Krisenmanagement in der globalen Sars-Cov2 / Covid19 Krise
Autor: Jonas Läster

This week, people in Japan are going to shops, restaurants are open for business, and some children are even back at school. The country has reopened less than 6 weeks after it imposed a national emergency and the Japanese government has declared Japan’s response to Covid-19 a success. Along, Prime Minister Abe Shinzo has praised the “Japanese way” of battling the virus.

Japan’s approach to the pandemic was indeed very different from other countries. Choosing to only engage in a “lockdown light” and limited testing compared to other G7 countries, Japan has surprised the world with low infection and mortality rates. So, what made the “Japanese way” succeed and should other countries try to emulate the Japanese governments response?

Restrained Government Action

In fact, in the early days of Covid-19, the national government’s response was anything but fast. School closures were announced relatively early, on February 27, a month after the cruise ship Diamond Princess was quarantined. Still, border closings and lockdowns were introduced slowly, and testing never reached the extent it did in other countries. Mass testing has been at the centre of South Korea’s strategy and has found adoption in many other countries. In Germany, with a population roughly 2/3 of Japan, experts recommended a daily testing capacity of 200,000. Japan, however, never increased its capacity to more than 24,000 a day.

Prime Minister Abe (front), attending a roundtable with opposition politicians on May 27, 2020. Source: Prime Minister of Japan and his cabinet

This hesitance could be explained by the looming Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. Japan had been preparing for the last 5 years and during my stay in Tokyo in 2019, advertisements were omnipresent, and the countrywide euphoria was accompanied by substantial construction projects. The effect on tourism, a rare growth sector in Japan’s struggling economy, was expected to be enormous. Now, as buzz was being replaced by nervous tension, it seemed that Prime Minister Abe Shinzo was trying to thread the needle, fearing a strong reaction might deter foreign visitors from attending the games. This was, of course, based on the assumption that the games would still be happening, which seemed less likely by the day.
The government declared a state of emergency for 7 of Japan’s 47 prefectures on April 7, 2 weeks after the IOC and Abe had agreed to reschedule the games. This lockdown was soon expanded to the whole country, but observers remained skeptical. Under the Japanese emergency law, governors may request citizens to close businesses and refrain from certain activities but have no legal remedy to sanction transgressions.

Cumulative number of patients diagnosed with coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Japan as of May 29, 2020. Source: Statista

Yet, despite the very restrained intervention of the government, cases of Covid-19 did not reach the exponential growth of other countries. While the low testing rate may leave many cases undetected, it is notable that despite Japan’s population being the oldest in the world, we have not seen mass burials like in Italy. This poses the question: What compensated for the relative inaction of Japan’s government?

The Culture-Factor

Culture as an orientation system for a specific group influences norms, thinking, and behavior of that group (Thomas 2005). It is not the only determinant of behavior but for Japan’s dealing with Covid-19, three cultural factors are worthy of consideration: high-context communication, collectivism, and Japanese hygiene standards.

The closing of schools was debated hotly because of the unclear effect of Covid-19 on children but provided an interesting case-study for implicit communication. A poll tracking people’s behavior found the share of respondents who had changed their behavior rose to 60% shortly after the announcement. The statement might not have contained an explicit order to stay home, yet people decreased daily trips and increased remote working and studying almost immediately. If the government’s goal was to reduce the spread of the virus, then this “side effect” might have had an even bigger effect than the actual order.

Once the national emergency was passed, many commentators criticized the lack of sanctions for shops that would not follow the closure “requests” issued by governors. Indeed, Germans or Americans may prioritize individual desires unless a law restricts one’s actions. Japanese, however, define themselves more by relation to the people and groups around them. In the case of disobeying the closure request, social sanctioning (e.g. people stop going to a certain shop) and self-policing would replace fines or arrest much more effectively than in other more individualistic countries.

Japanese Covid-19 Info Poster: Infectious Disease Measures – Thank you for cooperating. Source: Japan Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare

However, the most relevant cultural factors may be Japanese hygiene standards. Wearing masks in everyday situations is common because it displays responsibility, shields from allergens, and even hides a bad make-up day. Furthermore, rigorous handwashing (especially during flu-season) is encouraged and even requested by hosts. Open-access hand sanitizer is found at the entrance of malls, in bathrooms, and is sold in every convenience store. Many of these standards had to be communicated, cultivated, and even enforced in other countries, and time was lost. In Japan, because these actions were already ingrained in people’s daily routines, hand-to-face infection was likely much lower.

What can we learn from this?

What Japan teaches us is that government action does not happen in a vacuum and is thus only one factor in any plan to tackle Covid-19. It is unlikely that the actions taken by federal government alone were sufficient to stop the spread in Japan. Next to culture, analysts point to governors stepping up, effective localized contact tracing, and a strong health care system contributing to Japan’s temporary success. As Covid-19 spreads around the world, we have to understand the environment in which decisions are made because when the margin of error is human lives, we cannot engage in trial-and-error with one-size-fits-all solutions.

In the case of Japan and the Abe administration, it seems that people are not convinced of the “Japanese way”. Abe’s approval rating has dropped to 29%, a record low and 57% of Japanese disapprove of his handling of the outbreak. Japan’s population is old and if it is hit by a second wave, Japan’s health care system remains vulnerable. One thing is clear: the next time, the government will not get the benefit of the doubt.

*Dieser Beitrag ist im Rahmen des Kurses Krisenmanagement in der globalen Stars-Cov2 / Covid19 Krise entstanden.

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