Rice paddy in Miyayama, outside Tokyo. Photo: Scott Foster

Out in the country west of Tokyo, self-isolated in a rented house looking out at flooded rice paddies and forested hills. Up at 6:30 to walk a couple klicks to the convenience store to buy a newspaper. Farmers already at work, tilling the paddies with a whirling rake behind a red tractor and putting rows of seedlings in the mud from crates loaded on a white tractor with a rotating planter on the back. A partially cloudy sky reflected in the water between the rows of green seedlings. 

A young boy jogs past me wearing a face mask. Probably in case he meets some careless old dude without a mask. Nightingales are whistling and other birds chirping from the trees. The frogs are quiet now, but they are very noisy at night with a hundred million voices.

There’s a fair amount of traffic on the main road, country people going to work early. The crane at the building site next to the hospital is already working, a construction worker in a blue, long-sleeved shirt standing on the frames below, wearing a mask.

Crossing the road at the traffic light to enter the convenience store parking lot, I see more than a dozen vehicles. I put on my mask before entering the store, which is more crowded than I would like.

Down the road at the home center, a recorded message repeats constantly: All customers must wear masks. If you don’t have a mask, come to the counter and get one. 

There, at the supermarket and at the convenience store, a plastic sheet hangs between paying customers and the person at the cash register. But everyone is still touching paper money and coins, and wiping their hands afterwards. This is a new argument for digital currency, better than those high-tech arguments.

The morning paper says there were only 39 new cases of COVID-19 in Tokyo Monday, the lowest number in nearly a month. There have been 100 confirmed fatalities in Tokyo to date. Governor Koike finds these numbers “astonishing.” And they are. Of astonishingly great concern for the Japanese – and astonishing low compared with Europe and America. 

I see hand soap, other cleaning fluids and toilet paper on the shelves. If you get to the store early, you can probably buy what you want. By evening, those products, masks and other things may be sold out. But maybe not. Panic buying has subsided.

The farmer’s market has scaled back and on weekends is actively discouraging visitors from Tokyo. The shop next door has limited the number of customers allowed inside at any one time. Latecomers must wait outside in line, two meters apart.

The local supermarket is fully stocked. Japan is not some grossly mismanaged idiocracy where a weekend issue of the Wall Street Journal reports that “Coronavirus Forces Farmers to Destroy Their Crops” and a Monday USA Today headline reads “Tyson chairman warns of ‘meat shortages’ as industry faces scrutiny for worker safety during coronavirus.”

Contrary to wishful thinking, that other case is not a disciplined, all-in-this-together “World War II moment.” It is a SNAFU, an all-American FUBAR.

Although the Japanese economy compares favorably, still it is running in low gear, the government forced to provide subsidies to idle domestic businesses that would otherwise go bankrupt and to citizens who would otherwise be unable to pay their bills. As in other countries, attempts to rein in government debt are out the window.

Bank of Japan Governor Kuroda has promised to do whatever it takes to prevent the economy from collapsing. This includes raising the ceiling on the Bank’s purchases of corporate debt, providing zero interest rate financing to small and medium-sized enterprises and buying up more government bonds. 

This money creation is required both to keep the economic engine turning over and to prevent the yen from going through the roof as America throws trillions of dollars at the problem. Governor Kuroda – Mr Quantitative Easing – is in his element, the right man in the right job at the right time.

According to the BOJ, the bank will purchase “a necessary amount” of Japanese government bonds without setting an upper limit so that 10-year JGB yields will remain at around zero percent…. In case of a rapid increase in the yields, the bank will purchase JGBs promptly and appropriately.”

In his April 3 op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, “The Coronavirus Pandemic Will Forever Alter the World Order,” Henry Kissinger wrote:

“The crisis effort, however vast and necessary, must not crowd out the urgent task of launching a parallel enterprise for the transition to the post-coronavirus order … a global collaborative vision and program.”

“Drawing lessons from the development of the Marshall Plan and the Manhattan Project,” he continued, “the US is obliged to undertake a major effort in three domains.”

The three are: “First, shore up global resilience to infectious disease.”

“Second, strive to heal the wounds to the world economy.”

Third, safeguard the principles of the liberal world order.”

But it is the US that is abandoning the WHO and it was the US that turned protectionist, abandoning the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement and slapping tariffs on allies and adversaries alike. Without regime change, there is not much room for American leadership left.

Joseph Nye got it right when he wrote for Project Syndicate April2 that “both China and the US are responding to Covid-19 with an inclination toward short-term, zero-sum approaches, and too little attention to international institutions and cooperation.”

Japan, on the other hand, is working the expand the TPP-11 (the earlier envisioned TPP 12 countries minus America) to include Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia and Taiwan.

And it is the East Asian democracies (Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore) that have dealt with Covid-19 most effectively; the East Asian democracies that have emerged as the new guardians of the liberal world order. Prague’s decision to change its Chinese sister city from Beijing to Taipei is a signal of the change.

To be fair, non-democratic Vietnam has also done a good job of containing the virus, and it is a member of the TPP.

That thought serves as a reminder that it’s time to get back to the house and resume telework.

Meanwhile, behind the convenience store, a forklift loads a truck with boxes from a warehouse. Out on the highway, five motorcycles roar past, maintaining social distancing. 

The cherry blossoms are gone and the growth of leaves and grass is almost visible. A woman in a straw hat, bandana and long-sleeved shirt, her trousers tucked into rubber boots, is cutting the grass along the road with a weed whacker.

New York, London and Milan seem far away.

A long-time resident of Tokyo, Scott Foster is an analyst with LightStream Research and the author of Stealth Japan: The Surprise Success of the World’s First Infomerc Economy (FiRe Books).