How is Japan Responding to COVID-19?
Interview with SPF Senior Fellow Tsuneo "Nabe" Watanabe
April 16, 2020
In Japan, recently we’ve seen an increasing number of cases of COVID-19, and as a result the Japanese government has taken increasingly aggressive actions to contend with the virus. Could you explain the current situation in Japan and describe some of the measures that the Japanese government has taken?
I think Japan is taking a very unorthodox approach by first trying to identify patients by finding clusters and hospitalizing people with the virus without using massive PCR tests. The priority of the Japanese government is to try to avoid placing too much burden on hospitals and healthcare workers and avoid overshooting the country’s healthcare capacity. So far, this has worked. For example, there are currently 7,693 coronavirus patients and the number of deaths is 146.* That’s relatively low compared to other countries.
However, I think that the current moment is a very critical moment, because this approach depends on a large effort by healthcare workers to identify clusters of infection. Unfortunately, now we are seeing a surge of coronavirus patients and more unidentified patients. Also, I think the medical community is screaming that an emergency moment may come. That’s one of the reasons that Prime Minister Abe declared a state of emergency on April 7, asking Japanese people to stay home as much as possible. It’s not possible to know if this strategy is working until maybe the weeks ahead, so Japan is at a very critical moment.
You mentioned that Japan has not pursued testing as much as other countries and it’s now recently taken a more aggressive stance in terms of the emergency declaration and trying to get people to stay at home. What do you see as the overall goal of the Japanese government's policy and how has that goal shifted over time?
The major reason the Japanese government is taking this unorthodox approach without massive testing is because of limitations of capabilities, namely the capacity of beds, hospitals, and intensive care units. Even compared to Italy, the Japanese hospital capacity per capita is lower. Instead, Japan has a good quality of medical service, so combined with very good investigation of clusters, this strategy has worked.
However, right now the Japanese government is being criticized as too late and too little. Too late means that people believe if the government had declared an emergency a little bit earlier, probably we could have prevented the surge of patients we are seeing now. Too little is related to how Japan’s legal system doesn’t have the power to coerce people into action in the case of an emergency. That’s a legacy of WWII. I think the people of Japan suffered the sacrifice of their individual human rights during the war. After WWII, Japan hasn’t experienced a serious war, so it has not had to address this issue with legal preparedness. I think the government right now is facing quite a challenge in controlling this situation.
In metropolitan areas like Tokyo and Osaka, I think many people are worried about a surge of patients. Even some news from Osaka is that several medical workers are utilizing plastic garbage bags as protection for the medical workers. That’s déjà vu of a few weeks before in New York City, so our situation is getting worse.
It’s difficult to see where things are going to go one way or another, but looking to the future and depending on whether Japan’s strategy is successful or not, do you see any potential for lasting impacts either in Japan or the region more broadly?
If Japan’s strategy to flatten the peak of patients is regarded as a successful case, that could serve as a good model for dealing with the virus without sacrificing too much individual freedom. I think in the current moment in the world, probably some would argue that a government in a less democratic society is more efficient than in a democratic society. Probably Japan’s case could be a good case for a counterargument, but of course we still do not know whether Japan’s strategy will work.
Also, I think this will lead to more discussions in Japan for how society and government should prepare for emergencies, not only pandemics but other cases too. I think that’s the big case for Japanese society and of course Japan’s case could be the case for the region and other countries.
The Japanese government has been trying to push people to work from home and trying to expand options for telecommuting as part of their virus response, which has been difficult to implement in Japanese workplace culture. Do you see any potential for broader change as a result of some of these measures being taken in response to the COVID-19 issue?
That’s a very interesting question, because the Japanese government keeps pushing people to change the mindset in the working place in a so-called revolution or reform of working style. The Japanese government has encouraged many companies to change, but the results have not been very remarkable. I think it is very difficult for anybody to change their working style suddenly without a big shock, so the current coronavirus infection could be an incentive for people, companies, and business leaders to change. Before coronavirus, somehow the delay in digitalization of business has hindered further development of the Japanese economy. So I think the crisis moment clearly could be a chance of the future.
What do you see as some of the additional issues regarding the international security situation around Japan in the context of this current COVID-19 crisis?
I think Japan is watching a very difficult situation, namely more tension between China and the U.S. Japan is of course a major ally of the U.S. and we’re heavily dependent on U.S. military capability in Asia, especially the Indo-Pacific. Recently, the unfortunate news is that there are cases of coronavirus infections in U.S. naval officers under the Indo-Pacific Command, and two aircraft carriers are somehow not functioning well because of many coronavirus infections.
On the other hand, China is very active and recently conducted a military exercise with the aircraft carrier group Liaoning and that passed the Miyako Strait and down to Taiwan. Recently, Defense Minster Kono complained and criticized China’s attitude because China is very active in sending vessels to the Senkaku Islands, which are under the Japanese administrative control.
It seems to me that China is getting over coronavirus. That’s good news, especially for the Japanese economy. But, China’s active military assertive action continues. That’s bad news for Japan. The trouble in the U.S. Navy is also worrisome for Japan. So I think the security situation is affected by the coronavirus, but we do not yet know the results because it’s an ongoing situation.
*Note: This interview was conducted on April 15, 2020