Media  International Exchange  2020.06.15

Courage and determination shown by Prime Minister Abe in coping with COVID-19: The ideas and philosophy expected of leaders in times of crisis

The article was originally posted on JBpress on March 18, 2020

1. Courage and determination led Abe to make an important decision

On February 27, the Novel Coronavirus Response Headquarters held a meeting at the Prime Minister's Office, and at the meeting, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe requested all elementary, junior high, senior high, and special needs schools nationwide to be closed from March 2 to the spring vacation.

Following this decision, the entire atmosphere in Japan, including corporate work styles and other economic and social conditions, underwent a complete change, and people really started to voluntarily refrain from group actions if they were not necessary and urgent.

Later, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic, and that serious damage to the economy of numerous countries worldwide would be inevitable.

By March 15, the novel coronavirus had left 150,000 persons infected and over 5,000 dead across the world.

Both the number of infected persons (798) and the death toll (24) are relatively low in Japan compared to Western countries, and it appears that the Prime Minister's decision is producing certain effects if its impact, which completely changed the entire atmosphere in the country, is included when it is evaluated.

Experts in infectious disease, mass media, and other parties concerned, however, continued to criticize the Prime Minister's request for temporary closure of all schools nationwide immediately after it was announced.

Usually, there is no clear answer to problems that require an important decision based on the judgment of politicians or corporate managers.

The top leader is required to make a major decision based on predictions of a future of which he or she is not fully confident, or by assuming future possible risks or chances.

Such a decision needs solemn determination and unshakable courage.

The reason that the leader must make an important political or managerial decision is because there is a risk that it will be too late if he or she makes a decision by the time it has become possible to show a clear basis for such a decision.

A delayed decision may bring about irreparable misfortune or burden to innumerable people. This is why it is required that the top leader be determined to assume risks and make decisions with courage.

The result is that there is no other choice but for the leader, in this case, the Prime Minister and his government, to take all responsibilities.

It is the top leader's most important duty to make a decision with courage and determination in such a grave situation.

In that sense, the Prime Minister's recent important decision, which was indeed made with courage and determination, can be evaluated as suitable for a top leader.

2. Problems with the ending of the press conference

Since he has no technical knowledge of infectious diseases, the author cannot discuss from a technical standpoint as to whether the decision to request the temporary closure of schools was appropriate.

But it is possible to discuss what the leader must consider when making an important decision that has major effects on an entire country and people.

On February 29, Prime Minister Abe held a press conference to give an explanation of the circumstances under which he took the decision to request temporary school closures.

Aside from whether the recent decision to close all public schools temporarily was appropriate, it was extremely important to call a press conference to explain to the nation the policy under which the decision was made.

The reason is that it was clear that the sudden decision would have major direct effects on the daily lives of people and the economic activities of the country.

It was necessary to properly explain the basis for the Prime Minister's decision and display a degree of determination that satisfied the entire nation to a considerable extent.

This is because there is a large difference in the actual policy effect between two cases: one in which people understand and follow the Prime Minister's instructions, and the other in which they essentially act as if they distrust these instructions.

In that sense, it has to be said that it was inappropriate that the Prime Minister did not hold a press conference on the day that he requested temporary school closures and that on February 29, he one-sidedly ended the press conference after a short period of time without answering the questions of many news reporters in some detail.

Taking no further questions made people distrustful of the policy decision itself.

He did not have a press conference on February 27, but if he had spent a certain period of time to explain his policy at the press conference of February 29, it would have been highly likely that people would have been more deeply persuaded by his courageous decision.

It is reported that the government official in charge of the press conference ended the questioning. That would not have been a problem if the press conference had concerned ordinary policy.

But the recent policy decision was completely different in importance from more ordinary decisions.

If, before attending the press conference, the Prime Minister had fully understood the serious effects it would have on the minds of people, he would not have ended it in this way.

3. Importance of the top leader's decision

If a government or business firm is forced to make a truly important policy or managerial decision, no one except the top leader, such as the prime minister or the president, can take responsibility for doing so. Only the prime minister or the president can make such a policy or managerial decision.

At that moment, the top leader is essentially on an island, solitary unto themselves.

Although they are extremely exceptional, there are cases in which a senior manager puts himself or herself in the place of the prime minister or the company president and gives outspoken advice to him or her about policy or managerial decisions, knowing that he or she may be dismissed or demoted.

A typical example of this is included in Zhen'guan zhengyao, a Chinese classic.

Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty had imperial advisors who pointed out his problems and offered strict counsel to him, literally at the risk of their own lives. During his reign, the four major imperial advisors were Wei Zheng, Wang Gui, Fang Xuanling, and Du Ruhui.

This is so exceptional that it is often taken up as a rare example, even in the 5,000-year history of China. In fact, there is almost no prime minister and company president who has reliable close aides like them.

Even if they have such aides, many of the prime ministers and company presidents often keep them at a distance.

The reason is that only persons who have cultivated their mind as a true leader can discipline themselves by accepting advice that does not suit their intentions with humility, and such true leaders are extremely rare.

In the recent case, as the top leader, Prime Minister Abe was really put in a position to make an important decision, and among his close aides, there might, in a true sense, have been no one like Emperor Taizong's imperial advisors.

It is inferred, therefore, that in a solitary situation, the prime minister braced himself, mustered up his courage, and made such a decision.

In their lives, ordinary persons would not practically be in a situation in which they would be urged to make decisions as important as this.

4. Evil practices of organizations

When making a decision, the leader needs to do so while determining what the best policy is at the moment based on the opinions of reliable experts.

A common problem has been pointed out about the initial efforts to prevent infection with COVID-19 on the cruise ship Diamond Princess and the actions taken by Chinese government officials in the early phase of infection when the novel coronavirus started to spread in Wuhan City, Hubei Province.

The problem was that responsible persons in the rank and file or at the intermediate level of the organization---those in important positions of leadership---covered up problems though they recognized the gravity of the situation and did not disclose inconvenient facts in a timely manner. Only when they could no longer conceal the problem as it became increasingly serious did they start to publish such facts off and on over several occasions.

During this interval, the irreparably serious situation with which we are now faced surfaced.

Huge organizations such as government agencies and large corporations are usually plagued by the evil of sectionalism. Specifically, one tends to think that even if one recognizes problems, one does not need to take responsibility for grappling with them on their own initiative if, under internal regulations, they are not included in their own sphere of responsibility.

Meanwhile, even if one recognizes problems in related departments, one tends to hesitate to admonish one's superior when the latter does not attempt to cope with them appropriately or remind the departments of such problems on one's own initiative. These attitudes are also found frequently.

One often hesitates to take appropriate action because, in an organization , one worries more about what people around them will think than about one's own job responsibility, and similar cases are a daily occurrence at large organizations whether they are public and private.

Japan has experience in failing to resolutely make appropriate decisions and take necessary measures in important phases of affairs that affected the safety and reliability of the country. Examples include the initial response to the nuclear accident caused by the tsunami of March 11, 2011 and the actions taken to cope with bad debts in the first half of the 1990s.

Such a phenomenon was seen in cases such as the opening of the Pacific War and the extension of battle lines in the Sino-Japanese War. It can be said that this tendency has continued since the prewar period.

5. Moral education develops true leaders

Since the Meiji Restoration, fundamental human education aimed at urging people to think how the leader should be in time of crisis has lacked.

The reason was that Japan slighted education in basic liberal arts such as thought, philosophy, geopolitics, and history, which was indispensable to the development of human resources that could effectively support national strategy. Instead, it adopted educational systems that attached too much importance to science and technology as it placed overemphasis on catching up with Western countries.

When a country or business firm is faced with a crisis, its leader, who is in a position to decide how to cope with it, is required to make a final decision properly in a timely manner.

What is needed at the time is righteousness, courage to put it into practice, and selflessness.

Underlying these principles are ideas and philosophies such as "utmost sincerity and deep concern," a fundamental idea emphasized by Japanese scholars such as Shonan Yokoi and Hokoku Yamada around the Meiji Restoration. The opening words of Shujing (Book of Documents) describe the essential attributes of a leader as "brilliant achievements and thoughtful consideration."

Another example is to "Deal with not people but heaven. Deal with heaven, do your best, and do not blame others. Reflect on your lack of sincerity," a remark by Nanshu Saigo.

These cannot be acquired by leaders even if they try to acquire them as a temporary expedient when they are faced with a crisis.

In case of emergency, leaders cannot act in a way that suits them unless they tell themselves that they should lead their daily lives as a leader and make steady efforts for self-cultivation.

Furthermore, emergencies do not occur frequently during their lives. Normally, they occur only once in several years or several times during their lives.

Therefore, unless they have a very strong sense of responsibility, mission, and justice, they cannot realize what it means to be a leader and continue self-cultivation over a long period of time. And it takes more than ordinary courage to act as a leader.

It is clear that persons in positions of leadership in states, local communities, business firms, and other organizations should always perform their duties with determination as such.

To that end, everyone needs to prepare himself/herself on a daily basis so that if he/she is put in a position to make a decision, he/she can make a decision that suits such a position.

6. Necessity of expanding moral education at elementary and junior high schools

In order to make this possible, it is necessary to start providing people with moral education from childhood.

It is said that a person's mind is shaped by the time they are around 15 years old. Particularly important is elementary school education.

Proper basic human education should be provided so that people can acquire the five cardinal virtues (benevolence, righteousness, courtesy, wisdom, and trust) as well as the knowledge and courage expected of a leader as the common assets of the country.

Japan is geographically a fairly small country without natural resources, and it is recognized that it depends on its human resources for development.

The morale of the middle levels of Japan's human resources is still high and often praised around the world.

Recently, however, problems have become conspicuous as exemplified by numerous cases of child abuse, a decline in professional ethics as seen in inappropriate practices at large corporations, the mass media's approach to reporting, and an overall lack of vitality among citizens in contributing to society by taking on new challenges.

In light of this situation, it is clear what needs to be done.

What should be done is to provide a wider range of human education by emphasizing moral education at elementary and junior high schools, introducing leadership training, and enriching education in liberal arts such as thought, philosophy, history, and geopolitics in higher-education curriculums.

By making steady efforts to develop human resources on a daily basis as described above, Japan should be able to drastically resolve the lack of leadership in times of crisis, as has been repeatedly seen in the 20th century and thereafter. Perhaps more than anything, this should lay the foundation for its revival in the Reiwa era.