Tokyo — The management team of auto supplier Continental AG's Japan operations was just returning from a mid-February winter test drive on the snowy northern island of Hokkaido when coronavirus alerts began.
The immediate issue wasn't so much people getting sick, but what the outbreak might mean for the supply chain feeding Japan's domestic industry, which pumps out more than 8 million passenger vehicles a year. Chinese suppliers were already tangled up in widespread shutdowns.
"We all thought it would be contained in China," recalls Bert Wolfram, CEO of Continental Automotive Japan, the German supplier's local subsidiary. "At that time, things weren't considered so critical here, and in Japan the infection rates were still low."
Continental supplies a wide range of auto parts from functional under-the-hood valves and pumps to seals, electronics and tires.
But by mid-February, Japan began detecting localized transmission of the coronavirus, and attitudes began to shift. The disease was striking close to home. How the Japanese business arm responded provides a glimpse of the decision-making and repercussions going on in the far-flung corners of the industry's international companies as they cope with the worldwide crisis.
Wolfram first raced to secure the safety of Continental's 1,600 employees in Japan while reinforcing its ability to keep delivering to customers throughout the crisis.
Wolfram managed to do both by quickly rolling out work-from-home policies and enacting a disaster contingency plan already on the books to ensure supply chain continuity.
"The biggest concern from the beginning was always the safety of our employees," Wolfram told Automotive News. "If you don't watch out from the beginning, you see where it can go."
Despite being one of the world's largest industrial and commercial centers, Japan so far has managed to avoid a blanket lockdown by practicing mild social distancing and telework programs. But health officials now say more action is needed, and Tokyo's governor has raised the lockdown specter if infections continue to surge.
Japan's prime minister said Wednesday, April 1, it would be difficult to enact a strict lockdown as in Europe. But he warned that Tokyo and other big cities stand at the brink of explosive infection rates.
Japan has banned entry to the island nation of citizens from more than 70 countries and territories, including the U.S., Canada, China, South Korea and most of Europe.
"Right now, the worst-case scenario is that the Japanese government enacts further steps," Wolfram said. That would mean that "people we still have working from the office — because they carry out work which is extremely difficult or impossible to do remotely — can't get back into the office.
"That is the next level of escalation — nobody at all could come to the office anymore."
Such duties cover certain administration tasks still handled by paper in Japan, such as human relations or finance work. But it also includes driving tests, laboratory work, product validation or other design work that requires powerful computers only accessible on-site. Continental also has a factory in Japan with 200 workers making electronic brakes and electronic stability control units.