Why has Japan not imposed a lockdown, like China and the rest of the world?

Japan has not implemented a lockdown or harsh measures, but it has generally managed to keep its coronavirus cases and death toll low. How has it managed to do this and what does it say about its political system? Professor Zhang Yun of Niigata University examines Japan’s pandemic-management style.
A woman wearing a face mask walks at a square of a park in Yokohama, 10 May 2020. (Philip Fong/AFP)
A woman wearing a face mask walks at a square of a park in Yokohama, 10 May 2020. (Philip Fong/AFP)

Taken against other developed countries, Japan’s measures against the coronavirus have stood out for its “two withouts” and “two fews” — without a lockdown or strong controls, there have been few confirmed cases and few deaths.

Japan sees things differently from the rest of the world.

On 7 April, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced a month-long state of emergency covering seven regions in Japan, later expanding it to the entire country. On 4 May, he announced that the state of emergency would be extended to the end of May. Throughout, Japan “requested” its citizens to reduce contact through self-discipline, without implementing punishment measures, and clearly stating that there would be no lockdown.

Japan sees things differently from the rest of the world. On the one hand, the self-discipline and cleanliness of the Japanese have led to the uniquely Japanese “zen”-style outbreak model. On the other hand, there is a lingering suspicion that confirmed cases are low because of too little testing, while the effectiveness of declaring a state of emergency with no mandatory enforcement is highly questionable.

Why did Japan not announce a state of emergency and take mandatory measures sooner, like other countries? In other words, many people have one question: why is Abe, who is portrayed in news reports as a political strongman, so “soft”? Besides the self-discipline and clean habits of the Japanese, I think that there is a deeper political logic to the unique model of the Japanese.

shinzo abe
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks during a news conference in Tokyo, 4 May 2020. Japan extended its nationwide state of emergency until May 31. (Eugene Hoshiko/Bloomberg)

Japan’s political sensitivities

With the rapid worsening of the outbreak in Europe and the US, various countries rushed to implement strict lockdowns to restrict the movement of their citizens, with harsh penalties for those who did not stay at home. On 13 March, French President Emmanuel Macron declared the country was “at war”. Two days later, the country was put on lockdown, with residents required to download a permission form from the Ministry of the Interior in order to go out, and penalties of 400 to 4,000 euros for violations, and a six-month jail term for the fourth violation.

On 18 March, US President Donald Trump also called himself a “wartime president”, with the authority to invoke the Defense Production Act of 1950 ⁠— a US federal law enacted at the start of the Korean War ⁠— to compel companies to increase production of medical supplies. Long before this, New York had declared a state of emergency, with heavy penalties for companies who allowed their staff to come out to work.

... the focus was not on the effectiveness of the state of emergency in controlling the outbreak, but rather on whether doing so would lead to a concentration of power in the government and prime minister...

Italy, Spain, and the UK had also declared states of emergency, putting in place strict measures to restrict residents’ movements, complete with harsh penalties. These measures were made policy almost without discussion or resistance in these democracies that were usually such prominent advocates for human rights and freedom, in the name of prioritising the coronavirus. In comparison, Japan seems a little “unusual”.

Interestingly, over February and March, as the Japanese Diet debated the outbreak and declaring a state of emergency, the focus was not on the effectiveness of the state of emergency in controlling the outbreak, but rather on whether doing so would lead to a concentration of power in the government and prime minister, which might result in misuse of power and a violation of personal rights and freedoms. Given that discussion, naturally the focus was on how to reduce the possibility of declaring a state of emergency and with what parameters.

Commuters wearing face masks cross a street by a railway station in Tokyo, 7 May 2020. (Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP)

This debate seems to be about the outbreak, but it is an extension of the tussle between Japan’s post-war political culture and its real needs, and an indication of Japan’s tough process of normalisation.

With the pre-war and wartime suffering resulting from Japan’s militarism, after the war, Japan’s mainstream political intellectuals opposed the concentration of public authority, and were highly conscious of social autonomy and the freedom and personal rights of its citizens. While Japan is considered Westernised, its democratic values, as shown above, are very different from Europe and the US.

The sort of political consciousness that the people in the West have, allows Europe and the US to legalise policies that severely restrict personal rights seemingly without difficulty, in the name of rescuing the country and the people from crisis. Most countries seem to think the same way in this current crisis. In comparison, there is little leeway for Japanese politicians to do the same, even when reality calls for a centralised and unified action at the national level. Hence, the Japanese government seems slow and weak in policymaking, because Japanese society is not mentally prepared for rapid normalisation. (NB: Since World War II, Japan has sometimes been labelled “abnormal” as its strict laws give it little room to make changes according to its military and foreign policy needs.)

The political skill of going with the flow

For Japanese politicians, on the one hand, this outbreak calls for them to be strong leaders or face criticism — the conservatives within Japan are already criticising Abe for being weak and ineffective in comparison to other developed countries. On the other hand, they have to recognise the enormous mainstream forces built over the post-war decades opposing public authority and protecting personal rights. Whether within or outside of the Diet, liberals are already speculating that the Prime Minister might use the state of emergency to expand his authority, and that it might be a green light to amending the Constitution and so on.

...measures adopted by the government were more a result of bottom-up rather than top-down policymaking.

So, for the Japanese Prime Minister, declaring a state of emergency has taken on a degree of political sensitivity that is not present in other countries; when and how to declare it is a major test of political skills, and one might say that Abe’s strategy of going with the flow shows good political skills.

In line with how the epidemic situation was unfolding and what experts and local authorities were calling for, measures adopted by the government were more a result of bottom-up rather than top-down policymaking. This approach greatly reduced the room for allegations of using the outbreak to expand public authority. Hokkaido was the first place to be put in a state of emergency, on 28 February; this was followed by limits on weekend movements in Tokyo and Osaka. On 14 March, the Diet officially passed the special measures allowing a declaration of a general state of emergency. On 24 March, Japan and the Olympic committee agreed to postpone the Olympics for one year.

On 1 April, the head of the Japan Medical Association noted a possible risk of an overloaded healthcare system, while two days later, Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike said at a press conference that measures were being prepared in case a state of emergency was declared. On 4 April, the number of confirmed cases in Tokyo breached 100, and public health experts began saying that it was time for the country to make a decision.

Abe’s decision was the result of careful consideration, not made on the spur of the moment.

With media reports on the panic and strict measures following the rapidly worsening outbreak in Europe and the US, there were growing calls among the internet community for the government to declare a state of emergency. With such expert opinions and public sentiment, at an internal meeting of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) on 6 April, Abe said preparations were being made to declare a state of emergency. The following day, a state of emergency was declared in seven prefectures (Tokyo, Chiba, Kanagawa, Saitama, Osaka, Hyogo, Fukuoka), through a live press conference.

On a technical level, Abe’s decision was the result of careful consideration, not made on the spur of the moment. On a political level, strengthening the country is what the LDP — or rather what Japan’s elite — wants to do. However, that calls for patience and the right opportunity.

People practice social distancing on benches outside a shop in Tokyo, 9 May 2020. (Issei Kato/REUTERS)

The road to normalising Japan’s "self-disciplined" democracy

If Japan can bring the outbreak under control by declaring a state of emergency and guiding the community without implementing a lockdown or mandatory measures, that would be a miracle among developed countries.

Politically, that would be in line with Japan’s mainstream consciousness about personal rights, so that people think it is different from the absolute individualism of the free democracies in Europe and the US. Japan's way is a reflection of the success of its “self-disciplined” democratic model, which has the ability to strengthen social cohesion. On the other hand, the state of emergency has shown the necessity and effectiveness of some degree of concentration of public authority, and opened the minds of Japanese society, towards becoming a more normalised country.

But this road to normalisation is still limited by a post-war society built on self-disciplined democracy. Public opinion surveys show that the current outbreak has not significantly increased the social atmosphere of amending the Constitution. The state will be stronger in post-pandemic Japan, but any further expansion of its power will be sluggish.

Related: Widening perception gap between Japan and China since Covid-19 outbreak | Japanese academic: Battling Covid-19 is not a global match of going for gold | In sickness and in health: Honeymoon period for China-Japan relations? | Romance of the Three Kingdoms: US, China and Japan