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Japan fumbles through the COVID-19 crisis

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A crowd of people wearing a face mask commute at JR Shinagawa Station in Minato Ward, Tokyo, Japan on 8 April 2020, one day after Japanese government declared a state of emegency due to the sharp rise in cases of people infected with the virus (Photo: Reuters/Yomiuri Shimbun).

In Brief

On 22 March, despite the outbreak of COVID-19 in Japan, Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park was crowded with people eating, drinking and playing under the cherry blossoms, a tradition known as hanami (flower viewing). The Tokyo Metropolitan Park Association carried a half-hearted message on its webpage asking visitors to show jishuku (self-restraint) by avoiding large gatherings and sharing food. But the message did not get through.


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Despite the increasingly dire situation in Europe and the United States, there was no sense of crisis in Tokyo. Instead, there was a feeling that the worst of the pandemic was over. Down the road from Yoyogi Park, a Tokyo 2020 Olympics countdown clock continued to tick down. Moves by the government to reopen schools for the start of the April 2020 academic year reinforced a sense that normalcy was returning.

Why COVID-19 has not hit Japan harder — with its crowded cities and ‘super-ageing’ population — is both puzzling and worrying. Data shows a comparatively low rate of testing in Japan. Japan has conducted 0.6 tests per thousand people, in stark contrast to its neighbour South Korea where over 10 tests per thousand have been carried out. But while it is true that Japan has conducted fewer tests than most other countries, the number of deaths remains low and hospitals are not overrun by patients.

There are a number of reasons why Japan might have fared better so far than most other countries in the fight against COVID-19. Although cramped spaces often make physical contact unavoidable in the cities, Japan’s ‘low-contact culture’ eschews physical touch such as hugging, kissing or handshakes. Furthermore, there is a strong emphasis on cleanliness and hygiene.

Even before the virus outbreak, the use of face masks and hand sanitiser was common. The importance of hand washing and gargling is drilled into children at a young age. There are also a low number of extended families living in the same household. The average household size in Japan is 2.3 people with 80 per cent of households having three or fewer members. Figures for South Korea are 3.9 and 34 per cent respectively.

Since the Olympics was officially postponed, there are signs that some political leaders are beginning to take the situation more seriously. Tokyo’s Governor Yuriko Koike has been one of the most proactive, repeatedly warning that a lockdown is possible given the spike in the number of confirmed cases in the city. Cases in Osaka and Hyogo are also increasing rapidly. The governors of the two prefectures, Hirofumi Yoshimura and Toshizo Ido, called for commuters to exercise ‘self-restraint’.

Assuming this upwards trajectory continues, what might the impact and implications of COVID-19 be for Japan?

When analysing what might happen to Japan in the coming weeks and months, the impact of the March 2011 triple disaster offers some hints. The 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown claimed over 18,000 lives, destroyed towns and communities and cost hundreds of billions of dollars. Ironically, with rebuilding almost complete, the Japanese government’s Reconstruction Agency — set up to deal with the disaster — is due to be disbanded by the end of the 2020 fiscal year.

Criticism of the government’s slow response to the triple disaster and the perceived lack of political leadership saw former prime minister Naoto Kan resign. Today, we see similar criticism. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was largely absent at the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis and now gives mostly scripted answers at news conferences. His announcement this month that two cloth masks will be sent to every household was met with widespread ridicule. Even an initial declaration of a state of emergency only came, on 7 April, after unrelenting pressure from the Tokyo and Osaka governors, the Japan Medical Association and Nobel Prize-winning scientist Shinya Yamanaka.

Coupled with the delay of the Olympics — which was set to be Abe’s political legacy — Abe’s future, like Kan’s, is in doubt. The prominence, both now and in 2011, of self-restraint as the dominant policy response reflects the Japanese government’s inability to take responsibility and lead at times of crisis.

The economic impact of COVID-19 will be even more damaging. Foreign tourist spending is central to offsetting weak domestic consumption and driving growth. Foreign workers also play a crucial role in tackling labour shortages, particularly in the agriculture, construction, nursing and elderly care sectors.

Nursing and elderly care are already in serious trouble: in a recent poll of local governments, 90 per cent of respondents said the current nursing care insurance system was unsustainable due to a lack of manpower. This takes on extra significance at a time when nursing homes have emerged as a vulnerable front line in the global pandemic. In short, the lack of foreign tourists and workers threatens to decimate the Japanese economy.

Japan does not deal well with crises. The sight in the United States of New York’s tough-talking Governor Andrew Cuomo taking ‘full responsibility’ contrasts with the lack of leadership and action in Japan. Calls for individual self-restraint are the default policy response but these measures do not go far enough. Given that Tokyo’s chance of being hit by a massive earthquake in the next 30 years is 70 per cent, the COVID-19 crisis may be Japan’s last chance to learn how to effectively deal with a crisis — or face irrevocable decline.

Chris Burgess is Professor of Japanese Studies at Tsuda University, Tokyo, and author of the blog A British Prof in Japan.

This article is part of an EAF special feature series on the novel coronavirus crisis and its impact.

2 responses to “Japan fumbles through the COVID-19 crisis”

  1. Perhaps it was a lack of space but I think the author is being too generous in noting that the rebuilding post Triple Disaster is almost complete. Thousands of people are still living in so called ‘temporary housing.’ Tons and tons of contaminated water sit on the site of the Fukushima nuclear power plants with no clear plans as to what to do with it. The government has claimed that the danger of exposure to radioactivity is over. But its tracking of possible victims is haphazard at best.

    Bp even with inadequate testing protocols the number of cases of COVID is increasing dramatically in recent days. Calls for self restraint by government leaders are ineffective, at best. More honestly, the passivity exhibited by Abe, Koike, et al is harmful. Even with its high standards of personal hygiene and general lack of physical contact the risk of such densely populated areas like Tokyo, Osaka, etc becoming like NYC increase with each passing day.

    • Thank you for taking the time to read and comment on my article, Richard. You are exactly right – I had intially included more details about the post Triple Disaster situation but with an 800 word limit had to cut most out. The latest figures (March 2020) tell us there are still almost 47,000 evacuees remaining with over 22,000 still in termporary housing (quite astonishing figures). The latest data (in Japanese) is available here: What I was saying in the article was that rebuilding – meaning recovery of infrastructure – is largely complete ( The situation in Fukushima, however, is still grim as you mention.
      As for the COVID19 situation in Japan, the data does not support the argument that Japan is going to become another New York. The number of confirmed cases was the lowest for a week in Tokyo yesterday (107) while the number of deaths (71 in Tokyo) pales into comparison with New York City (over 10,000). That doesn’t of course mean we don’t continue to need to be vigilant and Abe’s fumbling has hardly helped; nevertheless, we do need to try and remain as objective as possible in these uncertain and anxiety-inducing times.
      Please stay safe wherever you may be!

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