TOKYO – To understand how Japan is coping better than most other countries in the world with the dire consequences of the coronavirus pandemic, according to Mika Yanagihara, who went to central Tokyo last week to pick up flowers. Even going outside in the mid-90s temperatures, she kept the lower half of her face completely covered.
“People will stare at you,” says Miss. Yanagihara, 33, said as she explained why she didn’t dare take off her mask. “There is such pressure.”
Japan’s Covid death rate, at just one-twelfth that of the US, is the lowest among richest countries in the world. With the third largest economy in the world and the 11th largest in terms of population, Japan also ranks first. global rankings in vaccination and consistently has one of the lowest infection rates in the world.
Although no government ever prescribed masks or vaccinations, or lockdowns imposed, or mass surveillance, the people of Japan have largely avoided the worst of the devastating effects of the virus. Instead, in many ways, Japan has let peer pressure do most of the work.
Even now, as the average number of cases per day has fallen to 12 per 100,000 residents, about a third of the United States average, a May government study found that nearly 80 percent of people who work in offices or attend schools wear masks and about 90 percent do so while using public transport. Movie theaters, sports stadiums and malls continue to require patrons to wear masks, and for the most part, people comply. The term “face pants” has become a buzzword, implying that taking off the mask would be as embarrassing as taking off your underwear in public.
Many factors undoubtedly contributed to the outcome of the coronavirus in Japan, including the nationalized healthcare system and tight border control which have experienced those in many other countries.
But experts say social conformity and the fear of public stigmatization that is instilled from a very early age have been key ingredients to Japan’s relative success in preventing Covid. Unlike many other countries, Japanese law does not allow the government to issue lockdown or vaccination orders. Most of the population followed each other, heeding the recommendations of scientific experts, who urged people to wear masks and avoid situations where they would be in closed, unventilated areas with large crowds.
After slow startOnce Japan increased the distribution of vaccines, most people followed the advice to get them. Even without mandates, nearly 90 percent of all people over 65 years of age, the most vulnerable population, received booster shots compared with 70 percent of older people in the United States.
In Japan, “if you tell people to look right, they all look right,” said Kazunari Onishi, an assistant professor of public health at St. Louis. Luka International University in Tokyo.
“In general, I think that being influenced by others and not thinking for yourself is bad,” says the doctor. Onishi added. But during the pandemic, he said, “it was good.”
Unlike the United States, wearing a mask or getting a vaccine has never become an ideological litmus test. Although confidence in the government has fallen during the pandemicin the country where the same party has ruled for all but four years since 1955.the public has put pragmatism over politics in their approach to Covid.
Often people controlled each other or businesses that were seen to violate municipal requirements to close early or stop the sale of alcohol during periods declared by the state of emergency.
“We got so many reports of open stores that we started making jokes about the ‘self-restraint police’,” said Yuko Hirai, who works in the emergency response department in Osaka, Japan’s third-largest prefecture. “People definitely knew they were being watched by society.”
The practice of keeping up with peers is instilled in students who wear uniforms in most public schools and are forced to follow institutional expectations. “Being excluded from a group is a big deal for Japanese kids,” says Naomi Aoki, an assistant professor of public administration at the University of Tokyo. “They always want to belong to a social group and don’t want to feel isolated.”
Children are taught to act for the common good. Students clean classroom floors and school grounds and take turns serving lunch in the cafeteria.
Japanese culture also depends on an ethic of public self-restraint that can be turned into group action. When Emperor Hirohito died in 1988, Pop artists have postponed weddings and schools have canceled festivals.
After the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster led to severe power shortages, the population reduced use electricity voluntarily. (With temperatures rising in Tokyo last week, residents are being asked to do so again.)
During the pandemic, politicians have used “this collective idea of self-restraint for the public good,” said James Wright, an anthropologist at the Alan Turing Institute in London, who studied Japan’s response to coronavirus.
According to Hitoshi Oshitani, a professor of virology at Tohoku University in northeast Japan and a government adviser, the authorities hoped that with few legal options to enforce the guidelines, the population would voluntarily comply with requests to stay at home.
Despite the culture of collectivism in Japan, Dr. Oshitani was surprised when businesses closed quickly and people refrained from going outside. Companies that never allowed remote work sent employees home with laptops. Families canceled visits to elderly relatives. Nearly 200 industry groups representing theatres, professional sports teamsand places where weddings and funerals were held issued lengthy protocols to prevent infections.
The public accepted the recommendations, and the overall death rate actually fell below the level of the year immediately preceding the coronavirus outbreak.
Those who tried to oppose the leadership were subjected to public condemnation. Toshio Date, who runs an Osaka go and shogi board game establishment, initially tried to stay open when the city ordered restaurants, bars and other entertainment venues to close.
When local TV stations began asking for the club to be removed as an exception, Mr. Data, 58, received the message and promptly closed down. Even after infections stopped in Osaka, which had Japan’s highest death rate, and businesses reopened, he was often scolded by strangers for hosting too many customers, he said.
While the public provided most of the stick, the government offered the carrot in the form of economic subsidies for businesses.
According to statistics from the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, in 2020, the country paid out more than $40.5 billion to more than 4.2 million small and medium-sized businesses and individual entrepreneurs.
Larger businesses received “collaboration money” based on their pre-pandemic earnings, up to 200,000 yen — just under $1,500 — a day.
The incentives were not universal. In the first summer of the pandemic, pockets of infection began to appear in downtown Tokyo’s nightlife districts as bar and cabaret goers ignored expert advice.
When businesses flouted recommendations for ventilation, mask-wearing and alcohol disinfection, city officials were sent in to convince them to comply. Only as a last resort were businesses fined or deprived of economic subsidies. In Tokyo, according to the city’s Bureau of Industry and Labor, 96 to 98 percent of businesses eventually agreed to follow the rules.
Experts warn that voluntary consent is no guarantee of perpetual success.
“The answer is like playing Othello,” the doctor said. Oshitani likens Japan’s response to the coronavirus to a board game where one move can change a winning outcome into a losing one. “Suddenly the most successful countries can become the worst countries in the world,” he said.
For now, residents continue to succumb to peer pressure.
Kae Kobe, 40, a receptionist at the Shibuya office, said that because her job involves dealing with clients, she always wears a mask at work.
“Everyone around is still wearing it,” she said. “That’s why it’s hard to get rid of it.”
Hisako Ueno as well as Hikari Hida made a report.