COVID-19 updates from Japan
Interview with SPF Senior Fellow Tsuneo "Nabe" Watanabe

June 2, 2020

Could you give us an update on the current status of the COVID-19 pandemic in Japan?
I think that Japan is in a new phase since it has succeeded in flattening the peak of infections so far. At this point, we can say that Japan didn’t experience a serious overshooting of hospital capacity or infected patients. Now, the new test for the government will be trying to resume economic activities without causing a so-called second wave of infections.
One thing that has puzzled me about the international conversation around Japan’s response is that often in discussions of countries that have successfully contained the pandemic, Japan is not brought up as a successful example as much as Taiwan, South Korea, or Germany. Do you have any thoughts about why that might be the case?
The countries that you mentioned were able to very effectively control COVID-19 using a very standard approach, which included massive PCR tests and strict quarantine. Japan’s case is a little bit different. Due to the limitation of the country’s PCR testing capacity and also the smaller number of intensive care units compared to those countries, I think Japan instead concentrated on tracking and tracing infections. Also, since the number of tests conducted by Japan was smaller, many people didn’t know if Japan’s case was successful or not, and Japan’s response was a bit slower when compared to Taiwan or South Korea.
Overall, Japan’s record is not so bad when compared to European countries or the United States, but not better than neighbors such as Taiwan and South Korea, so the Japanese government cannot be proud of their success. The number of deaths from COVID-19 in Japan per 100,000 people is 0.6, which is much better than Germany which is 10. However, neighboring countries fared much better than Japan, such as South Korea at 0.5, and Taiwan at 0.02. That’s one of the reasons I think that Japan is not regarded as a model case.
However, in Japan's case, the government didn’t use any kind of coercive measures due to the limitation of legal preparation. I think Japan experienced a serious violation of human rights during WWII and before WWII, so traditionally the Japanese government has tried to use measures to suspend individual rights as little as possible. Though we don’t know the full result yet because everybody in the world is expecting a second wave of infections, at least Japan’s record so far is a very good model for without suspending individual rights and using education and public consensus regarding individual behavior to successfully contain infections.
I think the next step for the Japanese government will be to improve their communication skills, or what some people call strategic communication, to properly explain to people why they need to self-quarantine or outline the overall goal of policy in order to ensure that the public continues to follow the recommendations. I think this will become an even more serious test with a potential second wave infection, since the government will likely ask people again to stay home. This is a big challenge waiting for the Japanese government.
What is Japan’s current stance regarding the WHO?
Unlike the United States, Japan along with countries in Europe is trying to support the WHO. That said, Japan shares some frustration with the WHO. The WHO's order for the pandemic was too slow and its process was opaque. However, I think the WHO is necessary to help developing countries in particular to contend with the pandemic, and I think that function will continue to grow in importance. The Japanese government is planning to increase its monetary contribution to the WHO, and Prime Minister Abe said that while he believes there are some issues the WHO should address, such as the Taiwan issue, it’s time for countries to support the WHO. I think that’s Japan position, which is a big difference with the U.S.
Another major issue recently has been the worsening relationship between the U.S. and China. From Japan’s perspective, what are some of the concerns that the country is watching regarding China?
Japan shares the frustration with United States about China’s assertive actions, including in Hong Kong, but Japan has its own concerns. Recently, China has continued sending law enforcement vessels to Japan’s territorial waters near the Senkaku Islands, and while these actions began before COVID-19, I think during the pandemic this problem is getting more serious and China's actions are more assertive.
For example, Chinese law enforcement vessels started to chase a Japanese fishing boat in Japan’s territorial water. In addition, it appears that China’s assertive actions continue not only in the East China Sea, including in Japan’s territorial water, but also in the South China Sea. Recently, Chinese boats sank a Vietnamese fishing boat and also China declared new control in the South China Sea. That’s really frustrating and scary to Japan and China’s neighbors.

This also comes on top of China imposing the security law on Hong Kong. The Japanese government is now growing increasingly worried and expressed concern about China’s actions toward Hong Kong. Japan invited Chinese President Xi Jinping to visit Japan in April, but due to COVID-19, the visit has been postponed. Now several Japanese Diet members are asking the government to reconsider the invitation to President Xi. I think that the situation is not so good between Japan and China, and of course we are worried about the bad relations between the U.S. and China too, so the overall situation in East Asia is not good, unfortunately.

Additional links:

•  Profile for Tsuneo Watanabe available here.
•  For more from the International Peace and Security Department, visit the program page.
•  For more English analsysis on global security issues, visit International Information Network Analysis (IINA).

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