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Anoma van der Veere: ‘In Japan, the awkward little masks symbolise the government’s failure’

Leiden Asia Centre researcher Anoma van der Veere argues that the Japanese government has failed to respond properly to Covid-19. There were difficulties with implementing government measures aimed at limiting the spread of the virus – in some cases those measures were not even taken seriously. How do matters stand now in Japan, and what does that country’s future hold?

‘Japan is slowly beginning to reopen,’ says Van der Veere. Restaurants and shops that voluntarily closed their doors for a long time are gradually welcoming customers back. Many people have gone back to work and schools have reopened, meaning that at peak times the trains are once again chock full of passengers. That said, more and more small businesses are going bankrupt as a result of the pandemic, and larger companies are making cuts to jobs and pay. Hospitals are still under pressure, and healthcare staff are facing serious shortages.

Many experts have warned that any easing of the restrictions will lead to a new wave of infections. This year’s Olympic and Paralympic Games have been cancelled, and there is an expectation – and concern – that people from other countries will bring the virus back to Japan. Despite some restrictions having been lifted, travel is still strictly controlled. Most people in Japan, as in the Netherlands, are now trying to find a balance between protecting themselves and recreating their normal day-to-day lives.’

What is your view of the image of Asia that is often presented, one which academics have criticised: that everyone there is obediently following the rules and wearing face masks?

‘The Japanese government has largely handed over responsibility for [combating] the further spread of the virus to the prefectures (provinces) and local authorities. There is no clear national policy, and that has led to a chaotic strategy that’s different in each region. Every household was sent two fabric masks. That policy cost a huge amount of money and has been widely ridiculed. Those awkward little masks have come to symbolise the government’s failure. As you can see, the often-presented image of Asia has little in common with reality.

The Dutch media has played a big role in spreading misinformation about Japan. Paulien Cornelisse was recently on TV saying that the Japanese wear masks because they’re altruistic, because she thinks it’s “very Japanese to think collectively”. That’s pure nonsense. Both people and societies are complex. Those kinds of simplifications just don’t hold water. If the media interviewed real experts, instead of rehashing colonial clichés, I might start looking forward to watching TV again.’

Why did the Japanese government ultimately decide to use digital tools to limit the spread of the virus?

‘The national government declared a temporary state of emergency and ran a promotional campaign to get people to avoid small spaces, crowded areas and close contact. A lot of the information about new patients that was collected by the Ministry of Health, Employment and Welfare (MHLW) was delivered as hand-written reports, because a lot of places still have a strong tendency towards low-tech solutions such as rubber stamps, signatures and forms.

After a lot of delays and discussions about privacy, the “COCOA” tracking app was released on 19 June. This app is supposed to record whether you’ve spent longer than 15 minutes with someone who has tested positive for the virus. There’s not much public support for the app, despite the fact that a minimum of 60~65 per cent of the population would have to download the app in order for the system to work properly. Under a new project in Osaka you can participate in a QR system; after you visit a bar or restaurant, it will show whether an infected person has been there and advise you to isolate for two weeks. The system preserves users’ anonymity, but it’s striking that people are being asked to isolate, and not to get tested.’

How do you feel about the use of an app in the battle against Covid-19 here in the Netherlands?

‘It’s not a good idea to implement new technology hastily, because technology doesn’t go away. We might decide to share our data to make ourselves feel safer, but it’s not as if the technology will suddenly vanish once the pandemic is over. Fear of a new pandemic can be used as a rationale to keep a system like that in place. The information that has been collected can be used for very different purposes, or even be hacked, sold or misused. The fact that an app exists doesn’t mean that it works. Technology has to be used by people, and people make mistakes. Feeling safer doesn’t mean you actually are safer.’

Can you see the light at the end of the tunnel for Japan?

‘The fact that some cities and prefectures in Japan are responding well to the pandemic is a good sign. It’s also good to see a focus on finding out who has been in contact with whom when someone tests positive (cluster tracking). A lot of infections are still staying under the radar, but Japanese epidemiologists predict that, in the long term, the current strategies will limit the spread.

Unfortunately, the economic damage will be difficult to repair. A third of the Japanese population say they have no confidence that there will be a full economic recovery. The sluggish response to the pandemic and a series of new scandals have also led to a historically low percentage of public support for the current government. As a result, the number of people who have become politically engaged and criticised the government has gone up a lot during the pandemic. In a democracy it’s important for the population to be engaged, so that’s a really positive development.’

About Anoma van der Veere
Anoma van der Veere is a researcher within the Leiden Asia Centre at Leiden University. He is based at the University of Osaka in Japan and writes about international collaboration and public policy in the fields of technology, education and sport. His research focuses on sport and education through the lens of the media, as well as on the intersection of technology and healthcare in Japan and the Netherlands.

Banner picture:  © Nick Potts, permission to use once in context of this article. 

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