Japan fumbles through the COVID-19 crisis

Picture: Kantei.

Australia & Japan in the Region

Volume 8, No 4, April 2020

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.

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.

Japan’s ‘low-contact culture’ eschews physical touch such as hugging, kissing or handshakes. Furthermore, there is a strong emphasis on cleanliness and hygiene.

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 the 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.

The COVID-19 crisis may be Japan’s last chance to learn how to effectively deal with a crisis — or face irrevocable decline.

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.

About the author

Chris Burgess is Professor of Japanese Studies at Tsuda University, Tokyo

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