Japan has weathered COVID-19 better than many, but problems persist

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Has Japan’s response to the pandemic been successful?

Like most countries, Japan has struggled to contain the spread of COVID-19. Several waves of the virus have triggered emergency measures that have restricted public activities, such as restaurant dining, and boosted the capacity of Japanese healthcare facilities. Nearly six million people have contracted COVID-19 and more than twenty-six thousand have died from it, according to the country’s health ministry.

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Japan’s economy contracted 4.5% in 2020 as a result of the pandemic, but rebounded to grow 1.7% in 2021, the first positive growth in three years, according to the FinancialTimes. But the spread of the omicron variant, along with rising oil prices and widespread supply chain difficulties, are expected to set back Japan’s growth outlook yet again.

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Over time, after recurrent emergency measures that varied by region, people became frustrated with the government’s handling of the pandemic and the lack of access to vaccines. The government has insisted on mRNA vaccine trials in Japan, rather than agreeing to trials already done in the United States and Europe. As a result, the vaccinations were only rolled out a few weeks before the start of the Tokyo Olympics in July 2021.

Despite this slowness, Japan has never experienced the high number of COVID-19 cases or deaths that the United States and Europe have suffered. The Olympics, despite widespread concerns about public health, were run safely. Indeed, COVID-19 cases dropped precipitously in late summer 2021, although it’s unclear why. Once Japan’s vaccination program was launched, vaccination rates quickly surpassed those of many other countries. Today, 79% of Japanese have received two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine; 20% received a third dose (booster).

How has the pandemic affected Japanese politics?

The Japanese public is skeptical of the government’s handling of COVID-19, and there have been obvious political consequences. In two years, two prime ministers, Shinzo Abe and Yoshihide Suga, have resigned.

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People wear masks at a Tokyo station in January 2022.
Kim Kyung Hoon/Reuters

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, elected in November 2021, took drastic measures when the omicron variant began to spread; he closed Japan’s borders to all foreigners and again imposed emergency measures. The response to this has been mixed. In Japan, 89% of the public backed Kishida’s tough stance, according to a Yomiuri one-time survey. But as the weeks went on, growing concern from the business community and non-Japanese people, including international students and those with family members in Japan, prompted the Kishida firm to compromise. Last month, the Japanese government announced it would increase the number of non-Japanese allowed to enter the country and ease quarantine requirements for those vaccinated. From May 1, all foreign students waiting to study in Japan will be allowed to enter and will receive government assistance if needed to integrate into Japanese life.

As elsewhere, the omicron variant has driven up the number of cases in Japan. The Kishida cabinet will be cautious ahead of upper house elections this summer. As the omicron wave begins to wane, Japanese citizens hope for a gradual easing of pandemic restrictions and businesses pressure the government to reopen the country’s borders. Still, Japanese public health authorities will be closely monitoring the recent surge in COVID-19 cases in China.

Safer:

Japan

COVID-19[feminine]

Public health threats and pandemics

Shinzo Abe

How has the pandemic affected Japan’s relations with its neighbors and partners?

Although in-person visits have been difficult, Japanese leaders have pursued their foreign policy goals, particularly in the Indo-Pacific, with the United States and other Quad nations.

Suga traveled to Vietnam and Indonesia after taking office in 2020 to showcase Japan’s free and open Indo-Pacific vision. He also traveled to Washington, DC, in 2021 for a summit with US President Joe Biden, his first meeting with a foreign leader. Suga attended two Quad Summits hosted by Biden in the same year. Similarly, the American-Japanese 2+2 meetings, which bring together the ministers in charge of foreign affairs and defense, remain a priority. US officials visited East Asia in March 2021, and Japanese officials were scheduled to visit Washington earlier this year but had to meet virtually due to the spread of omicron.

Japan is also active in the global diplomatic effort to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The consultations between the leaders of the Group of Seven (G7) have been virtual. Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi met in person with his counterparts as sanctions coordination gathered pace. Kishida has spoken with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy several times, offering humanitarian aid and loans.

Japan’s rocky relationship with China has not been helped by the pandemic. Tensions between the two had been rising for some time, particularly after a standoff over islands claimed by the two countries in the East China Sea. China’s increasing military activities in and around Japanese territory—sometimes with Russian forces—have led to increased Japanese defense spending. Chinese President Xi Jinping was supposed to visit Tokyo in April 2020 with the aim of improving bilateral relations, but the visit was postponed due to the pandemic. The trip has not been rescheduled, although 2022 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the resumption of diplomatic relations between Japan and China. China’s support for Russia’s war in Ukraine could prevent further Japanese diplomatic efforts to resolve tensions.

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