It may lack the juiciness of the U.K.’s Lockdown Files, but leaks from central Government are giving us here in Japan a glimpse of what went on behind the scenes during the last three years, and it is all rather interesting. The Pravda-like Japan Times has, for once, published an almost readable piece full of interesting snippets about the tensions that existed and power struggles that were played out during our various phases of restrictions. The key takeaway, for me, is that it is not at all clear whether any of the three Prime Ministers who were in office believed in the measures they imposed on us and in some cases were acting in bad faith. Were we just used? It looks like it.
The incumbent PM when the Diamond Princess was in dock at Yokohama in February 2020 and when the first action was taken was the late Shinzo Abe, Japan’s longest serving PM who was assassinated last summer. From the leaks, it seems that his priority was to get emergency legislation through that would have allowed Japan’s U.S.-imposed constitution to be bypassed, allowing all kinds of draconian impositions. Abe’s lifetime goal was to revise the pacifist constitution, so his appetite for emergency laws and additional powers sounds alarm bells.
Abe seems to have at least considered vaccine mandates and forced closures of businesses and he worked with the opposition to bring this about – it was around this dismal time that I and another jab refusenik were talking seriously of disappearing into the countryside. But in the end Abe didn’t quite manage it, perhaps because he was mired in scandal and didn’t wield the necessary authority. Firefighting on numerous fronts he resigned, officially due to ill-health, in August 2020.
To be replaced by his Chief of Staff Yoshihide Suga. Suga, known as ‘Abe’s brain’, was a shadowy backroom figure with little charisma and zero media skills. It is fashionable to write Suga off as a complete dud, and with his permanent scowl, salaryman’s comb over and beaten-up suits he did recall one of Harry Enfield’s ‘Old Gits’, but I’ve always had a bit of sympathy for him. He was given a complete hospital pass of an appointment with Covid and the looming Covid-threatened Olympics on his plate. He made no attempt to be likeable or popular – he rather endearingly appeared to fall asleep during the closing ceremony.
I like him even more now as, from the leaks, it appears he was extremely reluctant to impose a state of emergency or to ban spectators from the Olympics and only did so when forced to by others. Whether he was a true Covid sceptic is unclear, but he certainly seemed to realise the dangers of precipitous action. He was apparently sidelined in the school closures programme and had nothing to do with ‘Abenomasks’ (a farcical distribution of low-quality face masks to every citizen) presumably because he supported neither. As PM he introduced a travel programme (‘GoTo Travel’) aimed at getting people moving around the country again. He gave a eulogy to Abe at his funeral and in his list of his predecessor’s achievements said nothing about Covid. It sounds like he did his best.
For which he got no thanks, of course. He acquired a reputation as a procrastinator and was mercilessly criticised for not acting decisively to protect the people from the deadly virus. In the event, the fan-free Olympics was actually a success, but Suga was pushed out anyway. He was blamed for a bed shortage precipitated by the surge in infections, but how real that was is an open question. As a frequent hospital attendee (non-Covid) throughout that period I saw no evidence of stretched resources, though on my last visit I did see disclaimers posted prominently on the walls informing people that they took the vaccine at their own risk. And it’s worth noting that hospital Covid support payments for a secured ICU bed (regardless of whether it is used or not) can run to 3,000 dollars.
Suga’s replacement was Fumio Kishida, a mild-mannered banker supposed to be on the Left of his party. Part of his push for the top job involved the setting up of a new agency for infectious disease management. God knows what it does. Almost as soon as he got the job he closed the border at the first whiff of Omicron so securely that even fully-jabbed nationals couldn’t get in (he had to quickly amend the rules).
He has delayed reopening Japan fully seemingly for as long as possible, conveniently beyond upper house elections. And he was apparently considering allowing restaurants and bars to refuse entry to people without face masks. The Japan Times implies that these were all popular strategic moves to “exploit criticisms against COVID-19 policy failures under Abe and Suga”. In other words, it was all just politics.
In other developments, finally on April 30th all Covid entry requirements were dropped, meaning anyone can hop on a plane and visit without either proof of vaccination or a negative PCR test. I’ve been waiting for this for so long it hardly feels like good news any more – I’m beyond that now. No one else was rejoicing either as the Japanese have been very supportive of the border restrictions and there have been grumbles about the number of foreigners milling about. In much the way the U.K. retains a fascination with the Victorian era, the Japanese still fetishise the Sakoku period of isolation (1639-1853), which forms the setting for most of NHK’s period dramas. Covid allowed a sort of return to those days which many seem to have enjoyed.
Which is not to say there is no resistance. We now have our own version of Andrew Bridgen, sort of. His name is Kazuhiro Haraguchi and he is currently a lower house MP for the opposition CDP and a former minister. He announced on Twitter that after a third dose of the vaccine he immediately fell ill and was shortly after diagnosed with a malignant lymphoma. He has gone through chemo, which cost him his hair, but is apparently recovering. The thing is, you will only have heard about this if you either know the man personally, follow him on Twitter, or subscribe to the Substack of Guy Gin (‘gaijin’ means foreigner in Japanese). This excellent blogger has also reported the death of a one-year-old boy after receiving a vaccination last week and the scandal of the 30 billion dollars the Japanese Government has spent on 882 million vial of vaccines.
May 8th might be interesting. On that day Covid will finally be downgraded to a level 5 condition, on a par with seasonal flu. That ought to mean a grand unmasking with people ripping off their face coverings and dancing gaily in the streets. However, I doubt that will happen and expect many people to keep wearing face masks forever. I suggested to a Japanese friend that only an emotional appeal from the Emperor (“the cause of face masks has taken a turn not necessarily to our advantage” etc.) could induce people to remove them. “That wouldn’t work, they’d keep them on because they’d be afraid no one else would comply,” she said. It may be hopeless.
Throughout the last three years I have pondered which of my two countries was better (or less bad) to live in in terms of the Covid conditions imposed, which country better retained its collective sanity. For much of that time it was definitely Japan: businesses stayed open, there was no heavy-handed police response or campaign of psychological intimidation from behavioural science nutcases. Yes, travel was restricted, and the wretched masks were ubiquitous, but it wasn’t too awful.
But now, on balance, I’d rather be in the U.K. The persistence of the mask madness, the partitions and hand sanitisers that will seemingly never be removed, the public announcements that will never be silenced, and the near total lack of debate or even interest in what went on is even more depressing than the U.K. Even now NHK devote part of every news bulletin to a prefecture-by-prefecture recitation of the utterly meaningless case numbers and talk earnestly (excitedly?) of ninth, 10th, whatever, new waves of infections, and the need for eternal caution. Sixth jabs will be available from May 8th.
NHK has said precisely nothing about the excess deaths (up to 113,000 last year) we are experiencing, while the Japan Times and its Government stenographers ran one piece but placed the blame firmly on the long-term effects of Covid. Neither paid attention to the explosive contribution of respected physician and academic Masanori Fukushima or reported his suit against the Japanese Government for failing to reveal Covid death statistics.
Worst of all is my dread that unlike the U.K., where I think – I hope not naïvely – that a future Government would struggle to reimpose the restrictions of the last three years; in Japan I’m not sure this is true. My guess is that the people here would be perfectly happy to do it all again.
Philip Patrick is a freelance journalist based in Tokyo.