Opinion: Japan’s coronavirus response and a call for a more holistic, less competitive global strategy

Does Japan deserve the foreign backlash for ‘soft lockdown’ measures amid the global increase in coronavirus cases

Writer and artist: Sophie Maho Chan
Editor: Ebani Dhawan


As of 16th of April, Japan’s coronavirus cases have topped 9,000 and the country has lost over 150 lives to the virus. The last few weeks have proven to be tough weeks for Japan, with the inevitable postponement of the Tokyo Olympic 2020 and president Shinzo Abe declaring a state of emergency in seven prefectures including Tokyo and Osaka. Following this, other prefectures have declared a state of emergency independently from the central government, for the fear of national migration causing a further spread of the virus. Ultimately, this has forced Abe to extend the emergency nationwide on the 17th of April. Like many other of its Asian neighbours, Japan is experiencing a surge in coronavirus cases following the return of citizens from Europe and America. Once again, panic is settling into the country.

The Japanese government has been receiving backlash from foreign media regarding its response to coronavirus. In just last week, The Washington Post and Forbes, in addition to many other foreign media, strongly criticized the ‘soft lockdown’ methods of Japan. Indeed, the government has only ‘strongly advised’ social distancing and self-isolation; there have been surprisingly few mandatory closures of businesses and facilities despite the so-called ‘state of emergency’. Termed ‘jishuku’, citizens are simply encouraged and expected to limit social exchanges by their own will. There is technically nothing stopping people from going out. 

This is not the only foreign criticism Japan has received regarding COVID-19. In fact, Japan was closely monitored for the handling of Princess Diamond, a British registered cruise ship that was docked and quarantined at Yokohama, following a confirmed case of an 80-years old passenger from Hong Kong who disembarked the ship. Despite the quarantine ending on February the 19th, returning Japanese, Australian, British and American passengers were tested positive days after being released. At the time, Princess Diamond ended up accounting for half the cases outside of China, and many, including the United States’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) blamed Japan for not containing the virus better. 

Nonetheless, returning to the present situation, many around the world have expressed concern and confusion over Japan’s current response. Why has the government not issued mandatory ‘hard’ lockdown rules? Well, to understand this, it is first important to realise that under Japan’s current Constitution, the government simply does not have the authority to enforce ‘mandatory stay-at-home notice’ as seen in other countries. And as Lawrence Repeta mentions in the Japan Times, only one major foreign article has mentioned that an amendment to Japan’s constitution will need to take place in order to impose restrictions similar to those in Europe and America. So the question is, is it worth revising the Constitution to authorise stricter measures to control the virus? With current measures, is Japan doomed to suffer the next big hit as some have claimed?

As a Japanese person currently living in Japan, I have mixed opinions. I agree that there is a certain truth in that the government has not handled the situation as best as they can. Stricter ‘mandatory closures’ of businesses will be helpful, especially around Tokyo where cases are increasing most rapidly. Abe has also not been as present and responsive as many of us will like; perhaps the Tokyo Olympics should have been postponed earlier. But most importantly, I argue that the government needs to increase its willingness to compensate for the businesses and people affected—including the freelance, self-employed and part-time workers; while the government has just declared a financial compensation of 100,000 yen per citizen, there is still much clarification and action that must take place. 

Thus, for this very reason, it pains me to see the backlash Japanese citizens are receiving for being too slow, too complacent, too ignorant. Yes, many are still going to work despite the declaration of the state of emergency. But with limited financial compensation and no rules under the Constitution to enforce mandatory isolation, what can one expect? Furthermore, health outcomes are determined by so much more than government policy; social norms, cultural behaviour, media exposure and general level of health all play significant roles in shaping how the coronavirus plays out in each country. Japan has one of the highest coronavirus media coverage in the world, despite only 1% of coronavirus cases resulting in deaths thus far. Warnings for a surge in imported cases have been all over TV and newspapers since over a month ago. It should also be mentioned that, as analysed by NHK (Japan’s national broadcasting organisation), the average Japanese are notoriously strict with social codes and sense of conformity; many self-isolate simply to reduce judgement from neighbours and friends—to the point that strict governmental policies may perhaps not be necessary. Furthermore, the country luckily has an extremely high standard of hygiene and general health.

In Nagoya, where I live, the local government declared a state-of-emergency even after not being accounted for in the central government’s initial list. I admit life remains, for the most part, strangely normal, and many businesses, restaurants and shops are still open (but with tables more spread out, opened windows for better air circulation and shorter working hours). However, before you freak out, also take into consideration that daily cases have remained under 10 consistently and nearly ⅓ of the patients as part of the Aichi prefecture’s ‘total case of 338’ have fully recovered already. Furthermore, every supermarket, restaurant and cafe require you to use a hand sanitizer before you enter, most cashiers are behind acrylic shields and barely anyone is seen without a mask. 

As idealistic or biased this may come across, ultimately I argue that we cannot expect a ‘one-plan-for-all’ model when it comes to coronavirus. Not every country or government will handle the virus the same way—but nor can they and nor do they need to. Other determinants of health such as social and cultural factors, general health and living environments must be taken into consideration. This goes for many countries other than Japan. Ultimately, I think that countries need to focus less on comparing case statistics and strictness of measures, and/or playing the blame game. While the coronavirus has prompted further divisions and movements to nationalism, I believe that to defeat the virus, we must learn from and help each other.

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