The Yomiuri Shimbun
The novel coronavirus pandemic has revealed various weaknesses in how Japan handles emergency situations and how society reacts to them. Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer Tsuyoshi Oyabu interviewed Shinichi Kitaoka, professor emeritus of the University of Tokyo, who pointed out that Japan’s slow and inadequate response to the pandemic is rooted in its dependency on the United States and the public’s misinterpretation of “democracy.”
Shinichi Kitaoka: There is a viewpoint that authoritarian states are superior to democratic states in regard to measures against infections with the novel coronavirus. To contain the spread of infections, China heavy-handedly enforced the lockdown of Wuhan. A leader taking a response by exercising his or her strong leadership in the event of a contingency is also possible under a democratic system: Taiwan and South Korea took strong measures in the initial stage, holding down the spread of infections to a great extent.
Despite the fact that Japan has experienced the Great Hanshin Earthquake and the Great East Japan Earthquake, the country’s assumptions in the event of an emergency were insufficient and the nation was unable to respond to the coronavirus with compulsory measures. The fact that Japan has continued to be a junior partner to the United States (or an inferior ally in the U.S. alliance) and that it has “left its own safety up to the United States” is probably one of the factors. Rather than a fault of democracy itself, it is a fault in “Japan’s democracy.”
The government, when deciding on the measures against the coronavirus, also may have been deficient in its stance of listening to opinions with a scientific basis from scholars and experts. Politicians are not necessarily well-informed in every sphere and they should respect expert knowledge.
That Japan’s anti-infection measures have proved more effective than those taken by other democratic countries in Europe has much to do with the habitual manners of the people and their voluntary cooperation.
In regard to democracy, most Japanese have a misunderstanding that it is to “attach value to the immediate interest of each individual.” They have been living without understanding that, during an emergency, the public interest might be impaired unless private rights are restricted. It is important to understand this point and move ahead with legal arrangements to prepare for a future calamity.
A leader’s exercising of strong leadership at the time of an emergency and the examining of the leader’s responses should be carried out as a set of actions.
Authoritarian countries will not accept any criticism and will assert its infallibility. A leader’s mistake would lead to the collapse of the regime, so there would be no examination to be made. Democratic government, which examines itself to make revisions that accumulate, stands superior to authoritarian government if one takes the long view. Now is when the relative superiority of governing systems is being put to the test, and if we want to demonstrate the superiority of democracy, we must make after-the-fact examinations.
Unless those countries and regions that believe in freedom and democracy join hands and win the trust of developing countries, it can lead to an era when China dominates. China has been deploying health care diplomacy by supplying a large amount of masks and protective clothing to other countries. There is a possibility of those economically weak countries bending to China, saying, “We need assistance now more than anything.”
It is possible that in the worst-case scenario, Japan, if its economy is slow in recovering, could be overtaken by South Korea in terms of nominal GDP per capita. South Korea has historically been pro-China. There is even such a possibility that the United States, if its national power waned, may make a compromise with China and give up on Japan. As as a result, Tokyo will be forced to make various concessions to Beijing.
Efforts on the part of democratic countries are needed. While the United States, which once was a leader in democracy, intensifies its “America first” policy, Japan must take the leadership in strengthening the solidarity of freedom and the democratic system.
—Kitaoka specializes in the political and diplomatic history of Japan. After assuming such posts as professor at the University of Tokyo, ambassador of Japan to the United Nations and chairman of the Japan-China Joint History Research Committee, Kitaoka has held his current title since 2012. Since 2015, he has also been the president of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA).