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Looking for “Factor X”–the factor limiting COVID-19 impact in Japan

  • May 28, 2020
  • , Sankei , p. 10
  • JMH Translation

The state of emergency issued by the government in early April in response to the spread of COVID-19 was finally lifted for all prefectures. The possibility that the virus may spread again remains a great concern, but people apparently feel that the first wave of the virus is subsiding for now.


Currently, the number of those infected in the U.S. is about 1.6 million, the largest in the world, and deaths from COVID-19 have reached 100,000 there. Many major European countries have tens of thousands of COVID-19 deaths. On the other hand, there are only about 850 deaths from the virus in Japan as of late May. Some experts regard the figure as not worthy of notice because the number of casualties in Asian countries is generally low. But there is no doubt that from a global perspective, Japan is managing to keep a low level of fallout from the virus.


What has contributed to Japan’s “success?” The country did not take high-handed measures, as in the case of other countries, like a lockdown or aggressive tracking of the infected by intruding upon people’s privacy. On the contrary, Japan has done nothing more than expect people to cooperate with the government’s request to restrict their activities. From a global perspective, this is a very mild measure. This makes it difficult for experts to narrow down reasons for Japan’s success and they can only share their opinions in a perplexed manner.


The monthly magazine Bungei Shunju arranged a dialogue entitled “Virus vs. Japanese” between former Osaka Governor Toru Hashimoto and Professor Shinya Yamanaka, the director of the Center for iPS Cell Research and Application, Kyoto University. The latest issue opens with their dialogue. “What I am very interested in now is that there must be reasons why the spread of the novel coronavirus is slow in Japan compared with Western countries,” said Professor Yamanaka during the dialogue. “I don’t know why and I call these unknown reasons “Factor X.”


The professor cited the following hypothetical factors: Japanese people’s hygiene practices such as wearing masks and taking baths; the absence of such customs as  shaking hands and hugging and the tendency not to converse in a loud voice; an unexpected effect of the vaccination of bacillus Calmette-Guerin (BCG) given to Japanese in their infancy to prevent tuberculosis; and the hypothesis that a mild type of the novel coronavirus had already spread in Japan before March and many Japanese became immune to the virus. “If we can identify “Factor X, it will definitely be a game changer in the fight against the coronavirus,” said Yamanaka. In this way, the professor stressed the importance of conducting antibody tests on a large scale to identify “Factor X” as soon as possible.


On the other hand, in response to the question what is the largest factor that contributed to getting the first wave of virus infection under control, Professor Kentaro Iwata of Kobe University, a leading virus expert in Japan, said, “Simply, the general public limited outings.” He presented his view that under the state of emergency, changes in people’s behavior resulted in a significant reduction in the spread of the virus (comment made for the online news site “BuzzFeed” on May 25). But that was achieved not because of the people’s willingness to follow the government’s request, but because of the strong “group pressure” exerted by the Japanese community for every individual to act like everyone else. For example, when a person sees everyone else wearing a mask, they feel obligated to do the same; when everyone else stops commuting by train, they won’t take the train either. “It was fortunate that everyone acted in the same way all at once in the latest case, but the reverse is also true,” warns the professor. The virus expert is concerned about a backlash and the spread of the virus again after lifting of the state of emergency.


Certainly, the nation’s cooperation in restricting outings during the Golden Week holidays was remarkable as seen in the surprisingly low number of people who used public transportation. But at the same time, this has created the phenomenon of the “self-restraint police,” persons who punish or harass individuals or business operators who don’t stay home or continue operating their business. This includes the following negative aspects: people watching one other, with the result that communities become stifling; people then complain about such communities; people become frustrated or depressed because their acceptance of inconvenience is taken for granted; and people feel things are unfair and become aggressive. The Japanese government avoided taking high-handed measures and solely relied on “group pressure,” which turned out to be effective. Despite the desirable result of such measures, the people give extremely low marks to the government’s measures compared with other countries. This is a situation unique to Japan.


Regarding this unusual way to conduct politics, Professor Shigeki Uno of the University of Tokyo (political philosophy) explains in his contribution “Japanese politics in the time of coronavirus” to the weekly online magazine “Shukan Dokushojin” (Weekly Readers)“ dated May 15, “The spread of the novel coronavirus played the role of litmus paper in reflecting the politics of various countries.” During the latest crisis, the government’s expert panel and scientists of the Cluster Response Team of the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare made their presence felt more than lawmakers did. While they significantly influenced the people’s behavior, these experts became the target of criticism. Professor Uno said, however, “It is lawmakers including the prime minister, not experts, who should take responsibility for various coronavirus-related measures.”


This is because “it is quite natural for experts to propose their opinions based on their knowledge and scholarly views,” said Professor Uno. “It is lawmakers who decide which opinions to adopt and to implement as policy.” In Japanese politics, however, “It is often the case that lawmakers in a particular field don’t listen to experts and make important decisions,” the professor continues. “And lawmakers conveniently use experts to justify their policies, making it ambiguous who is responsible.” As a result, experts’ knowledge is not appropriately used and sometimes lawmakers slough off onto experts their own accountability to the public.


With the social impact of the novel coronavirus expected to grow from now, lawmakers will be required to make more difficult decisions to maintain a good balance among rebuilding the economy, securing the safety of the people, and maintaining individual freedom. Under the circumstances, how long can the current fragile decision-making system function? Professor Uno asks a weighty question: “Under the current trilemma of having to choose among safety, economy and freedom, can Japanese politics fully demonstrate accountability, make responsible decisions, and meet the expectations of the people?”

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