Through out the first three months of 2020, there was fear that the 2020 Tokyo Olympics might have problems. Scandals after scandals followed after Tokyo was named to be the host city. The stadium costing too much, the stadium looking too mundane, the lack of volunteers and how both business as well as school seemed to be co-opted into helping it. The list goes on and on. While there were many who looked forward to the games, others were bitter about the cost the event was inflicting upon Japan, both financially and socially. The cost overruns are something many expected, but the Olympics were pushing aside regular everyday life in Japan on an unprecedented level and people were not happy about how holidays were being re-worked, convention centers being closed-off, and how authorities were warning that the congestion might be so bad that parcel delivery services might not function very well while the games are taking place–Their suggestion was people might want to avoid using mail order while the Olympic games were going on.
But the biggest question that dogged the 2020 Olympics was not the games itself, but how the organizers of the games seemingly adamantly denying the threat posed by a massive pandemic originating in China right next door to Japan.
As the world witnessed how the contagion made life in Wuhan, China extremely difficult with the forced lockdown and severe restriction on everyday life, there was concern the disease, now know as COVID-19, might spread like wildfire when the world assembled together at Tokyo in late July for the Olympic games. The Olympics put on a brave face, saying contagion prevention measures will be in full force, and there was nothing to worry about coming to Tokyo. Well that became a moot point. By early March, it was clear COVID-19 was having a detrimental impact on Europe and could severely hit the US as well.
And yet, in Japan, closing down schools and stamping out clusters of cases appeared to be having relatively good effect, at least up until the first half of March. Authorities asked citizens to reduce social interaction and events were strongly requested to postpone or to cancel. This was all being conducted without any legal justification–After all these were requests for self-restraint. In the meantime, the 2014 Act on Special Measures for Pandemic Influenza and New Infectious Diseases Preparedness and Response (a.k.a., New Influenza Special Countermeasures Law) was revamped so that the law could be invoked for the current epidemic of COVID-19 just in case if things got out of hand. This took place on March 13th.
In a nutshell, the New Influenza Special Countermeasures Law allows the national government to declare a state of emergency and empower local governments to pressure, but not ban, certain everyday activities. Prefectural governors would dissuade businesses where the risk of contagion was real to suspend operations and such. If the businesses did not comply, then the governors would be allowed to publicly shame the businesses by publishing their names to the public. Buildings where contagion took place could be shutdown and traffic into said buildings could be restricted. Resources needed for the treatment of diseases could be commandeered and land could be unilaterally seized to place medical facilities or emergency shelters.
These are relatively tame powers when compared to the disease prevention measures that are available to many other Western nations.
And yet, the Japanese government hoped that the New Influenza Special Countermeasures Law would not have to be invoked. Tremendous uncertainty over how to navigate an unprecedented situation, the fears of an economic slowdown accelerating, and the hope that the situation could resolve itself were most likely caused great hesitation. I have talked about some of the background here.
By late March, it was very clear COVID-19 could not possibly be contained by the coming summer. On March 25th, the day after the 2020 Tokyo Olympics was postponed, Japanese citizen were advised against going anywhere overseas. On March 28th, the broad guidelines for how the New Influenza Special Countermeasures Law and the state of emergency was finally released.
And yet, it took until April 7th for the actual declaration of the state of emergency to take place.
So what has happened since then? Governors of affected regions immediately called upon certain classes of businesses to shutdown, highly recommended people to work from home, and for the most part, the public followed suit. It was a haphazard affair, but as the gravity of the situation become more and more clear, social pressure and fear compelled large segments of the public to adhere to quarantine measures that were only possible via martial law in some countries.
Cases spiked in mid April, but they have come done and stabilized by the end of April. We won’t know for sure if Japan’s approach was success, but by in large, the contagion is vastly more limited in Japan and life is better organized than in some Western countries.
We do not know if this situation will continue.
It’s easy to say Japan should have pushed through centralized testing, conducted mass medical screenings, mobilized the military to help provide logistics help, as well as aggressive state intervention into everyday people’s lives be carried out in order to stem the contagion, but something many commentators seem to be blissfully ignorant of what happened in Japan prior to 1945.
Even up until the 2000s, Japan was still dealing with the after-effects of leper colonies, forced sterilization of those with hereditary disabilities, and other public health policies that went disastrously wrong. The practice of these policies were continued well into the postwar economic boom of the 1960s.
In Japan, there is a strong hesitation over governmental overreach. There is fear that authoritarian tools, even legislated and monitored by a democratic legislative process, may not be good enough to stop the abuse of power by the majority against those in the minority.
This is not to say overreach into people’s lives do not take place. There are numerous quasi-public and voluntary organizations, industry self-regulatory groups, and other types of local community elements that exercise influence over individuals, either through subtle pressuring, cultural influencing, and/or regulatory powers. Some might argue that governmental control is conducted via proxy by these organizations, but it is important to note that many of these organizations and regulatory schemes date back many years and sudden changes through legislative or executive mandates are very hard to implement through these means, as they are rooted in long running social acceptance and maintained semi-autonomously.
Japan is still a community orientated society, where consensus is highly sought, and social peer pressure can be relentless. Hierarchy and difference to authority figures is practically hard-coded into the language. While independent thought, diverse degrees of individualism and the indomitable rebel spirit are all very much part of Japan, the cultural, sociological, and linguistic norms and standards do have an considerable effect, both consciously and subconsciously.
These power moors of social structure make their presence known in a wide variety of situations.
Some businesses have been targeted for harassment as people will incessantly call them to ask why they are still open. Neighborhood interactions can grow awkward very quickly if a family is considered to be flaunting the social pressure to self-restrain. Teachers may even dissuade parents from giving their children Kindle tablets because it gives some children an unfair advantage (in their view.)
Even agents of the government can do subtle things to compel those who engage in legal activities to feel pressured. The police have been patrolling streets in pleasure districts, asking people why aren’t they home. Civil servants have frequented businesses that remain open to request them to shut down.
Scholars have pointed out that Japanese morality and values are less about personal conviction as opposed to adhering to cultural norms and social expectations. This is not to say that individualism is rare in Japan, but rather, individualism is not as strong as it is in the United States. It must be pointed out that, by in large, these norms and expectations in Japan have become more liberal and diverse over the course of the 75 years that have elapsed since the end of WW2, but nevertheless these norms and expectations can still be relentless.
While liberalism and human rights have become major cornerstones of Japanese civics, the average Japanese citizen rarely has an opportunity to understand how Japan embraced militarism and authoritarianism before and during WW2. Furthermore, while regret and apology over what happened in WW2 is common place, discussions over how to improve state institutions are encumbered with the debate over Japan’s history and its assessment.
There is no doubt that improvements and reevaluation over Japan state structure is needed, but any suggestion of changing the status quo creates a such a tug of war between traditionalists and progressives that, in the end, only incremental reforms are pushed through while powerful conformist forces in the wider sociological and cultural landscape have been left to fester and evolve unchecked.
There were many things that Japan could have done much better, as I have been advocating for a “if you can’t use a stick, then use sweets (use financial incentives to clamp down on businesses if you can’t penalize them)” for many many weeks now.
Granted, things may change a lot in the future. I still argue that historical, sociological, cultural, and political issues must be kept in mind if you want to realistically debate about what Japan can or cannot do in 2020.