Commentary: Why is Japan tightening rules just as other countries are relaxing them?
Strict COVID-19 rules despite fewer deaths compared to other countries are fuelling disappointment with the Japanese government’s approach, say researchers.
VANCOUVER: As COVID-19’s Omicron variant surges around the world, advanced democracies are generally responding vigorously but with lower levels of restrictions on social life and travel than in 2020 and 2021.
Japan has chosen a different course.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has reacted with powerful border control measures that exceed those of previous years.
Past disappointments with government policy and deeper social changes have bred extreme public sensitivity to pandemic-related policies. The Kishida government knows that its popularity and survival are tightly connected to COVID-19 numbers.
JAPAN’S INFECTION NUMBERS ARE LOW
Even with the recent surge, Japan’s new infection numbers are about five times lower per capita than in many European countries or the United States, and at least three times lower than in Australia.
Japan’s death rate has been contained to 146 deaths per million people from Nov 15, 2021 to Jan 20, 2022 only inching up to 148 by Jan 29, in stark contrast to 2,655 in the United States and 2,283 in the United Kingdom.
Neighbouring South Korea and Australia have shifted to a “living with COVID” strategy and seen mortality rates more than double to 131 and 144 deaths per million respectively since Nov 1.
But Japan has responded very robustly to Omicron. Omicron dominates the news and political agenda every day despite Japan having one of the higher double vaccination rates in the world at 79 per cent of the population.
RELUCTANCE TO ACT WITH EMERGENCY POWERS UNTIL RECENTLY
So far 34 of Japan’s 47 prefectures have returned to a quasi-state of emergency as of late January, even though associated restrictions remain mild by international standards.
This is due to the lack of political will until now in the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the Diet to significantly revise the Act on Special Measures for Pandemic Influenza and the Infectious Diseases Control Law and empower the central government to act with similar lockdown and emergency powers available in most other places in East Asia.
Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and Vietnam all beefed up their pandemic response capacity in response to SARS (2003) and MERS (2014). Not Japan. Prime Minister Kishida has put this on his agenda, but the political pathway will be arduous.
Since early December, however, Japan has implemented a remarkably harsh border policy compared with its previous waves. That policy has essentially closed the country to non-Japanese citizens.
This neo-sakoku (isolationist) policy is only matched in East Asia by China. Among the many stranded travellers are an estimated 150,000 eager international students enrolled in Japanese universities as part of Japan’s engagement policy in Asia and beyond.
Some are already considering switching to schools in South Korea as a result. Leading experts and international directors of Japan study centres around the world have joined a petition asking Kishida to open the border, given the extreme uncertainty these students face and its significant damage to Japan’s global reputation.
RISING CONCERNS AMONG JAPANESE CITIZENS
To be sure, Omicron cases are rising in Japan and citizens are worried. The rate of new cases per million people previously peaked at 203 on Aug 20, 2021 — at the close of the Olympics — and fell steadily to below 10 in October 2021.
This reached 203 again on Jan 15 and rose to 624 as of Jan 27. To put this in context, Australia recorded 2,568 cases per million people on the same day.
The public is clearly extremely sensitive about these numbers. In a December poll by Nikkei, participants were asked to rank priority issues for the prime minister. Tackling COVID-19 came second at 38 per cent after concerns about pensions, health and care of the elderly (41 per cent).
In his Jan 18 speech to the Diet, Kishida placed the COVID-19 response as his top priority, a consistent commitment since his election in October. This bold response is fuelling his approval rating — NTV notes a striking increase from 56 per cent in November to 66 per cent in January.
The most obvious reason for such a strong political reaction to Omicron is the forthcoming upper house election in July 2022, which Kishida must win to avoid becoming another lame duck prime minister.
His call to advance a “new form of capitalism” with stronger elements of equity and distribution has exposed him to criticism from traditional business elites and former prime minister Shinzo Abe.
But there are deeper reasons behind the high political sensitivity. Japan’s overall COVID-19 response since January 2020 has relied heavily on social cohesion and grassroots efforts rather than decisive and effective government actions, similar to those taken by neighbours in the region such as South Korea, Taiwan or Singapore.
Japanese people initially followed the innovative and clearly communicated three Cs guidelines (avoiding closed spaces, crowded places, and close-contact settings), but their effectiveness has declined over time.
FRUSTRATION OVER GOVERNMENT INCONSISTENCY
A large portion of the public is becoming frustrated with government inconsistencies, the difficulty of accessing testing, poor quality government-sponsored masks, the lacklustre initial vaccination drive, the slow rollout for booster shots and rigidities in hospital management and the treatment of nurses.
A majority particularly resented the insistence on holding the Olympic Games.
In a comparative survey by the Pew Research Center in June 2021, Japanese people showed the strongest discontent in the world on COVID-19 measures with 62 per cent of respondents believing there should have been more restrictions on public activity.
This compares to 15 per cent in Taiwan, 21 per cent in Singapore and 56 per cent in the United States.
The high sensitivity of the Japanese public to COVID-19 — and especially to the government’s response — may be related to deeper social changes. Shifting values are leading many Japanese people to question traditional compliance with authority figures and to expect more freedom from traditional group, family, and work structures. They expect government action and effective regulation to carry more of the burden.
Former deputy prime minister Taro Aso praised the Japanese people’s mindo (quality or cultural standard) as the root of Japan’s good response to COVID-19. But many citizens — especially young people — resent the lack of sacrifice by the government.
While Kishida’s response is more in tune with these new social expectations, it shows signs of overreaction and poses larger risks for Japan’s relations with the international community.
Saya Soma is an MA Candidate at the Balsillie School of International Affairs, the University of Waterloo.
Yves Tiberghien is Professor of Political Science and Konwakai Chair in Japanese Research at the University of British Columbia, and author of the East Asian Covid-19 Paradox (Cambridge University Press). He is also Distinguished Fellow at the Asia-Pacific Foundation of Canada and the Canadian PAFTAD Chair.
This commentary first appeared in East Asia Forum.