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What Lies Behind Japan's Successful Management Of The Pandemic


Japan has lifted its state of emergency on Tokyo and four other prefectures yesterday. The country has had relatively few deaths from COVID-19. But as NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Seoul, one thing many Japanese agree on is these good results have come about despite the government's handling of the virus.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: So far, the virus has killed about 850 people in Japan or about 7 per million. By comparison, the ratio in the U.S. is about 44 times that number. It's infected about 17,000 out of a population of around 126 million. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared the emergency over on Monday.



KUHN: "We were able to contain the virus in a month and a half in a uniquely Japanese way," he claimed. "We showed the power of the Japanese model." But some experts say Japan has tested so few people it's hard to know how many cases it really has. Dr. Shigeru Omi, vice chairman of a panel of experts advising the government on the epidemic, recently made this point in Parliament.


SHIGERU OMI: (Speaking Japanese).

KUHN: "Actually, nobody can tell at this point," he said, "whether the true number of infections is 10, 15 or 20 times the reported number." Even so, argues Eiji Kusumi, an infectious disease expert who runs the Navitas clinic in Tokyo, if the virus were really decimating Japan's population, it would be hard to miss.

EIJI KUSUMI: (Speaking Japanese).

KUHN: "Why aren't our medical institutions flooded with pneumonia patients," he asks. "We Japanese doctors still don't know the reason for this, although there are various hypotheses." There are medical hypotheses such as the idea that the virus attacking the U.S. and Europe is somehow mutated or different from the one in Asia. There are cultural explanations such as Japan's custom of bowing instead of shaking hands. Kusumi says however Japanese explain their fate, there is one factor you usually don't hear mentioned.

EIJI: (Speaking Japanese).

KUHN: "No citizens think that things went well because of what the government did," he says, adding, "we just got really lucky."

EIJI: (Speaking Japanese).

KUHN: Despite his claim of success, Prime Minister Abe's approval rating slumped to an eight-year low of 29% in a weekend poll by the Asahi newspaper. Most Japanese feel he was too slow to declare a state of emergency. In April, he tried to distribute two face masks to each Japanese household, but many ridiculed the policy as Abe-no-mask (ph), a spoof on his economic policies dubbed Abenomics (ph). To be charitable, says Paul Nadeau, co-editor of the Tokyo Review, a Japan watching website, Abe is as torn by competing priorities as other world leaders.

PAUL NADEAU: You've got the health concerns, the political concerns and the economic concerns.

KUHN: And to his credit, Nadeau says, Abe has left the medical issues to the experts. But he adds that Abe has not held up his end of an implicit bargain, which is this...

NADEAU: You don't have to like us, but you at least have to concede that we're confident on managing the economy. And on that count, the public's found Abe severely lacking.

KUHN: ...Japan's economy is already in recession, and one recent poll shows most Japanese don't feel Abe has done enough to help businesses survive. Despite Abe's blunders and the lack of a clear explanation for Japan's low number of deaths, Nadeau argues that Japan may eventually be counted among the countries that manage the epidemic successfully. And that, he adds, boils down to fundamentals like investing in basic health care, contact tracing and washing hands.

NADEAU: It's not a magic bullet. It's not necessarily exciting. It doesn't attract a lot of attention, but, by God, it works.

KUHN: Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.

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