- Many people predicted that Japan would be hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, but the country has been relatively unscathed.
- People have posited several reasons for Japan’s success, including an existing culture of mask-wearing.
- Others have said it was the government’s clear messaging about avoiding the three C’s: closed spaces, crowded places, and close-contact settings.
- Some experts have said that Japan might not be as successful as we think and that there may be significant underreporting.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
When the pandemic hit, experts predicted that Japan would be hit hard by the virus, with some saying as many as 400,000 residents could die.
The country didn’t enforce a widespread shutdown, tested only 0.2% of its population, and was slow to cancel the summer Olympics even as the countries set to participate locked down. Japan did not use surveillance technology the way China and Singapore did, and it did not employ widespread testing the way South Korea did.
But even though at least 26% of Japan’s population is over age 65 and at a higher risk of getting seriously ill with COVID-19, most people did not get sick. As of Thursday, the country of 126 million people had reported about 16,600 cases and 858 deaths.
Japan this week declared its state of emergency over, and many have linked its success to the Japanese government’s messaging. Instead of encouraging social-distancing practices like staying 6 feet away from other people at all times, the government told people to avoid the three C’s: closed spaces, crowded places, and close-contact settings.
Some say the secret to Japan’s success is a mystery
“Just by looking at death numbers, you can say Japan was successful,” Mikihito Tanaka, a professor at Waseda University, told Bloomberg last week. “But even experts don’t know the reason.”
A list of possible reasons circulating online includes an existing culture of mask-wearing, a lower rate of obesity, the government’s early push to close schools, and a claim that speakers of Japanese emit fewer viral droplets than speakers of other languages.
Some have said there are other cultural factors at play. An Asia Times report described Japan as less of “a touchy-feely nation” than places like the United States, with more of a focus on cleanliness. It also has a dedicated public-health system.
But many experts say that it’s unclear why Japan wasn’t devastated by the virus and that we likely won’t know until the pandemic ends.
Japan acted earlier than other countries
Dealing with the outbreak on the Diamond Princess cruise ship in February and the international scrutiny indicated to Japan that the disease was not some far-off problem for other countries and could affect residents there, Tanaka told the Bloomberg journalists Lisa Du and Grace Huang.
They also pointed to Japan’s robust network of contract tracers who began tracking the spread of the disease in January and to a possibility raised by researchers that the virus strain in Asia may have been less dangerous than a mutated strain that spread in Europe.
Early interventions of medical experts and collective action by the public also made a difference, Rob Fahey and Paul Nadeau wrote in the Tokyo Review.
Why Japan took the 3 C’s approach instead of locking down
Japan didn’t enforce shutdowns or social-distancing orders, but it encouraged people to avoid closed spaces with poor ventilation, crowded places with groups of people, and close-contact settings like one-on-one conversations.
The method, which leaves decisions about where to go and what kind of risks to take up to individuals, is designed to help minimise the spread of the virus while allowing life to continue, albeit with limits.
“We need to create a new lifestyle from now on,” Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said in a press conference on Monday. “We need to change our way of thinking.”
Lockdowns in the United States have been framed as extreme, temporary procedures, while in Japan the three C’s have been framed as a new, permanent lifestyle for residents. This may bode well for the sustainability of the approach.
Is it too good to be true?
While some experts have lauded Japan’s decentralized, bottom-up approach, others have expressed doubts that it works.
“The Japan conundrum is just the fact that if you don’t test for it, you’re not going to find a lot of cases,” Jason Kindrachuk, an assistant professor of viral pathogenesis at the University of Manitoba, told Business Insider in March.
Kenji Shibuya, the World Health Organisation’s former chief of health policy, told Bloomberg in mid-March that either Japan had contained the spread of the virus by focusing on outbreak clusters or outbreaks haven’t been found yet.
The Tokyo Review cited surveys finding that Japanese citizens were not as pleased with Abe’s response to the pandemic. In one survey last month, Abe received a worse rating from his own citizens than several other world leaders, including US President Donald Trump, whose nation has by far the highest COVID-19 death toll.
But some Japanese residents have praised the three C’s system.
“The model allows for a certain level of economic activity and maintains people’s freedom to move about, and as such is more sustainable over the long term than more burdensome models such as lockdowns,” Kazuto Suzuki, a professor of international politics at Hokkaido University’s Public Policy School, wrote in The Diplomat last month.