25.01.2021 Author: Vladimir Terehov

Japan and SARS-CoV-2

Police officers wearing protective face masks patrol on the street following the coronavirus disease outbreak in Tokyo

Exactly one year ago, the SARS-CoV-2 factor, like a typhoon that suddenly came out of nowhere, burst into the international policy space, taking center stage with all the world’s leading players. The latter have found themselves with drastically reduced room for maneuver, both within their own countries and at the board table of the global political game.

Note two important circumstances. First, not only is there no weakening of the significance of this factor after one year, but in a number of important cases there is an increase in its importance. Second, so far it does not appear that the “portfolio of understanding” of the SARS-CoV-2 problem itself has become much heavier over the past (quite a large) period of time. Neither the “medical” nor the “political” components of it.

For example, a question that remains unclear is why this particular “tumor” continues to occupy a central position in general health issues, displacing numerous other, long-known and at least no less dangerous ones? Although the year has surely amassed a lot of facts about it, there is no mention of its discussion in international forums of experts. Under these conditions, national elites, responsible to their own populations, find themselves in a zugzwang situation in which each move (in different ways, but nevertheless) will worsen the situation.

The government and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party of Japan, one of several countries that now make up the pool of the world’s leading players, are in a similar position. However, up until the last two months, SARS-CoV-2 was developing very sparingly in Japan compared to the nightmare that was broadcast (and continues to be broadcast) from Western Europe and the United States.

Last April 7, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared a state of emergency in the two largest urban agglomerations of Tokyo and Osaka. As of May 6, the state of emergency was extended to the entire country. Although the state of emergency regime “from Shinzo Abe” had nothing in common with those undertaken in Europe and the United States, and was mainly advisory in nature, the damage to the Japanese economy was nevertheless severe.

For this reason, and because the rate of increase in the number of cases slowed, the state of emergency was almost universally lifted after May 25 (with reservations about the need for voluntary continuation of precautionary measures). Moreover, a special program to encourage domestic tourism (Go To Travel) was adopted as an important measure to stimulate various related areas of economic activity.

In fact, the press even reported on the possibility (soon refuted by the officials) of extending this program for foreign tourists. Among other things, to prepare for the “influx of tourists” during the upcoming Summer Olympics in Japan, which, however, were postponed (due to the same SARS-CoV-2) to 2021.

Up until late last fall, the coronavirus situation in Japan remained fairly healthy (again, compared to most other countries). However, since November, predictions of the next “waves” of SARS-CoV-2 (“second and third”) began to come true. By mid-December, the number of daily detected cases increased by an order of magnitude compared to the summer period, when there was a decline in this indicator.

With the growing general anxiety in Japanese society, the government (with Yoshihide Suga already in power) was faced with the necessity of introducing a state of emergency. And quite a serious one, that is, having little in common with what Shinzo Abe did last spring, when the growth rate of coronavirus cases was several times less than at the end of the year.

In early December, the need for strict quarantine was announced at a meeting with Minister of State for Economic and Fiscal Policy Yasutoshi Nishimura (responsible for everything in the government related to the problem of SARS-CoV-2) by the governors of the capital and the three adjoining prefectures. The minister, while agreeing with the “urgency of the situation” presented to him, nevertheless deemed it necessary to “hear the experts’ opinion” first.

Today, the cabinet as a whole and the current prime minister are often accused of being behind the times and lacking leadership at a critical time for the country. Moreover, such accusations are coming from the ruling LDP itself and from some members of the government. There is a good reason for this: even three weeks after the aforementioned meeting, Yoshihide Suga was still saying that he was against declaring a state of emergency. Even in Tokyo, where there has been the sharpest spike in the rate of coronavirus, and the occupancy rate of treatment facilities with symptoms of SARS-CoV-2 has approached 90%.

Neither did he agree to stop (until the situation with the coronavirus improved) the aforementioned domestic tourism subsidy program Go To Travel. Although almost 70% of the Japanese were in favor of it, clearly frightened by the scale of the epidemic.

On January 7, 2021, the prime minister decreed a state of emergency in Tokyo, which on January 12 was extended to seven more prefectures (of which there are 47 in Japan). It will presumably last until the end of February. Earlier, the Go To Travel program was suspended for two weeks beginning December 28, 2020. As of mid-January of this year, however, there were no reports of its resumption.

The severity of these prohibitive measures is demonstrated by draft laws that prescribe penalties for potential violators of the state of emergency. If that happens to be the owner of a business, they will have to pay $4,900 in fines. The same $5,000 will be paid by each infected person who refuses to answer questions about their travel routes.  For the period of the state of emergency, the governors are empowered to close the violating facilities. During the same period, entry of foreigners into the country is prohibited.

On the other hand, the central government will be able to allocate funds from the state budget to governors to support those business owners who “voluntarily” close their establishments during a state of emergency.

Finally, it would be useful to try and understand the motives behind the current prime minister’s hesitation to take the decisions that had been declared necessary by individual governors and by the LDP leadership. The main motive can be defined by the generalized label “electoral-economic”. It links together two important aspects of Japan’s current domestic political situation, namely the upcoming regular elections to the lower house of parliament this October (unless Yoshihide Suga decides to hold them early) and the problem of economic recovery after the end of the coronavirus epidemic.

A year from now, few will listen to explanations of why (“back then”) it was necessary to take measures that hindered economic recovery. Only one thing will matter: here they are, their negative consequences in front of our eyes. Who is to blame? That’s right: the “leadership and management”. And there’s the results.

All the more so because the elections will take place (for the first time in several years) in conditions of increasing competition from the consolidating opposition, whose tacit leader is an experienced and ambitious politician Yukio Edano. Representatives of the opposition in parliament have already made themselves known by launching an initiative to change the budget of the current fiscal year, which ends in Japan on March 31, since emergency funding for the just-introduced state of emergency raises questions about the continuation of the Go To Travel program.

The initiative contains a hidden message to the electorate: the government is not very good at reconciling its ambitions with the available ammunition. This, of course, is not conducive to the restoration of its rating, which was rapidly declining almost immediately after the formation of the new cabinet of ministers in September 2020. From the initial 65-70%, it had already fallen to 55% by early November. In just another month and a half, when there was talk of the current prime minister being “behind the times” (in connection with the SARS-CoV-2 problem), his rating had already fallen to an alarming 40%.

The coronavirus hysteria adds a critical character to the long-suffering problem of the next Summer Olympics. The date of their holding in Japan has already been postponed for a year, that is, moved to 2021. However, recent polls show that today 80% of Japanese support either the cancellation of the summer Olympic Games in their country, or another postponement. This is with the costs already incurred, not to mention the important aspects of political prestige. They had to refute the “fake news” that, together with the Olympic Committee, the Japanese government was supposedly considering both of these possibilities.

Judging by the events of the beginning of the year in the territory of one of the world’s leading players, the complex issue of SARS-CoV-2 is not going to leave the table of the “Big World Game” in 2021 either.

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific Region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.