Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2020.05.08

COVID-19: Another case of 'gaiatsu' for Japan?

the japan times on April 27 2020

A Nikkei Asian Review article last Friday reported that it took an average of 5.5 days to get a positive COVID-19 test result in Japan but that the time it takes has grown to 7.3 days because Japan was "slow to get businesses involved" in the testing.

The article, subtitled "Capacity fails to catch up to outbreak as private labs remain unutilized," pointed out that hospitals "tend to rely on government-run testing facilities," quoting a testing company representative who said that "There's a strong sense that infectious diseases should be handled by the government."

The Japan Medical Association warned against simpler, private-sector COVID-19 tests, saying that "Improperly administered tests may not give reliable results, potentially causing confusion." This is yet more proof that Japan will not change its own system unless gaiatsu (external pressure) forces it to do so. In fact, over the past 170 years, gaiatsu has played a decisive role in determining the course of Japan. When either the government or the general public are bitterly divided on critically important issues, final decisions always seem to be give into requests by external pressure groups. The following are examples:

The famous Black Ships under the command of U.S. Navy Commodore Matthew Perry triggered the 1854 Treaty of Peace and Amity between Japan and the United States. The gunboat diplomacy convinced the last Tokugawa shogun to end Japan's period of isolation after more than 200 years.

Another was the 1945 defeat of Japan in the Pacific War, which forced the nation to fundamentally change its government and foreign policy as well as to return to the state of democracy that had existed in the 1910s and 1920s. Many Japanese at the time, including my father, knew that they were losing the war, but nobody dared to speak out.

The "Nixon shock" of 1971, Japan-U.S. trade frictions and the Plaza Accord of 1985 altered Japan's economic policies. Conservative decision-makers had to change their traditional monetary, trade and other policies so Japan could cope with the changing environment.

Last but not least was the Senkaku maritime collision incident of 2010, in which a Chinese trawler operating in the waters around the Senkaku Islands collided with Japan Coast Guard patrol boats. This led to popular criticism against China in Japan and a long-awaited modernization of Japan's armed forces.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, however, the above examples neither symbolize Japan's backwardness nor mean that Japanese decision-makers have been excessively passive or much less action-oriented. Rather, those examples all suggest prudence and circumspection on the part of the decision-makers.

The logic of such decision-making is not only typical of Japanese bureaucracy, including in the Edo Period, but also very subtle and thoughtful in nature. The bureaucracy's rationale is to maximize popular solidarity for its new decisions and minimize the negative ramifications thereof.

The bureaucracy, which is supposed to abide by the existing laws, regulations and tradition, cannot take responsibility in proposing anything that goes against those. With some exceptions, serious decision-makers and bureaucrats usually know what should be done in the interest of the entire nation, no matter how unpopular it is.

Naturally, therefore, their favorite methodology is to use gaiatsu to make their decisions acceptable to their opponents and the general public, while avoiding political responsibility for them. It is like saying "Folks, we must accept this because this is inevitable, so don't blame it on us."

History rhymes in the case of COVID-19. Conservative medical bureaucrats try to defend and keep their existing medical regulations and procedures intact even in the midst of a pandemic. The government is divided and the people are puzzled. Only serious politicians and experts know the traditional system will not work anymore.

It is time for Japan to increase the number of COVID-19 tests by involving more private companies, which have technology and experts. We know simpler tests are less accurate, but in a midst of a crisis, one million tests with 5 percent inaccuracy, for example, may be better than a few dozens of thousand tests with 0.5 percent accuracy.

This also applies to other services-related procedures and regulations. Last week, for example, I tried to change my pension status and called the local Japan Pension Service office. They asked me to come in and bring my personal seal with me. I exploded on the phone and said to the official, "Sir, enough is enough."

Now that the government is demanding social distancing, face-to-face meetings should not be required. We must digitize procedures and regulations in fields such as social security, medicine, education, financial services and even voting in Diet elections, to name a few. These still require face-to-face interactions to be precise, reliable and to avoid confusion.

The bureaucrats' reluctance to embrace change is almost instinctive in avoiding administrative responsibility as well as in maintaining or even expanding their sphere of influence in the government. This is the bureaucracy's most favorite sport in Kasumigaseki, where major ministries and agencies are located.

So once again we are in a "Catch-22" situation and, of course, what we most need is gaiatsu. This time we are fortunate because the external pressure is coming from COVID-19, not from China. If it were the latter, we would waste time and resources on political or nationalistic blaming games. There is no time for this.

This is a golden opportunity for Japan to go against the "resistance" forces inside and outside the government and unilaterally change itself. COVID-19 serves as the perfect gaiatsu for Japan to evolve as a nation by discarding old and traditional but less meaningful rules and regulations. Let's hope we still have time to complete this process.