In March, governments around the world told people to work from home and socially distance. We cleared space at home for our computers as best as we could, and called into video meetings with laundry drying in the background. For an Asian country that has had more than its fair share of natural disasters, it’s surprising how underprepared Japan was for working from home. There, as in most of Asia, home offices are quite rare. Part of the reason for this is Japan’s reliance on documents “signed” with multiple hanko, or chops. Nearly everything is done on paper, and fax machines are used to send documents around. It is remarkable how little things have changed in 40 years – I still have my little hanko from my first tour in Tokyo in 1986. At the outset of the coronavirus pandemic , Japan did not go into lockdown – in fact the government does not have a legal way to enforce such a policy. This seemed to line it up to be one of the worst-hit countries. In fact, it turned out to have one of the lowest infection rates in the world. ORGANISING 126 MILLION PEOPLE Over 93 per cent of Japan’s 126 million people live in cities, the largest being Tokyo. To get a sense of scale, Tokyo has a population greater than Canada and an economy the size of Russia , all in an area about twice the size of Hong Kong . The notion of implementing social distancing to the degree done in Europe is somewhat absurd. Organising so many people was never going to be easy. Yet with its huge at-risk elderly population, and constant pleading from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike, the Japanese did their level best to self-isolate – with mixed success. The government also announced it would help by giving away two reusable cloth “Abenomasks” to everyone for protection. This drew loud domestic criticism because of its 46.6 billion yen (US$427 million) cost, and when the masks arrived from assembly lines in China some were tainted with hair and had to be recalled. A survey by public opinion and data company YouGov showed that the percentage of Britons who were able to avoid going to work peaked at 39 per cent, but the figure only reached 27 per cent in Japan. It has largely been business as usual, with or without a mask. NOT MUCH AT HOME Most Japanese firms found that enabling employees to work from home was an insurmountable technical obstacle. Foreign firms in Japan did better, but as one large Swiss financial firm found out, the younger workers they’d asked to stay home often had no home broadband, no computer, no landline, and certainly no fax – their lives were on a smartphone. They soon had to come back to the office. Post-coronavirus, expect manufacturing to make a mass exodus from China The absence of cooking facilities at home was also noticeable, and people bought programmable cooking pots and microwave ovens in droves. The price of microwave ovens – which for some reason the Japanese Government still tracks along with the price of fax machines – jumped a record 42 per cent year-on-year in March. For nearly 40 years they had been falling in price. In line with other countries, Japan closed schools and enforced home study. But with a lack of computers and internet families and teachers alike were not always set up for home-schooling. Teachers had to daily walk to the homes of their students to drop off and pick up homework. LOOKING AT THE STATISTICS It is surprising that Japan, without a lockdown and with almost twice the population of locked-down Britain , has only 16,300 confirmed cases versus the UK’s 248,000. That is a 15:1 ratio. The cynics will say that you can’t rely on Japan’s data, that the testing is slow or inaccurate, and that perhaps later analysis will give a clearer picture of the progress of the disease. But what has become apparent to me so far are the following observations: 1. The countries that were least equipped to enforce teleworking and largely had to keep going to work as usual, actually have the lowest numbers of infections per capita. 2. The United States , Russia, Brazil, the UK, Spain and Italy top the table of confirmed cases. There is not one Asian country in the top ten. 3. Despite the lockdowns in Europe, the rate of infections is not falling as fast as in Asia, and they are looking at a far longer “return to normal”. This is important if you are thinking of buying stocks again. Has the faith we put in teleworking, enforced lockdowns and extreme social distancing to protect us been misplaced? If so, there must be something else at work here. THE DEATH OF THE HANDSHAKE? Back in 1986, after the Tokyo Stock Exchange had closed, I would visit my clients armed with my business card and an outstretched hand. I would be greeted with a bow, maybe a reluctant handshake, then asked to sit down a good distance apart. The message was loud and clear to not touch. Today, things are much the same in Japan and the rest of Asia – people rarely touch each other. In Japanese homes, shoes come off at the front door, hands are washed, throats are gargled and it is not uncommon to give groceries a wipe before putting anything in the fridge. These practices may turn out to be the best defence against the spread of the next big virus. As I get back to being sociable and planning in-person business meetings, I am seriously thinking about the suitability of the handshake – and will I greet anyone except close family with a kiss? I am perfecting my Thai wai. JAPANESE UNEMPLOYMENT AND THE STOCK MARKET For all our criticism of Japan with its fax machines, hanko, and 40-year-old way of doing business, it remains the world’s second largest developed economy, and is one of the top three countries measured by private wealth. Japan is certainly not seeing strong domestic growth, but it doesn’t need to – people and companies are cash rich. To judge Japan’s prospects emerging from the coronavirus crisis, I am more interested in unemployment numbers. Outside Asia, the statistics are staggering: 14.7 per cent unemployment in the US, projected by Goldman Sachs to peak at 25 per cent later this year; 3.8 per cent in the UK, projected by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research to reach 10.5 per cent in the second quarter. Coronavirus: why Asia will win the race to economic recovery Although unemployment is ticking up in Japan, it looks nothing like other developed economies. Unemployment was at 2.5 per cent in February, and may touch 3.8 per cent this year according to Fitch. If by the summer there is no significant increase in unemployment – and I’m not hearing any alarm bells – I expect that the Japanese stock market, which fell 30 per cent during the crisis and has barely recovered half that, will be a good hunting ground for bargains. Neil Newman is a thematic portfolio strategist focused on pan-Asian equity markets Help us understand what you are interested in so that we can improve SCMP and provide a better experience for you. We would like to invite you to take this five-minute survey on how you engage with SCMP and the news.