By Hideki Kitami, staff writer, and Takuya Suzuki, Seoul correspondent
Many foreign media outlets have criticized the Abe administration’s handling of the new coronavirus crisis, pointing especially to the low number of PCR tests conducted. This low number has raised speculation that actual cases far exceed what is reported. In an urgent effort to strengthen Japan’s overseas messaging, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has earmarked 2.4 billion yen in the FY2020 supplementary budget.
On May 4, the digital version of The Guardian (UK) reported in detail on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s extension of the state of emergency. Concerning PCR testing in Japan, which the prime minister talked about during the press conference, the paper wrote that “(Japan) has been criticized for conducting a comparatively low number of Covid-19 tests,” and warned that “that approach has made it more difficult to identify, trace and isolate people who may be asymptomatic or who are displaying only mild symptoms.”
Criticism of Japan’s PCR testing has persisted for a long time. A press conference for overseas media held on April 23 by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) lasted about an hour. More than 20 pointed questions about Japan’s virus response were asked, including those concerning PCR testing. “Isn’t the new coronavirus more prevalent outside hospitals than reported?” asked one reporter.
An April 30 editorial in the digital edition of The Hankyoreh (ROK) reads, “(Japan) has been looking down on South Korea while ignoring our nation’s success in preventing the spread of the virus. Early on in the crisis, the Japanese government and press congratulated themselves on their response.” The ROK aggressively administered PCR tests to its citizens.
The distrust of Japan’s approach to PCR testing is not limited to media outlets. On April 3, the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo issued a health alert urging American citizens to return to the U.S., claiming that “the Japanese Government’s decision to not test broadly makes it difficult to accurately assess the COVID-19 prevalence rate.” The German Embassy in Tokyo issued a similar message at the end of March, expressing the same concern about the low number of PCR tests performed.
MOFA has been particularly nervous about foreign criticism of Japan’s new coronavirus response. On Feb. 26, The New York Times opinion section (digital version) carried an article by Sophia University professor Koichi Nakano, which stated, “The Japanese government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak has been staggeringly incompetent.” Only five days later, a MOFA counterargument appeared in the paper. Authored by MOFA press secretary Masato Ohtaka, it read, “The op-ed’s depiction and characterization of Japan’s fight against the novel coronavirus are unfair.”
Nakano said to the Asahi Shimbun, “The counterargument merely states that ‘Japan is taking appropriate measures’ and doesn’t have substance. I don’t think that is enough to ease readers’ concerns.”
MOFA plans to use some of this year’s supplementary budget to analyze overseas media coverage and social media messages to identify information the ministry deems as false or misleading. In addition, the ministry will employ a variety of means, including visual messages and multilingual content, such as that in English and French, to disseminate information about the Japanese government’s official position and response.
In its April 15 digital version, the Washington Post made a sarcastic comment about the supplementary budget: “Abe’s obsession with the economy and stock market, his battle with regional leaders, and his faith in slick PR strikes many similarities to that of his closest friend on the world stage, President Trump.”
Waseda University professor Etsushi Tanifuji, who specializes in political communications, comments, “The Abe administration announces a new policy out of the blue and then changes it overnight. It doesn’t admit failure and doesn’t give a full explanation. Even if they learn the art (of public relations), they would not be able to convince anyone.”
Foreign media questions and comments
- Is there a point in increasing the number of tests when the current number doesn’t even reach the capacity? (Reuters at April 8 press conference)
- Broaden the criteria for testing and perform tests on asymptomatic patients. (The Washington Post at April 23 press conference)
- (Japan) has been looking down on South Korea while ignoring our nation’s success in preventing the spread of the virus. Early on in the crisis, the Japanese government and press congratulated themselves on their response. (The Hanryoreh digital version on April 30)
Declaration of a state of emergency
- Can the declaration of a state of emergency succeed when requests to stay at home so far have not been effective? (The Times [UK] at April 8 press conference)
- Are you going to consider more restrictive measures if you see a steep rise in the number of cases? (Radio France at April 23 press conference)
- Do you regret that you didn’t issue the emergency declaration earlier? (The Washington Post at April 23 press conference)
- The government’s handling of the Diamond Princess cruise ship in February failed and led to hundreds of infections on board and the risk of further cases on shore. (The New York Times digital version on March 5)
- Japanese politicians and parents questioned the scientific basis [of the sudden school closure at the end of February] and demanded to know how they were expected to both work and care for their children. (The New York Times digital version on March 5)