TOKYO—Desperate old men in Japan desperately seeking to avoid responsibility for their failed coronavirus policies are taking desperate measures. This week, authorities introduced legislation that would punish anyone infected with COVID-19 who refused to be hospitalized with up to a year in jail or fines up to $10,000. It’s being played as a last-ditch crackdown on COVID-19, but some worry that it’s just a cover for failed policy and will make things even worse.
Just as they had at the beginning of the pandemic, members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party are quietly discussing using the crisis to ramrod through legislation which would give the prime minister absolute power in a state of emergency, once again. The virus may prove lethal for Japan’s democracy.
The country that once bragged it had contained the virus due to “the superiority of the Japanese people”—as Minister of Finance Taro Aso proclaimed in June—is now resorting to stiff fines and imprisonment to curb the largest spike in cases yet. Japan will not be the first developed country to institute harsh penalties for violating coronavirus restrictions: France and Italy imposed strict fines on people leaving their homes; the UK allowed for fines of upwards of £10,000 for people breaking, or inciting others to break, the rules or deliberately spreading the virus. In some U.S. states, such as New York, fines of up to $15,000 could be levied for violating mass gathering rules and $1,000 a day for not wearing masks according to NBC News. But no developed country has proposed something as drastic as what Japan has come up with this time, let alone jail someone for not being hospitalized. (However, many countries across the world have used COVID-19 as an excuse to clamp down on the population and strengthen government power, as feared and predicted.)
So far, Japan has not laid down any substantial penalties for those who break quarantine rules, nor has it put laws in place for a ‘lockdown’ in the true sense of the word. The terms the government employed have always been a mere suggestion to self-restrict and never a mandate. Authorities seem to have overestimated “the superiority of the Japanese people” and leaned on it too much; an irony since in a mostly law-abiding country like Japan, stricter regulations would have been welcomed and followed by most, if the government had bothered to impose them.
The planned revision of the Infectious Disease law would make it possible to jail any infected individual, for up to a year, who refuses to be hospitalized; they could also be fined one million yen ($9,640). That’s not only heavy-handed and draconian, it’s a huge problem when many of the hospitals in Japan are starting to fill up with patients. In the same week that the Japan Times had the headline, “Japan considers prison terms, fines for refusing COVID19 hospitalizations”, The Mainichi ran the story, “Tokyo man in 80s dies of COVID19 at home after being rejected by hospitals.” The new legislation seems designed to cement a Catch-22 into law.
Many hospitals in Tokyo, where new coronavirus case numbers have numbered over 1,000 for nine straight days, are refusing to admit patients. If you test positive for COVID-19 and fail to get into a hospital, then do you just wind up in jail? One wonders if the administration of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga would just prefer people die behind bars rather than at home; it would make disposing of the bodies so much faster. The current legislation also adds that individuals who do not cooperate with the virus-tracing investigations of public health officials or tell lies to them, could be fined up 500,000 yen ($4,800). Although, if lying to public officials was a crime, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the current prime minister would already be in heavy debt.
The punitive provisions have been widely criticized by health officials, experts and the opposition parties. They say fear of harsh penalties, for positive results, would discourage people from getting tested in the first place. Yukio Edano, leader of the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, lambasted the government plans, calling them the desperate measures of an administration which fumbled and can’t admit to making mistakes.
“First of all, right now, even if you want to get hospitalized, you can’t get in. You’re asked to stay in a hotel or stay at home until you can [be admitted]. The medical system isn’t ready for this,” Edano declared in Parliament.
He urged the government to take responsibility and focus on containing the spread of the virus, by providing financial support for those affected by the pandemic, widespread testing, and securing enough treatment facilities to handle the growing cases.
How Japan Won and Lost The COVID-19 Wars
If you compare Japan’s handling of the coronavirus to the United States, it looks like it has done amazingly well. There are better standards of comparison in Asia, where the response has been far superior to that of the Western world. Vietnam has had 35 deaths; Singapore, 29. Japan is a miserable failure compared to Taiwan, where only seven people have died. Japan’s death toll passed 5000 people Saturday (Japan time) and is rising rapidly.
Two health experts in Taiwan, who had just returned from Wuhan, first announced to the world on Jan. 16, 2020 that COVID-19 was spreading in China and a danger to us all. The first case outside of China was found in Japan the same day. Taiwan responded swiftly, with massive testing, safety precautions, closing their borders, and raising public awareness. Japan, still led by Abe and eager to hold the 2020 Olympics at all costs, pretended that nothing was wrong.
When the cruise ship The Diamond Princess docked in Japan, we got a first glimpse of how miserable Japan’s response was going to be. Japan, wanting to keep the numbers of infected down for the sake of appearances, insisted on keeping the passengers aboard the ship, turning the close-quarters, poorly ventilated vessel into a floating petri dish. For a short time, the ship was the epicenter of the coronavirus outside of China. Japan compounded the mess by allowing Japanese passengers on the ship to return home by public transport, spreading the disease nationwide. The poorly named Ministry of Health also refused to test their own employees, many of whom had become infected during their time on board. Meanwhile, the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, in a sneak preview of the American carnage to come, was busy covering up their own COVID-19 problems and refusing to test embassy staff who had been exposed to the virus—probably because no CDC kits were available. Possibly, the Embassy also wanted to avoid embarrassing their hosts.
It wasn’t until the Tokyo 2020 Olympics were officially postponed on March 23 that Tokyo’s “Empress,” aka Governor Yuriko Koike, suddenly awoke to the looming disaster. Japan declared a state of emergency, with no draconian policies, some financial compensation—and it worked. The contact tracing and “cluster” approach Japan’s health officials used to contain the virus managed to keep things in check. Unfortunately, Japan squandered its chance to put COVID-19 behind it. The Liberal Democratic Party, which rules Japan, was always more concerned about saving face than saving lives.
The nation promised to increase testing, but they did not. The Ministry of Health actually worked to suppress testing, reasoning the fewer tested, the lower the numbers, and the less need to hospitalize patients. In May, while the government was telling the public it would expand testing, the Ministry of Health was quietly making sure that testing was severely limited.
And so the virus continued to fester.
In the midst of the pandemic, this summer, former Prime Minister Abe and Suga, his second-in-command at the time as cabinet secretary, decided to launch a domestic tourism campaign: Go To Travel, to boost the economy. This was followed by the government subsidized wining and dining plan, Go To Eat. Experts warned the government as early as October that these activities were going to make infections spike; warnings were ignored. In November, public health officials told the administration that it was almost impossible to determine the sources of infection and drastic measures were needed.
The knee-jerk reaction of the Japanese government to the epidemic has been atrocious and embarrassing. Every time there has been a surge, a minority group within Japan gets blamed but never the inept government that can’t get vaccines approved or provide adequate testing. First it was cruise ships and river boats, then foreigners. This was followed by pachinko parlors. Then Koike blamed, “the night village,” a euphemism for people working in bars, nightclubs, host and hostess clubs. Japan’s National Institute of Infectious Diseases could clarify the real sources of infection, but they refuse to make their data public. God forbid that government policy be based on actual data and statistics.
We should expect that Japan’s government will blame the new surge on the variant of COVID-19 first found in England, and perhaps even make up the data to prove it. (The Japanese government has become so infamous for falsifying data, that in a poll published by Nikkei newspaper in January 2019, 79 percent of the public said they didn’t trust government statistics.) It should be noted that one of the first spreaders of the English variant of COVID-19 was a Japanese citizen who returned home and broke quarantine to drink with buddies. The reaction of the Japanese government? Punish foreigners. While Japanese people who break quarantine will be slapped on the wrist, henceforth foreign residents who break quarantine will be permenantly expelled from the nation—a rather disproportionate punishment, but typical xenophobic policy here.
If Only Japan Could Learn From Its Own Taiwan
It should be noted that not all of Japan is experiencing a major surge of COVID-19 or rising death tolls. Shimane Prefecture, the Taiwan of Japan (epidemiologically speaking), has had zero deaths from the novel coronavirus.
According to the Sannin Chuo Shinpo, the local paper, their success has come from taking early measures, widely testing not only the symptomatic carriers but asymptomatic individuals. They would then quarantine those who had positive results, usually in well-equipped hospitals. The results: low rates of infection and the number of designated hospital beds being used for COVID-19 patients is around 7 percent, the lowest in the county. This has been achieved by ignoring the central government’s “save face” policy and doing what every sensible nation in Asia had done to fight the pandemic. Meanwhile, the minister of welfare said on a television program on Jan. 14: “Well, the more testing the better, I think. But, since we’re using tax money for it, there is the problem of cost performance.”
Obviously, he wasn’t referring to the “cost performance” of using nearly a billion dollars to promote domestic travel and dining out, which spread the virus rapidly and widely. It was a good short-term boost for the economy, but under the new haphazardly imposed states of emergency since January, struggling bars and restaurants must now close at 8 p.m.—as if the virus was a nocturnal creature that only came out at night. Bars, clubs, and restaurants are going bankrupt in record numbers.
In short, Japan’s response to COVID-19 then and now, can be summarized in a few of the catchy pseudo-English phrases the government here loves so much.
January to March 2020
Don’t Go To Test! Don’t Worry! Go To Eat! Go To Shop! Go To Olympics!
After the Olympics Were Postponed
Go To Panic! Go Home! Don’t Go Out!
From The Summer Until Last December
Go To Travel! Go To Eat!
And where did we ultimately end up?
Don’t Go Out (after 8pm)! Don’t Travel!
And the new reality awaiting us in Japan is this catchy slogan:
Get Sick, Go To Jail
Aboard The Cruise Ship “The Rising Sun”
It’s been nearly a year since the Diamond Princess debacle showed the world how ill-prepared Japan was to deal with the coronavirus, as we wrote in The Daily Beast. Few lessons have been learned. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party still sees the crisis as an opportunity to gain authoritarian power, and is internally debating legislation to give the Prime Minister complete power in a state of emergency.
The Japanese media repeats the vague pronouncements of the government like they were news and that the problem is going to go away with just a little more effort.
This is what it really feels like to be in Japan right now: we are sailing off-course on The Rising Sun cruiser. We have an epidemic on board and are heading for disaster. The new captain is asleep at the wheel. The sailors are inexperienced. The passengers are getting sick and more are dying each day. The sick bay is overflowing. The only way to keep order seems to be imposing martial law—or maybe swapping out the whole damn crew and bringing in some competent medical professionals?
Singapore or Taiwan, can you lend a hand?
UPDATE: On January 29 (Japan time), the ruling party deleted criminal penalties, including jail time, from pending COVID-19 related legislation following widespread criticism of the plan and numerous embarrassing scandals. Several people have died at home awaiting admission into hospitals since the legislation was proposed and Liberal Democratic Party members were caught wining and dining into the wee hours of the night at hostess clubs, at a time when the country is in a state of emergency. The state of emergency is expected to be extended until the end of February.