Japanese Prime Minister Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in a face mask. Photo: AFP / The Yomiuri Shimbun

The heroic and villainous locations of the Covid-19 age are becoming apparent. The former category includes Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan.

In the latter category is China. Beijing may have brought the virus under control but it has done so in a distinctly authoritarian way. Or has it? Major questions hang over the data. 

Japan falls uneasily between these extremes. The island nation is a mature and stable democracy with lower rates of death from Covid-19 than neighboring South Korea. That’s despite having over twice its population and the oldest citizenry on earth – a demographic that makes Japan uniquely vulnerable to this pandemic.

But Japan has not been faring well in terms of recognition or respect in either mainstream or social media commentary. In most discourse, Japan is either ignored or paired with China. It has even faced diplomatic criticism for its response to the novel coronavirus.

Why so?

What, no testing?

The primary charge is that Japan is purposefully keeping down new case statistics by refraining from widespread testing.

This is less an allegation than a statement of fact. Japan’s policy from the start has been to avoid clogging hospital waiting rooms with every concerned citizen who emits a cough. It is a legitimate strategy whether one approves or not.

But the true measure of success or failure in the fight against Covid-19 is hardly the number of infections. It is total deaths – or, arguably even more importantly, critical cases, as it is they that overwhelm medical facilities. 

Japan’s pool of hospitals has been meeting demand. Widespread accusations of suppressed or hidden death statistics have yet to move beyond the unsubstantiated, the farcical and the urban myth. In short, there is no evidence.

There are arguably two primary reasons why Japan is not seen as a source of inspiration in the ongoing global fight to bring Covid-19 under control.

Firstly, the reasons it has succeeded (thus far; this crisis is not over) are contested, ambiguous, unclear. Secondly, its Covid-19 experience got off to an inauspicious start.

Japan’s first brush with Covid-19 was the Diamond Princess cruise ship quarantine. The Western response was largely one of ridicule, with frequent intonations of “just like Fukushima” – a reference to the supposedly disastrous reaction of Japanese officialdom to the 2011 nuclear meltdown.

Passengers on the Diamond Princess had a cruise they won’t forget and one which cast a shadow on the entire cruise industry. Photo: AFP/The Yomiuri Shimbun

Then, as discharged passengers made their way into the Tokyo subway system, derision grew. Waves of death were predicted. They did not eventuate. 

Attention then shifted from Japan to South Korea, Italy, Europe and the United States. Only in late March did Japan start to enter an unwanted limelight again. 

The Tokyo governor’s March 25 announcement of “emergency measures” was in fact largely an urgent plea for the public to behave responsibly, given the lack of enforcement mechanisms at her disposal.

However, having come a day after the postponement of the Olympics, it is frequently treated with suspicion. Surely, the accusations go, Japanese officialdom had been hiding the true scale of the outbreak to keep the Games alive?

Perhaps not.

Late March was when the cherry blossoms were in bloom. On the weekend of March 21-22, Tokyo descended upon cherry blossom hot spots as if Covid-19 had never occurred. The inevitable result was a rise in infections. 

Social media critics then predicted that Tokyo was just a week or two behind ravaged New York City. That assumption ignored a salient point. Japan had, in fact, begun its Covid-19 fight weeks ahead of the US.

So, in order to be behind New York’s deadly curve, Japan must have spent several weeks doing something right. 

Fukushima, redux

In turning to why Japan has remained relatively unscathed so far, the start point, ironically, is those derided events in 2011 when Japan faced a terrible and invisible threat. There were, in fact, “two Fukushimas.” The first was the institutional response; the second was the response of the Japanese people. 

Although it ultimately succeeded in achieving the stabilization of a potential catastrophe within a single week, the reaction by the national government and Tokyo Electric Power Company, the key utility, was slovenly and confusing.

As for public reaction: The Japanese stayed calm while much of the world descended into abject panic. 

Japan’s relative tranquility was founded on three understandings that many outside of Japan did not grasp.

This handout picture taken by Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) on March 15, 2011 shows white smoke rising from the unit 3 reactor building at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant at Okuma town in Fukushima prefecture. Photo: AFP/Tepco

1. There could not have been a “coverup” because you cannot hide radiation – any more than a non-authoritarian government can hide the bodies of Covid-19 casualties. Any individual with a Geiger counter can measure radiation.

2. A chemical element, radon, assures a Geiger counter of getting a positive reading at pretty much any location on earth. The presence of a reading greater than zero, therefore, should not be cause for immediate panic.

3. A near-superstitious fear of the invisible threat of radiation means panic thresholds are low. Thus, if we are told that a reading is 40 times greater than the accepted standard, it is prudent to wait for confirmation of what that actually means from an expert, rather than fleeing to an airport. 

While the term was disparaging, “just like Fukushima” actually proved quite prescient, as the Japanese public has again come to the fore. 

Public power

Lockdown has become the default policy measure for dealing with Covid-19. Lockdown, however, is of limited necessity for populations that can diligently do social distancing. Addiitonally, social distancing is less of an imperative for those more habituated to hand washing.

Assuming that everyone is or can be a carrier is the best protection. This the Japanese public both understands and applies.

The real weapon in Japan’s arsenal is that nothing really new was required after Covid-19 appeared. Attention to basic hygiene is part and parcel of the flu season. Hand sanitizer, which Japanese first used en masse after the Fukushima meltdown, never fully disappeared. In short, much of what was required was simply ratcheting up that which already existed.  

Hence, incessant criticism of the Japanese government response has a measure of immateriality. Governmental directives, such as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Thursday proclamation extending the state of emergency to the whole country, were never going to have the same impact in Japan as in the West. 

To be noted as well is the quality of the Japanese health system. Universally available and well versed in the treatment of respiratory conditions due to Japan’s elderly demographic, it is frequently rated as one of the best in the world.

At present, it appears that the March complacency blip has been successfully counteracted. Explosive growth in infections has not occurred.

Shinjuku Station in Tokyo is devoid of the usual crowds as Japan enters a state of emergency. Photo: AFP

According to data from the John Hopkins University at time of writing, Japanese case numbers – the country, with a population of 126 million, has 8,626 infections – are rising, but remain at a manageable level. Deaths stand at 178. 

For comparison: South Korea (population: 51 million) has 10,613 cases and 229 deaths. The UK (population: 66 million) has 103,093 cases and 13, 729 deaths. Germany (population: 83 million) has 135, 633 cases and 3,856 deaths. The US (population: 328 million) has 640,291 cases. In New York City alone there have been 10, 899 deaths. 

Those last two statistics are particularly striking, given that both Berlin and Washington have un-diplomatically criticized Tokyo’s lack of testing. 

Al Johnson, an ex-US serviceman and long-term Asia watcher has written: “Japan is the girl that stayed skinny despite eating junk food and not exercising. Half want to ignore her; the other half hate her.” 

To be fair, those who ignore Japan can be excused. The primary expedient of the South Korean model, “test, test, test,” is easy to comprehend and apply. The Japanese model? Less so. 

What, then, of the haters? They failed to foresee in those Diamond Princess days that we would be “Fukushima-ing” together; they would get to show Japan how it’s done. Their “Fukushima” chant, may yet be replaced with “Once again, American First: America Number one.”

Paul de Vries is an Australian writer and educator based in Japan. His book “Remembering Santayana: the Lessons Unlearnt from the War Against Japan” is available from Amazon.