Japan Makes Saving Face a Priority Over Saving Lives

Jake Adelstein
The Asahi Shimbun/Getty

TOKYO–On Tuesday at a 7 p.m. press conference,  Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared a state of emergency for Tokyo and six other prefectures. The long-awaited measure was taken in response to a dramatic increase in the official number of novel coronavirus infections. 

Up until March 24, when the Tokyo 2020 Olympics were postponed until next year, Japan’s government had given the impression that everything was under control. Even the decision to put off the Games was cast as the result of foreign Olympic committees announcing they would not attend during the pandemic that was touching, well, other countries. 

Thanks to Pandemic, Tokyo 2020 Olympics Put Off to Next Year

Then on March 25, a day after the announcement, Tokyo counted 41 confirmed cases of the virus, more than double its previous high of 17 cases. The same day, Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike held a press conference  warning that the city was at a critical phase. She said that it might see an explosion in the number of infections if it failed to act. She used the word “lockdown” as if it came out of the blue and asked everyone to refrain from leaving their homes—for that weekend. 

The numbers nationwide kept rising. “In order to make it appear that the city was taking control of the coronavirus, Tokyo made the number of patients look smaller,” former Prime Minister Yukio Hatayama tweeted caustically on March 25. “The coronavirus has spread while they waited. [For Governor Koike] it was the Olympics first, not Tokyo’s residents.”

No one is denying there is a problem now, just two weeks after the Olympic announcement. As of early April 9, Japan has conducted 61,498 tests for the virus, and confirmed 4,877 cases. There have been 94 deaths.

But while Tokyo, Osaka and other prefectures are planning what they call a “soft lockdown” to stop the spread of the virus, Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) is planning to engage in a software lockdown of criticism about Japan’s handling of the coronavirus.

According to an article in the newspaper Mainichi published April 7, the ministry has been given a budget to combat the plague of foreign criticism directed at Japan’s government.

The newly approved project will use artificial intelligence (AI) to investigate and analyze posts made from overseas on Twitter and other social networking sites. After proper analysis of tweets and posts made in the U.S., Saudi Arabia and other G20 countries, MOFA will then make counter-arguments against what it considers misinformation. 

The article notes without a hint of irony, “[The ministry] took into account the wave of criticism about Japan’s handling of the epidemic aboard the Diamond Princess [cruise ship].”  Both inside and outside Japan, the handling of the quarantine on the ship was regarded as an unmitigated disaster. Kentaro Iwata, a professor of infectious diseases at Kobe University, was so horrified by the complete chaos he saw on the ship when he visited, that he blew the whistle. He later said he had felt safer during an Ebola virus breakout. 

If there seems to be a misapprehension about Japan, the Japanese government will dispatch “correct information” to those writing about it.  The ministry reportedly is planning to launch an offensive as soon as possible. 

The foreign ministry's plans were leaked to the press after Yoshihide Suga, the cabinet spokesman of the Abe regime, expressed his disappointment with a statement that had come from the U.S. embassy in Japan.

On April 3, the embassy issued an uncharacteristically blunt health alert sent to American citizens by email. It was then picked up by local media:

As compared to the number of positive cases and hospitalizations in the United States and Europe, the number of reported COVID-19 cases in Japan remains relatively low.  The Japanese Government’s decision to not test broadly makes it difficult to accurately assess the COVID-19 prevalence rate. While we have confidence in Japan’s health care system today, we believe a significant increase in COVID-19 cases makes it difficult to predict how the system will be functioning in the coming weeks.  In the event of a spike in cases, U.S. citizens with pre-existing medical conditions may not be able to receive the medical care they have grown accustomed to in Japan prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

U.S. citizens were urged to go home quickly, even though many would argue that even if the hospitals here run into difficulty, you might still be better off in a country like Japan with national health care. 

In any event, the Japanese media jumped on the missive to voice the truth they normally dare not speak: The Abe administration has deliberately kept testing suppressed and no one has any idea of how widespread coronavirus infection might really be.

Again, the Diamond Princess example is instructive, since it took place at a time when Tokyo still harbored ambitions to hold the Olympics this year. Not only did the government’s quarantine fail, it then failed to test 23 passengers before letting them leave the ship and in the end, let infected passengers return home by public transport, spreading the disease. Japanese medical workers  and Ministry of Health officials who had been doing quarantine work were not tested for the virus, and returned to work, infecting others. The Ministry of Health initially refused to test them saying, “if we found more people testing positive, it would interfere with work.” 

At the time, apparently for diplomatic reasons, the U.S. embassy also was reluctant to test its own employees who had been in contact with sick passengers. But it’s obviously reconsidered such deference to Japanese government sensibilities.

Cabinet spokesman Suga, in his press conference on April 6, claimed that, “Japan is following the World Health Organization guidelines and solidly dealing with the matter. [The U.S.] pointed out the  number of PCR tests [which determine if someone is infected or not] are few, but the number of dead are not that many.”  

That is true, although without proper testing cause of death is difficult to ascribe. 

Suga added, “We have painstakingly and politely explained to the United States [the situation] via diplomatic routes.” 

No one asked him about the posting from the German Embassy in Tokyo on March 24, which came before the U.S. alert and the same day the Olympics were postponed. 

Germany noted tactfully that the risk of infection in Japan could not be assessed seriously and that “it should be  assumed that there are a high number of unreported infections due to the small number of tests carried out.” Depending on how you want to translate “nicht seriös” which can mean “untruthful, mendacious,” you might even uncharitably feel that Germany accused Japan of lying. 

In the future, it should be assumed that AI will quickly find these mistaken statements by the clueless barbarians staffing foreign embassies. The system will then alert the Japanese government, so it can communicate the correct information to them seamlessly. 

Koichi Nakano, a professor of Japanese politics at Sophia University, considers the AI program conceived by MOFA to be emblematic of Japan’s shoddy handling of  the coronavirus epidemic.  

“The Abe government has approached this crisis first and foremost as an economic crisis and a government public relations crisis, rather than an epidemiological crisis,” said Nakano. “The fact that Yasutoshi Nishimura, the Economic Revitalization Minister was made the Minister of Coronavirus Countermeasures is very telling. They are far more concerned about rescuing what is left of Abenomics [the fiscal policies of the Abe administration] than public health.”

Nakano suggests that AI might be better used to combat the coronavirus by collecting information and analyzing it. Of course, that would be wonderful, if it happened, because only Japanese officials have the data and they aren’t releasing it. 

Commentators and analysts suspect that Japan’s actual number of infected and dead may be hidden in the pneumonia statistics. The policy of the government has been to treat symptoms rather than test for the virus, so if patients are treated for pneumonia and get better they aren’t counted among the COVID-19 infections. If they die, autopsies are rarely performed, so the deaths are not linked to the coronavirus either. Pneumonia statistics aren’t being released to the public. 

Other basic information is kept from the public without any explanation. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government has a COVID-19 web page and seems to be promoting transparency by putting out the daily number of the infected. However, it won’t tell you how many people asked to be tested or how many people were actually tested; basic data is lacking so that the numbers have no context. The same is true of the statistics released by the  Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare. There seems to be no interest in getting an indication of the prevalence of the virus in Japanese society. 

Even after months to prepare, the central government and Tokyo appear so unready for a lockdown that it seems likely to fail. 

Japan should know that artificial intelligence is great for censorship but you need actual intelligence to combat a coronavirus epidemic. Real intelligence, both the practical kind and the analytical kind—as in data— seems to be sorely lacking in the Japanese government right now.

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