Media International Exchange 2020.06.05
1. Serious reflection on flaws in policy actions required
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared a state of emergency on April 7. But some critics say that his timing was too late.
Flaws as well as delays have been found not only in the timing of his state of emergency declaration but also in the various policy actions taken by the Japanese government against the novel coronavirus infection since late March.
It is said that the fight against the novel coronavirus will be a long one. There will be numerous chances to rectify the delays and flaws caused by past policy actions.
To this end, it is necessary to promote future policy actions by seriously facing the failures experienced through the fight so far and reflecting humbly on the actions causing the failures.
This kind of attitude could serve as a starting point to becoming more effective through the accumulated experience of failures so far and fighting the novel coronavirus.
However, if the Japanese government does not admit the failures of its policy actions earnestly, identify the cause of the failures correctly, or exercise the humility required to refine its policy actions based on sincere reflection, it will continue to make the same mistakes again and again.
As a consequence of these failures, people living in Japan would lose their lives, health and security, and would suffer from long-term economic stagnation and hardship.
2. Delay in declaring a state of emergency
It was said that Taiwan and Japan were gaining attention from the world because these two countries exceptionally had managed to suppress a rapid increase in the number of infected people before March amid an explosive increase in the number of infections around the world.
But things drastically changed around the end of March. Delays in policy actions taken by the Japanese government started to affect a number of areas, and many people in Japan started to be suspicious of the way the Japanese government had responded to this pandemic.
One of the major problems was the delay in declaring a state of emergency.
In this respect, Kenji Shibuya, Senior Advisor to the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), pointed out that while many doctors stressed the need to declare a state of emergency at an earlier stage, the Japanese government's declaration was one week too late, and he went on to say the following:
"WHO has consistently told its member states that what is needed is "testing and isolation of infected people". This is the basic principle for measures against infectious diseases."
"Japan is the only country that is discussing whether to test or not. This kind of discussion is not even taking place overseas. Testing and isolation - whether these two things are actually done or not decides the outcome."
"... As testing is not done, those who are not tested come to hospitals. Adhering to early experience of success in counter-cluster measures and limiting the number of tests have led to current hospital-acquired infections." (posted by Huffington Post Japan on April 7)
"It is not that as more testing is done, more people are confirmed infected, leading to a collapse of the medical care system, but that an increase in the number of hospital-acquired infections due to a lack of testing has already started to collapse the medical care system." (posted by Bunshun Online on April 7)
It is necessary to take new policy action against the change in the situation since late March.
But the Japanese government hasn't shown any intention to humbly accept the change in the situation and handle the situation flexibly. It seems to cling to the previous "experience of success".
This is where you can find the aggregated essence of failures repeated again and again by the Japanese government in its crisis responses in the past.
3. Case examples of delays and flaws in policy actions
Major issues pointed out as delays and flaws in the Abe administration's response so far to the novel coronavirus are as follows:
First, with regard to the timing of issuing a declaration of a state of emergency, more and more doctors and experts on measures against infectious diseases stated a strong opinion around the end of March, insisting on the necessity of issuing the declaration in order to prevent the collapse of the country's medical care system, but the government postponed the timing of its issuance.
Second, the Abe administration, which places importance on economic activity, and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, which gives top priority on preventing the infection spread, were opposed to each other over both the timing of a business closure request after the state of emergency declaration and the industries that should be required to close temporarily.
Afterward, some local governments followed the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, and those not covered by the government's state of emergency declaration (issued only to seven prefectures) issued their own state of emergency declaration one after another, thereby revealing dissatisfaction with the Abe administration's indecisive policy action.
In the meantime, if the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare and the relevant ministries and agencies had properly grasped and analyzed the situations and policy actions of major countries where the number of infected people had increased rapidly ahead of Japan, they could have taken appropriate action in advance. The main issues in this respect are as follows:
First is the delay in the expansion of PCR testing.
Because of this, public health centers are very busy in answering enormous numbers of phone calls every day, patients who are afraid of being infected do not have their phone call answered quickly even though they call their local public health center, and patients who are suspected as being positive are sent from one hospital to another without being diagnosed by a doctor.
As a result, the emergency medical system is approaching its limit, and hospitals are exposed to the risk of hospital infection caused by patients who are not found to be positive or negative.
Second is the delay in the expansion of the systems for online medical examination and emergency medical care treatment, including permission to give online diagnosis to new patients and development of an information retrieval system for hospitals that are ready to accept patients online.
Third is the delay in securing facilities to accept mildly ill patients through utilization of hotels and other accommodation and in transferring patients.
Fourth is the shortage of medical equipment and supplies needed by hospitals that accept seriously ill patients.
And fifth is the delay in implementing special measures for expanding production of artificial ventilators and accelerating the development of new drugs.
The U.S., major European countries, South Korea and China all reviewed measures for crisis response in advance and implemented them promptly, but the Japanese government is late in implementing such measures.
4. Serious delay in online education environment
In addition, many countries other than Japan have developed online education. So even though schools in these countries are closed for a long time, online lessons are able to make up considerably for cancelled normal classes.
The Japanese government has decided to distribute lap-top computers or tablet devices to every elementary and junior high school student in 2023, but the distribution time has proved to be too late compared with other countries.
Overseas schools and universities provide online lessons every day, while schools in Japan cannot conduct lessons or even assign homework online.
As a result, during this long-term school closure, the academic ability of Japanese students is expected to decline compared with that of overseas students.
Shanghai City took the measure to close all schools as a response to this novel coronavirus to move to online education, but apparently only the Japanese schools there could not deal with the situation.
It has been said that Japan depends on its human resources, who are excellent on average, supported by high education standards, but it is only a matter of time before the foundations of Japan waver with the school education base as it is now.
5. Negligence of the government and structural defects in policy management
With regard to the above-mentioned points, if Japan had understood the situation of infection spread in China, South Korea, Europe and the U.S. and the countermeasures by those governments, Japan would have had enough time to take necessary measures in advance of the rapid growth in the number of infections.
Despite this, the Japanese government's response has been delayed so far. The Japanese government deserves to be accused of negligence.
Another reason for this late policy response is structural defects in Japan's policy management framework.
Since the 1990s, globalization has been rapidly progressing, and boundaries between nations have become far less distinct than before. This is the main reason why the novel coronavirus has rapidly spread all over the world.
If the Japanese government had promoted, at an earlier stage, research on overseas infections and the exchange of information between experts and government officials from the relevant countries, including Japan, and taken measures based on the findings and information, the Japanese government could have contained the situation to a considerable extent. Instead, the number of infected people has increased rapidly since late March.
Nevertheless, in the background to the Japanese government not having taken such measures lies a lack of government will to deal with globalization.
In Japan, policy management depends on policymaking from inside the central ministries and agencies.
Because of this, the situation continues where only precedent-based policies can be made owing to conventional compartmentalized organizations despite the urgent need for structural changes in the policymaking framework due to rapid progress in globalization and information technology greatly changing the socio-economic environment.
This is the fundamental factor that has made Japan suffer from long-term economic stagnation since the1990s. In other words, a structural defect due to the absence of competitive policymaking market.
Because unprecedented crisis management is needed to deal with the novel coronavirus infection, central government ministries and agencies cannot handle the situation in a precedent-based approach, namely a bureaucratic general behavioral pattern.
In principle, central government ministries and agencies are organizations for dealing with precedented events based on existing laws and regulations.
Therefore, they are not good at dealing quickly and flexibly with those cases where new events occur without precedents in the past and laws and regulations based on them. If the government depends on its policymaking ability, it is too late to take needed policy actions.
In order to overcome this situation, it is necessary to establish a system for accepting policy proposals from external experts and intellectuals to connect them directly with actual policies, which has been pointed out since the 1990s, as far as I am aware.
Despite this, Japanese politicians and central government ministries and agencies have not accepted this idea of reform, but have persisted in the conventional policy management system dependent on central government ministries and agencies.
Another fundamental cause of delays and flaws in the present policy action is such structural defects in policy management.
Bureaucrats in Japan's central government ministries and agencies have no incentives to rectify this mechanism, so it is politicians who can reform this situation. Therefore, the structural defects we are faced with now can be said to be a result of politicians' negligence.
6. Powerful leadership to be required
When responding to a crisis, politicians are compelled to demonstrate powerful leadership, listen carefully to reliable experts, and assess, decide and implement how to deal with the crisis, including bold measures, free from traditional policy management approaches.
Instead of leaving central government ministries and agencies to plan policies, politicians, together with experts, should make judgments about what policy actions to take and not to take, and then instruct bureaucrats to execute them.
In doing so, it is necessary to unify a chain of command of the government in order to allow bureaucrats to come up with smooth administrative execution procedures and carry them out.
Since the Meiji Restoration, character-building has been neglected in the Japanese education system, such that the Japanese people lack the willingness to respect the importance of being courageous to always do justice for the good of the public and those around them.
This becomes abundantly apparent at the time of a crisis.
This caused every major failure in past policy actions, such as the crisis response immediately after the 3/11 tsunami disaster and subsequent delay in reconstruction, the post-bubble long-term economic stagnation, and, going further back in time, the outbreak of the war between Japan and the United States.
In order to rectify this situation, it is essential to revive moral education to which less attention has been paid since the Meiji Restoration, including enriching character-building, fostering the importance of leadership and the sense of morality to do one's best for others in nursery schools, kindergartens, elementary, junior high, and senior high schools.
In Japan, there is a tendency to think that moral education easily leads to militarism and totalitarianism.
But it can be considered that if character-building had been implemented through sound moral education, the state regime which accepted the inhumane militarism before the war would have been rectified.
In order to prevent the recurrence of such failures, sound moral education is needed.
In the fight against the novel coronavirus, a war expected to last long into the future, what the government is required to do now is to identify problems in previous policy actions, seriously reflect on them, and stand strong in this war with new ideas every day.
Without adhering to conventional guidelines and the past precedents, the government should implement effective measures in a timely manner in accordance with the situation varying from hour to hour, and overcome the difficult situation step by step while taking into full consideration the opinions of experts and the measures taken by the U.S., European countries, South Korea and China.
This is exactly what the government should do for the medical experts who work on the front line of the fight against the novel coronavirus every day at the risk of their own life, the patients who suffer from the infectious disease, the people who suffer from unemployment instability and live in poverty, and everyone who is concerned about the risk of infection.