At root, the Japanese government has not approached the current pandemic as an epidemiological crisis. Instead, it has sought to manage it as an economic crisis and as a perilous public relations liability for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government. This reactive, obstructionist approach is dangerous at a time when Japan needs real leadership to preserve lives.In recent months, when the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games were expected to go ahead, Japan garnered some international sympathy for attempting to put a brave face on the Covid-19 outbreak in the country, which threatened to upend years of careful planning and investment. Yet three weeks after the Olympics’ postponement, the government continues to operate from the same cynical PR playbook.There is a clear official reluctance to test aggressively for Covid-19, although Japan has the same technological and medical capability to do so as South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong, which have been so successful at using testing and contact tracing to blunt the spread of the coronavirus.
Yet intentionally limited testing, possibly to put the nation’s best foot forward for the Olympics, gave Japanese a false sense of security. The Abe government mandated that just a small number of public health facilities could test for the virus, and only five approved companies were allowed to process the samples.As of April 15, South Korea had conducted 534,522 tests, a staggering 10,351 tests per million citizens. By contrast, Japan had done 94,236 tests, or 745 tests per million citizens, about 7 per cent of South Korea’s.
Moreover, the current figure of 178 dead is almost certainly an undercount and misleading. The government hasn’t released the figures on recent pneumonia fatalities, a critical metric both for assessing the pandemic and the state’s handling of the crisis.
The extent of the radioactive threat to communities was played down to avert panic and deflect blame. Evacuation orders and the very dimensions of the exclusion zone were minimised to avoid affecting large nearby cities, such as Koriyama, with expensive and debilitating measures.
The presence of particular radioactive isotopes in the air told foreign observers that nuclear fuel rods had melted down and breached reactors’ containment just days after the tsunami, even though it took the Japanese government months to admit this to its angry citizenry.
The current crisis lacks such stark, devastating signalling. Nevertheless, it is clear the Japanese state has reverted to the same reflexes of distorting science to influence the data.
Last week, the government announced a plan to battle overseas “misinformation” with artificial intelligence-driven algorithms, analysing social media traffic on platforms like Twitter and responding with “correct” information. Rather than trying to control the international narrative, it would be far better for Japan to use AI to analyse epidemiological data to improve the nation’s response to the spread of the coronavirus.
During the early months of the outbreak, control has been illusory. While Tokyo struggled to hold onto the Summer Olympics, Covid-19 spread. Now, across the world in America, New York has paid prisoners to dig mass graves for infected corpses, and over 80 refrigerated container trucks are used to store the bodies of deceased patients at overwhelmed hospitals.
Japan must stop playing games with the data and start displaying bold leadership to avert such carnage in Japan’s capital.
Peter Wynn Kirby is a Japan specialist at the University of Oxford. He is the author of Troubled Natures: Waste, Environment, Japan