Japan Has Weathered COVID-19 Better Than Many, but Problems Persist

In Brief

Japan Has Weathered COVID-19 Better Than Many, but Problems Persist

Two years into the pandemic, Japan has proven more effective than the United States and European countries at managing outbreaks. Still, the Japanese public has criticized government efforts, and two prime ministers have stepped down. 

Has Japan’s pandemic response been successful?

Like most countries, Japan has struggled to contain the spread of COVID-19. Several waves of the virus prompted emergency measures that restricted public activities, such as dining at restaurants, and strengthened the capacity of Japan’s health facilities. According to the country’s health ministry, nearly six million people have contracted COVID-19 and over twenty-six thousand have died from it.

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Japan’s economy shrunk by 4.5 percent in 2020 as a result of the pandemic but rebounded to grow by 1.7 percent in 2021, the first positive growth in three years, according to the Financial Times. But the spread of the omicron variant, along with rising oil prices and pervasive supply chain difficulties, is expected to set back Japan’s growth prospects yet again. 

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Over time, after on-again, off-again emergency measures that varied by region, people grew frustrated with the government’s pandemic management and the lack of access to vaccines. The government insisted on trials for mRNA-based vaccines in Japan, rather than accepting the trials already done in the United States and Europe. As a result, vaccinations were not rolled out until just weeks before the Tokyo Olympics began in July 2021.

Despite this sluggishness, Japan never had the high numbers of COVID-19 cases nor of deaths that the United States and Europe suffered. The Olympics, despite widespread concern about public health, were safely managed. Indeed, COVID-19 cases dropped precipitously by the end of summer 2021, although it’s not clear why. Once Japan’s vaccination program began, immunization rates quickly outstripped those in many other countries. Today, 79 percent of Japanese people have received two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine; 20 percent have received a third (booster) dose. 

How has the pandemic affected Japanese politics?

The Japanese public has been skeptical of the government’s handling of COVID-19, and there have been conspicuous political consequences. In two years, two prime ministers—Shinzo Abe and Yoshihide Suga—have stepped down.

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People wear masks at a train station in Japan.
People wear masks at a Tokyo train station in January 2022. Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who was elected in November 2021, took drastic measures when the omicron variant started to spread; he closed Japan’s borders to all foreigners and again imposed emergency measures. The response to this was mixed. Within Japan, 89 percent of the public supported Kishida’s tough stance, according to a Yomiuri spot poll. But as weeks went by, growing concern in the business community and among non-Japanese people, including international students and those with family members in Japan, prompted the Kishida cabinet to compromise. Last month, the Japanese government announced it would raise the number of non-Japanese people allowed into the country and that it would relax the quarantine requirements for vaccinated individuals. Starting May 1, all foreign students waiting to study in Japan will be allowed in and will receive government assistance if needed to settle into Japanese life.

Like elsewhere, the omicron variant drove case numbers up in Japan. The Kishida cabinet will be cautious in advance of this summer’s Upper House elections. With the omicron wave beginning to wane, Japanese citizens are hoping for a gradual relaxation of pandemic restrictions and businesses are pressing the government to reopen the country’s borders. Still, Japanese public health authorities will be keeping a close eye on the recent rise in COVID-19 cases in China.  

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How has the pandemic affected Japan’s relations with its neighbors and partners?

Although in-person visits have been difficult, Japan’s leaders have pushed forward in pursuing their foreign policy objectives, particularly in the Indo-Pacific, with the United States and other countries in the Quad.

Suga traveled to Vietnam and Indonesia after entering office in 2020 to showcase Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific vision. He also traveled to Washington, DC, in 2021 for a summit with U.S. President Joe Biden, his first meeting with a foreign leader. Suga attended two Quad summits hosted by Biden that same year. Similarly, the U.S.-Japan 2+2 meetings, which bring together cabinet ministers in charge of foreign affairs and defense, remain a priority. U.S. officials traveled to East Asia in March 2021, and Japanese officials were scheduled to visit Washington earlier this year but had to meet virtually due to the spread of omicron.

Japan is also active in the global diplomatic effort to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Consultations among Group of Seven (G7) leaders have been virtual. Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi met in person with his counterparts as sanctions coordination accelerated. Kishida has spoken repeatedly with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, offering humanitarian assistance and loans.

Japan’s troubled relationship with China has not been helped by the pandemic. Tensions between the two had been growing for some time, especially after a standoff over islands claimed by both countries in the East China Sea. China’s increasing military activities in and around Japanese territory—at times with Russian forces—have prompted greater Japanese defense spending. Chinese President Xi Jinping was due to travel to Tokyo in April 2020 with the aim of improving bilateral relations, but the visit was postponed due to the pandemic. The trip has not been rescheduled, even though 2022 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the resumption of diplomatic ties between Japan and China. China’s support of Russia’s war in Ukraine could preclude further diplomatic efforts by Japan to resolve tensions.

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