Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga faces huge costs if the games don't go ahead. Photo: AFP/The Yomiuri Shimbun

When the US Embassy in Tokyo warns American expatriates to beware of Covid-19 in Japan, you know things must be dire. Of course, many might deride the warning as the pot calling the kettle black.

The US, after all, is leading the world in deaths and caseloads as political chaos looms after November’s presidential election result was disputed by incumbent Donald Trump.

According to figures from Worldometers, the US has suffered 12,070,712 cases and 258,333 deaths, with 779 deaths per million of population.

Japan has suffered 122,966 infections but has lost just 922 dead, with 15 deaths per million. Making this doubly impressive is that Japan is home to the world’s oldest population. And Japan’s government and society is holding firm with no sign of instability.

Compared to the virus-ravaged European Union, where weary residents of Western Europe are suffering through yet another lockdown, Japan may look positively idyllic. Even so, Japan – at least by Japanese standards – is in trouble.

Cases over the last week continued to hit record highs that extend well beyond those of the first wave. On Thursday, new cases climbed by 2,385, a record.

During the virus’ first wave, Japan  – like its neighbors China, Taiwan and South Korea – contained the pandemic far more successfully than North America or Western Europe.

While multiple foreign critics accused Japan of covering up deaths in the early stages of the virus, no proof has emerged. The question now must be whether the complex strategies Japan deployed to successfully contain the first wave virus will be able to contain the larger numbers of the second wave.

Students keeping distance and wearing face masks take part in an entrance ceremony at the Yokohama Municipal Nakayama Elementary School in Kanagawa prefecture in April in Japan. Photo: AFP/The Yomiuri Shimbun

The resurgence comes at the worst possible moment for an economy that was – as of Q3 – finally accelerating out of the recession of the first half. Japan’s GDP registered 5% growth quarter-on-quarter, and 21.4% year-on-year.  

The second wave is doing no favors for Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga. Having taken office on September 14, his honeymoon is over. Currently, Japan seems torn between economic activity and anti-virus moves, such as declaring alerts while continuing travel campaigns.

Suga’s inability or reluctance to orchestrate effective policy responses is already raising questions over his leadership.

Alert versus travel

Suga announced that Japan was going on to “maximum alert” on Thursday. But what that amounts to is unclear. Suga made clear that his government was not planning any additional social distancing.

In Tokyo, while virtually everyone is masked, there continues to be near-normal commercial and social interactions in the retail and entertainment districts, sources told Asia Times.

While it is not clear what is igniting the second wave, the rising numbers come weeks after crowds of partygoers gathered in downtown Tokyo to celebrate Halloween – a surprisingly popular festival in Japan in recent years – on October 31.

Japan has also been running a nationwide holiday promotion, “Go To Travel,” since the summer. Under it, the government shares the costs of those who travel to domestic tourist destinations. So far, some 40 million trips have been subsidized.

Expansion of Japan’s tourism sector was a central policy plank of the Shinzo Abe administration. Sector players anticipated a 2020 boom from overseas travelers thanks to the Olympics. That fizzled after Covid forced the event’s postponement to 2021, putting pressure on the sector.

Tokyo responded with “Go To Travel”  but critics say the program is a vector for the virus. On Friday afternoon, Suga said his government had consulted on the matter and had decided to continue the campaign, despite growing worries about the virus’ resurgence, Kyodo News reported.

Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is trapped between handling the virus and keeping a fragile recovery on course. Photo: AFP/The Yomiuri Shimbun

So what is the way forward?

Earlier this year, conspiracy theorists and some foreign media alleged without evidence that Abe’s administration was hiding Covid-19 dead, or fudging numbers. While many, including medical professionals, are puzzled by Japan’s relatively low death rates from the pandemic, the conspiracy theories, absent proof, have largely evaporated.

It now appears that Japan’s early-stage, but difficult-to-grasp, pandemic control strategy was effective.

Tactics included minimizing hospital overload among those without serious symptoms by keeping tests low, while tracing cluster infections by leveraging efficient local health centers. For those with symptoms, sound treatment protocols, developed to combat respiratory diseases among senior citizens of the world’s oldest countries, were deployed.

A key element was that all the tactics were underwritten by good public practices. Japan’s populace willingly upgraded habitual cultural practices of mask wearing and frequent washing as defenses against infection.

But now that numbers are rising again, Suga’s apparent reluctance to deploy florid countermeasures is looking weak – particularly compared to the popular, proactive and outspoken governor of Tokyo, Yuriko Koike.

Granted, Koike’s responses are hardly dynamic emergency measures. But her low-cost, folksy measures appear well designed to leverage the proven willingness of the Japanese public to behave with common sense.  

They include the “five keeps.” Keep groups small; keep meals short; keep voices down; keep portions separate; and keep rooms ventilated and disinfected.

However, even Koike may be suffering policy conflict. On Friday, Tokyo follows other prefectures by launching “Go To Eat” coupons which subsidize meals at restaurants.

Suga’s conundrum

These issues and apparent policy contradictions raise questions over Suga’s leadership and possibly his future.

After taking over power from Abe in an intra-party plebiscite that was necessitated by Abe’s illness, Suga had been expected to call a snap general election.

Taking advantage of the early popularity of his administration, he could have set his leadership in stone by winning public endorsement, rather than simply a party’s vote. Without that, Suga will be a caretaker prime minister who has to fight a general election on or before October 22, 2021.

Yasuo Naito, a Tokyo-based editor, sees two good timings for an earlier election. Early next year or after the Summer Olympic Games, assuming they are held.

Logo of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics at Tokyo Metropolitan Government headquarters in Shinjuku Ward. Photo: AFP/The Yomiuri Shimbun

Tokyologists reckon Suga needs to deliver policy achievements such as a swift digitization of bureaucratic procedures or a cut in mobile phone fees before throwing himself on the public’s mercy.

I think he was looking for a couple of wins to put on the board to say ‘I am a real reformer,’ and I think he has missed his opportunity, so I think he will be a short-termer,” William Pesek, Asia Times’ business editor, said from Tokyo. 

“He has not been that hands on, and people have been asking the question, ‘Where’s Suga?’”

Still, Suga’s ratings remain reasonable and may benefit from a macro recovery. The Japanese economy had been shrinking all year, but recent figures show it is in a belated but impressive recovery. In the third quarter, GDP rebounded by 5%, quarter-on-quarter, and 21.4% on an annualized basis.

However, Suga has not been touting the numbers.

“The Q3 data is quite nice, but it is too early to celebrate,” said Naito. “If he wants to do some PR on this, his opponents will say he is very short-term.”  

The positive results may even represent a poisoned chalice.

Like Abe, Suga is economically focused, suggesting a reluctance to order pandemic counter-measures that could stifle the economy. With growth back on track, that tendency may be stronger than ever.

Lim Eun-jung, a Japan watcher at South Korea’s Kongjoo University, expressed sympathy for Suga’s predicament.

“For any country, the Covid-19 situation versus the economic situation is a trade-off,” she told Asia Times. “I understand why he is reluctant to be more aggressive in containing the virus, and Tokyo wants to hold the Olympics next year, so they want to keep economic activities and human mobility going.”