On the Edge of the Unknown–Japan and COVID-19

This is my personal analysis of the situation in Japan as of April 2nd, 2020.

We all heard the meme–“Japanese Prime Minster says Japan is on brink of contagion, but continues to claim it is not yet the time to invoke emergency declaration–even after weeks passes.”

The following is what I think is going on. This is only my personal opinion. Nothing more.

I am not interested in engaging in a blame game. I am simply trying to do my best analysis of the social and historical dynamics that might be in play right now in Japan, and thus better understand the situation. This is a thought experiment.

The Prime Minister and others around him seems to be deadlocked about what to do–The contagion is spreading, but the situation is fluid and there is no clear consensus regarding how society should react. This pandemic is creating major challenges for all national governments regarding how to balance the need to maintain civil rights, to uphold economic security, as well as maintain the best levels of public health. But in the case of Japan, the legal framework for restricting people is uncharted territory for Japan since the end of WW2. Japan has never conducted massive curfews, etc. for about 75 years. This is not about restricting particular industries or addressing a specific region, it’s about the entire nation, its economy and its people.

While many governments instituted rationing and/or restrictions on the freedoms of its people once World War 2 erupted, Japan actually went into war footing very early. In 1938, as Japan become deeply invested in war on the Chinese mainland, war mobilization was instituted in 1938. Many of the frameworks of post-War Japanese society were actually constructed as result of this mobilization and its effects left a lasting impact.

I believe those in leadership in Japan right now are afraid of being blamed of restricting citizen’s rights and causing economic harm. They are very very afraid of going too far, for overstepping boundaries that have been constructed since WW2. These boundaries helped Japan maintain social harmony and prosper by leaps and bounds. Since there are no precedence for governance in a situation like this in living memory, they are afraid and confused. While the circumstances are different, the last time Japan’s government wield such great power was 1945.

If the contagion is left unchecked, large scale economic harm will occur, but in some respects, leadership and society can deflect the blame on ‘bad actors’ rather than themselves more easily. The argument of “This contagion is the result of the irresponsible people who spread it about!” will seep into the collective consciousness and therefore help make it possible to avoid the tricky question of why the leaders were paralyzed at the helm when the nation needed them to act decisively. It will absolve the public at large “because most people practiced self-restrain.”

I think once the contagion becomes so extensive that people start dying in large numbers, then Japan will belatedly start instituting some restrictions, but by then it will be too late for many people and the blame will be attributed to everybody and nobody.

To some degree, this is what happened to Japan immediately after WW2. Saying Japan was collectively responsible is apt, but it can also contributing into absolving the misdeeds of specific actors for the actions they took that brought about the disastrous decisions–decisions that many questioned its validity even back then.

Note that while the democratic systems is fairly well entrenched in Japan, the “group-think” mentality and subservience to society/authority is very powerful still nonetheless. Even among those that position themselves as opposition leaders and/or minority groups, many have their own small hierarchies.

This collection of multiple and overlapping hierarchies and consensus orientated communities may sound oppressive, but it can be much less authoritarian than you might think, especially for those who were born and raised to accept it as being the norm. By allowing the status-quo to function largely unimpeded, regular people are not drawn into protracted democratic processes nor have to worry about renegotiating everything. The strikes that sporadically crippled Japan have largely disappeared since the 1990s. Large scale student protest movements have died down since the 1970s and the Japanese Red Army and their sabotage attempts have been non-existent for decades.

In Japan, precedence and authority is king, and once you grow old enough, most can hope to enjoy its benefits in one way or another. By adhering to the group and by meeting minimum obligations, you can do your own thing with little worry.

Japan needs strong leadership and decisive decision-making right now, but it also needs the strong institutional countermeasures that can restrict abuses of power. So far, both the leaders and those who check their power are happy with relatively reserved use of power since it is less straining and does not rock the boat. This allows for extremely bad decisions, indecisiveness, and/or lack of action who’s consequences slowly fester and explode, but in the mean time, harmony (or the facade of it) makes living more tolerable.

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