Has Japan’s pandemic response been successful?
Like most countries, Japan has struggled to limit 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 Ministry of Health, nearly six million people incurred COVID-19 and over twenty-six thousand have died of it.
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Japan’s economy shrank by 4.5 percent in 2020 as a result of the pandemic, but returned to grow by 1.7 percent in 2021. first positive growth in three yearsaccording to Financial Times. But the prevalence of the omicron variant, along with rising oil prices and pervasive supply chain difficultiesexpected to set Japan’s growth prospects back again.
Over time, people became frustrated with the government’s pandemic management and the lack of access to vaccines following emergency measures that were in place and varied from region to region. The government insisted on trials of mRNA-based vaccines in Japan instead of accepting the trials already conducted in the United States and Europe. As a result, vaccinations was not rolled out until a few weeks before the Tokyo Olympics began in July 2021.
Despite this inertia, Japan has never had the high number of COVID-19 cases or deaths suffered by the United States and Europe. The Olympics, despite widespread public health concerns, were managed safely. In fact, COVID-19 cases fell sharply by the end of the summer of 2021, although it is not clear why. When Japan’s vaccination program started, immunization rates quickly exceeded those in many other countries. Today, 79 percent of Japanese 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 about the government’s handling of COVID-19, and there have been striking political consequences. In two years, two prime ministers – Shinzo Abe and Yoshihide Suga – have resigned.
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Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who was elected in November 2021, took drastic measures as the omicron variant began to spread; he closed Japan’s borders to all foreigners and again introduced emergency measures. The reaction to this was mixed. In Japan, 89 percent of the public supported Kishida’s harsh stance, according to a Yomiuri spot poll. But as the weeks went by, growing concern in business and among non-Japanese, including international students and those with family members in Japan, caused the Kishida cabinet to compromise. Last month, the Japanese government announced that it would raise the number of non-Japanese people allowed into the country and that it would ease the quarantine requirements for vaccinated people. From May 1, all foreign students waiting to study in Japan will have access and will receive state aid if necessary to adjust to Japanese life.
Like elsewhere, the omicron variant drove the number of cases up in Japan. The Kishida cabinet will be cautious ahead of this summer’s upper house election. With the omicron wave beginning to subside, Japanese citizens are hoping for a gradual easing of pandemic restrictions, and companies are pushing the government to reopen the country’s borders. Still, Japanese public health authorities will keep a close eye on the recent rise in COVID-19 cases in China.
How has the pandemic affected Japan’s relations with its neighbors and partners?
Although personal visits have been difficult, Japan’s leaders have pushed forward to pursue their foreign policy goals, especially in the Indo-Pacific, with the United States and other countries in Quad’en.
Suga traveled to Vietnam and Indonesia after taking 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 participated in two Quad summits host of Biden the same year. Similarly, the 2 + 2 meetings between the United States and Japan, which bring together cabinet ministers responsible for 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 they almost had to meet due to the spread of the omicron.
Japan is also active within global diplomatic efforts 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 colleagues as coordination of sanctions accelerated. Kishida has repeatedly spoken with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and offered humanitarian aid and loans.
Japan’s troubled relations with China have not been helped by the pandemic. Tensions between the two had been rising for some time, especially after a dispute over islands claimed by both countries in the East China Sea. China’s rising military activity in and around Japanese territory – at times with Russian forces – has led to greater Japanese defense spending. Chinese President Xi Jinping was scheduled to travel to Tokyo in April 2020 with the aim of improving bilateral relations, but the visit was postponed due to the pandemic. The journey has not been moved, although 2022 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the resumption of diplomatic relations between Japan and China. China’s support for Russia’s war in Ukraine could prevent further diplomatic efforts on the part of Japan to resolve tensions.