.
More than 100 branches of cherry blossom trees in full bloom were artfully arranged by way of a hearty welcome in the entrance to the building in Tokyo's Kita-Aoyama district.
As it turned out, the official welcome ceremony for new hires that traditionally is held in a spacious hall was canceled. But the company’s chairman and CEO, Masahiro Okafuji, wanted to spring a surprise anyway.
“I wanted to welcome them in a way that stands out in their memory,” he said.
A number of new employees reacted emotionally, as Okafuji and rank-and-file greeted their new colleagues with applause.
The first day of April is normally a day of celebration in Japan, marking the beginning of a new phase in life for those who recently graduated from university and are just about to embark on making their mark in the world.
But the global COVID-19 pandemic has, for many, derailed the traditional pomp and circumstance associated with such occasions.
This year, there were no large crowds of fresh recruits gathering at welcoming ceremonies held at companies and public offices as the corporate world is increasingly preoccupied with tamping down on the rapid spread of the new coronavirus.
Many companies have scaled-down or canceled the annual gatherings; although, some corporations, like Itochu and government offices, have found ways around it.
About 170 new employees joined Ricoh Co. on April 1, but they were asked to stagger their entrances to the company’s headquarters in Tokyo’s Ota Ward as part of social distancing to keep others safe.
Yoshinori Yamashita, the company’s president, stood and addressed each employee directly.
Everybody wore face masks, now the norm in Japan.
“What kind of product do you want to create at our company?” Yamashita asked a rookie male employee.
“I would love to create something that helps our aging society,” he replied.
Each session lasted about a minute or so.
Many companies have already introduced teleworking and minimized occasions where large numbers of employees would normally gather in one location.
That has led to fewer staff being available to physically welcome and greet new employees.
“What should we do with the welcoming ceremony? Our human resources department couldn’t find an answer until the last minute,” one company employee said.
Many companies parted with the traditional in-person welcome and instead held ceremonies online.
Panasonic Corp. canceled a ceremony for new employees scheduled at its training center in Hirakata, Osaka Prefecture.
About 700 new employees were instead asked to watch a video message by company president Kazuhiro Tsuga on their computers at home and dormitories.
Each received their individual work appointment letters online, learning what section or department they were assigned to.
Megabank Mitsubishi-UFJ instructed new hires to turn up in staid business suits at home and turn on a tablet computer to attend a virtual ceremony.
“Because it is a ceremony, we required them to wear formal attire,” a company representative said.
Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corp. (NTT Group), Nissan Motor Corp., Toshiba Corp., Shiseido Japan Co. and Mitsubishi Chemical Corp. asked new employees to stay home and watch messages from company top brass.
New employees at Toyota Motor Corp., Mazda Motor Corp. and Mizuho Bank Ltd. gathered in small groups at the headquarters of each company, training centers or assigned locations to watch their welcome messages.
ANA Holdings Inc. and Japan Airlines usually hold their annual ceremony with 2,000 to 3,000 people in a hangar at Tokyo's Haneda Airport.
This year, both airlines canceled, also opting for at-home video messages.
Honda Motor Co. normally holds a ceremony with more than 1,000 employees at Suzuka Circuit in Suzuka, Mie Prefecture. But not this year. It was video messages at home for their greenhorns as well.
DOUBLE WHAMMY FOR TOKYO OFFICIALS
For new employees at the Tokyo metropolitan government office, cancellation of the ceremony was a double whammy, with the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic games being postponed until summer 2021.
Usually, all employees gather on April 1 at the Tokyo Metropolitan Theater in Ikebukuro for a welcome ceremony.
This year, the government had planned to hold a scaled-down ceremony with limited attendance.
But with a growing number of people testing positive for the novel coronavirus, not just in the capital but elsewhere, the event was canceled the night before.
Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike’s address to 1,600 or so employees was livestreamed instead.
“We are facing a challenge called the breakout of the new coronavirus,” Koike said. “Now is the time for the metropolitan government to work together with the world and prevail against the invisible enemy. And we shall lead the 2020 Tokyo Games next year to a success.”
The National Tax Agency held a ceremony at the National Tax College in Wako, Saitama Prefecture, where attendees were required to wear face masks. There, only one representative was tasked to hand out assignment letters.
To keep employees at a safe distance from each other, the agency used two separate venues; one of which played the speech by the head of the agency on a large monitor.
About 1,200 newly hired workers there will take part in training sessions at the college and live in the campus dormitory.
That dormitory previously housed returnees from China, as well as 900 or so passengers from the virus-plagued Diamond Princess cruise ship.
All the rooms used to house them were thoroughly sanitized after that, the agency said.
Meanwhile, the Imperial Household Agency did not hold a ceremony for new staff as is customary. Agency officials handed an assignment letter to each of the 11 new employees.
Traditionally, new hires at the agency greet the emperor and empress in mid-April at a training session. But not this year.
That has been pushed back to fall, according to the agency.
The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transportation and Tourism canceled a ceremony for about 200 new employees, which normally uses a large hall for the occasion.
About 80 of the new employees are destined to be assigned to local and outpost agencies. The ministry was worried that if the ceremony went ahead, the virus could spread.
The Justice Ministry also canceled its ceremony, while the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries decided on a postponement.
“It is a milestone for (new employees) to enter the real world, so we want to make (the ceremony) happen, if possible,” a ministry official said.
Universities also canceled their usual enrollment ceremonies scheduled in early April.
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