Japan's fight against Covid-19 hinges on old 'system of irresponsibility'

PM Abe's 'Japan Model' looks successful but its basic underpinnings are troubling

When Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared the end of the Covid-19 state of emergency last month, he could not resist adding: "Without enforcing the stay-at-home law, we succeeded in keeping the coronavirus under control in about 11/2 months in a uniquely Japanese way. We demonstrated the power of the 'Japan Model'."

What exactly is this "Japan Model"? And is it in fact a success?

Mr Abe's Japan Model stands on two pillars: a cluster-based approach to testing for Covid-19 and the expectation that people will voluntarily stay home and shutter their businesses in response to a request from government.

Based on available statistics, Japan has fared better than most other developed nations even though the case numbers have been rising of late. Despite large numbers of elderly people in a population of more than 126 million, the death toll was 971 and the number of infections just over 18,300 as of yesterday. Britain, with a population roughly half of Japan's at 66.6 million, recorded over 43,500 deaths and more than 311,000 cases.

Mr Tanaka Mikihito, a member of Japan's voluntary advisory group of virus experts, has stated that "even experts don't know the reason" why the virus had only a moderate impact in Japan. Some people have raised the possibility that the coronavirus deaths were not accurately accounted for, given Japan's decision to opt for limited testing. The evidence is suggestive - for the month of April, Tokyo reported just over 100 Covid-19 deaths but the mortality data showed around 1,000 more deaths than average.

The second pillar is the more likely - and worrisome - answer to Japan's low virus numbers. Uniquely it relies on certain Japanese cultural traits that have worked well, at least for now, but have been deadly in the past and pose a danger to the country's future.

To understand how it works, consider how Mr Abe managed the Covid-19 crisis without really managing at all. Unlike in many other countries, there was no mandatory lockdown. All he did was to request that people "cooperate" with the government in not going out and not opening businesses.

Why this light-touch approach? Some assume that this was due to the current Constitution not having a strong emergency law. Others speculate that the government did not want to pay compensation to businesses if it forced them to stay closed.


But the most convincing answer can be drawn from the argument of Professor Izuru Makihara based on his close observation of the decision-making process in Mr Abe's administration.

Prof Makihara, a University of Tokyo expert on public administration, noted that the government could not make coherent decisions in response to Covid-19 because "the government was so divided that who had the responsibility of deciding what was obscured".

Consequently, Mr Abe "left the explanation of the official policy to the medical expert team", Prof Makihara continued, which "made it look like the experts were responsible for tailoring and promoting the policy". This also meant that if things went badly wrong, the experts would be first in the line of fire.

Japan's Infectious Disease Control Law made the crisis response even more confusing because it does not clearly delineate decision-making roles between the prefectural governors and Mr Abe's administration. It allows the governors to request of people what they consider to be necessary. But it also allows the administration to ask the governors to act on its wishes in the name of "guidance" or "coordination".

The result - friction, disagreement and disarray. For example, Mr Abe, anxious to show leadership in the face of criticism on his lack thereof, abruptly decided to shut schools nationwide in late February, with the Education Ministry reportedly being caught off guard.

However, the Prime Minister technically had no authority then to order a closure of schools. A mad scramble ensued, with different cities adopting different decisions. The mayor of Chiba, Mr Toshihito Kumagai, who disagreed, tweeted that the universal school closure request "could result in a breakdown of Japanese society".

A woman at an arts festival in Kyoto on Saturday. No one in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's administration wanted to take responsibility during the Covid-19 crisis, and the responsibility of stopping the outbreak seems to have been transferred to individuals, says the writer. PHOTO: EPA-EFE


No one in the administration wanted to take responsibility during the crisis. This is the real fundamental dynamic behind the government's Japan Model.

The other side to this model is that the responsibility of stopping the outbreak seems to have been transferred to individuals.

As Professor Mitsuru Fukuda, a member of the government's coronavirus task force, sees it: "The Japanese people are obedient to the government and weak to collective pressure. A mere request would dictate popular behaviour."

Similarly, Mr Yasutoshi Nishimura, the minister heading the task force, stated: "Making individual effort even without being forced to do so is the very DNA of the Japanese people."

While seemingly full of praise for the average citizen, the flip side of this message is that those who failed to accede to the "request" were somehow "un-Japanese".

The Japanese public did not disappoint. Some in fact went overboard, publicly blaming and shaming those they deemed irresponsible for not agreeing to the request. A shopping mall in downtown Tokyo that stayed open was branded "the Killer Mall". A woman staff member said people treated her as if she were "a traitor".

As Finance Minister Taro Aso sees it, Japan's success in curbing the spread of the virus is due to its people's higher level of "mindo", a controversial term evocative of civilisational superiority. Left unsaid is the societal pressure to live up to expectations.

Given Japan's apparent Covid-19 success, isn't this passing of responsibility a tolerable thing?


No, it is not. It's dangerous. It carries a disturbing echo of the Japanese government and the public's actions during World War II.

In the 1930s, Japan escalated its aggressive territorial expansion into a world war. But it seems that no one Japanese ever took responsibility for the decisions made. At the Tokyo war crimes trials, an American prosecutor was left nonplussed, remarking that "no leader said he wanted to start this war... all said they were powerless".

Analysing the trial documents, Mr Masao Maruyama, an influential political scientist, concluded that the Japanese political decision-making mechanism was designed to obscure the lines of responsibility so that everyone could, in a sense, escape blame. He called this a "system of irresponsibility", and traced its roots to Japan's Confucian hierarchical social order and Shinto-related imperial system of the past.

In this spirit of dispersing responsibility, war leaders emphasised that Japan's victory depended on the devotion of individual citizens to the cause. As a result, anyone deemed to have fallen short of the war effort, even families without boys, were labelled un-Japanese, socially bullied and ostracised, and in some cases arrested. Without accountable decision-makers or dissent, the Japanese government pursued the war. Only the atomic bombs stopped it.

What, you might ask, about the high-profile resignations of Japanese chief executives and ministers who take responsibility for scandals or mistakes within their organisations? On the face of it they appear to be responsible individuals. However, the resignation itself results from having not sufficiently taken responsibility for what was going on in their organisations, often due to intentionally ambiguous decision-making processes.

Mr Abe's proud Japan Model is just the latest manifestation of a traditional system of irresponsibility. Prior to Covid-19, Japan's troubled management of its nuclear power plants was also similarly hobbled by diffuse lines of accountability.

Embedded though it is, the system can and may change.

Pointing out that the Infectious Disease Control Law has "obscured the responsibility-sharing mechanism", Mr Hirofumi Yoshimura, the young governor of Osaka, has called for the law to be revised, to pin down the decision-makers and hold them accountable.

Prime Minister Abe's approval rating is dropping, while Mr Yoshimura's popularity is surging. The people may be getting wise to the dangers of deflection at the top and waking up to what would work better for Japan, particularly during a national crisis: "a system of responsibility".

• Dr Fumiko Sasaki is a faculty member of the School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University, and a visiting scholar at the Reischauer Center, Johns Hopkins University, specialising in Japanese politics and East Asian security.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 30, 2020, with the headline Japan's fight against Covid-19 hinges on old 'system of irresponsibility'. Subscribe