January 20, 2023 - 1:00pm

The Japanese government is planning to downgrade the status of Covid-19, reclassifying the disease to the level of seasonal flu. Covid is currently at the second most serious threat level, on a par with tuberculosis and SARS, but after reclassification it would be at number 5 of 5. The move would mean the lifting of nearly all remaining restrictions, and would place barriers in the way of their reimposition. We could be close, it seems, after three wearisome years, to returning to something resembling the old normal.

Money is, unsurprisingly, a large part of the motivation for this. The Japanese economy is in a dire state: 2022 saw a record trade deficit and a plunging yen. Covid curbs can no longer be afforded, especially with the promise to double defence spending over the next five years. The rumoured imminent 400% increase in the price of Moderna shots, currently offered free, is a possible accelerant.

For the hugely significant domestic tourism sector, even when travel restrictions were removed a lingering reluctance to stray from home meant the recovery was only minor. Pleading with the public failed, too. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida announced in October that face masks were no longer required outdoors but he has been completely ignored.

Kishida is doubtless concerned about his country’s international reputation. Japan is one the last countries that requires vaccination or a negative PCR on entry and along with the ubiquitous masks, the incessant announcements, the nightly case counts on TV, the thermal cameras at shops, restaurants and places of entertainment the whole situation is looking increasing silly. Kishida will want all that gone by the time of the G7 summit in his hometown of Hiroshima in May.

Then there is the troubling issue of vaccine safety, which is currently still lurking on the fringes of public discourse but becoming more prominent. The issue drew national and even international attention after a video surfaced of an extraordinary meeting in Tokyo on November 25th. This featured harrowing testimony from spouses of alleged vaccine fatalities and an attack on the alleged negligence and secrecy of the Ministry of Health Labour and Welfare (MHLW) by Dr Masanori Fukushima, Professor Emeritus at Kyoto University and a distinguished oncologist.

The matter is now being investigated, with the government starting to make payouts to the vaccine-injured and for vaccine-related deaths, as well as stating that a link ‘cannot be ruled out’.

The mainstream media has only just started reporting this, and even then only briefly. But while pro-vaccine stories were once common, they have now disappeared. This will not go unnoticed in a country where ‘reading the air’, as the Japanese say, is a vital means of interpreting uncomfortable messages. Meanwhile, Shunkan Shincho, a weekly magazine outside the mainstream with a circulation of over half a million, is publishing a series on vaccine-adverse reactions.

Japan is fertile ground for vaccine hesitancy as it has a history of scandals. In 2013 the health ministry withdrew the human papillomavirus vaccine after reports of lasting pain. In 2011 four children given vaccines against types of meningitis and pneumonia died, leading to the immediate suspension of the programme; and in 1993 the MMR vaccine was withdrawn over fears that it caused meningitis. Multiple lawsuits ensued. At the start of the pandemic a study in the Lancet found Japan to be one of the most vaccine-sceptical countries in the world.

Consequently, there was a much more cautious vaccine roll-out here. There was no intimidating ‘get jabbed or else’ messaging and the invitation leaflet, with its list of potential side-effects, seemed almost designed to put people off. A warning label was even placed on each vial.

This official caution is partly due to legal concerns: in 1992 a court ruling made the Japanese government responsible for not only adverse reactions but also side-effects. But it is also probably a consequence of the culture of blame and accountability in Japanese government. Officials, up to and frequently including the Prime Minister, admit fault and resign quite easily, even after relatively trivial scandals. If the official pro-vax, pro-lockdown narrative is going to collapse anywhere, there is reason to believe it could happen in Japan.

To avoid that, Kishida, already vulnerable after a series of scandals and resignations, will hope the downgrade marks a clear distinction between then and now in the public consciousness and enables the nation, and his administration, to move on. It remains to be seen if the people who still fear the virus and those who believe themselves damaged by the vaccines will cooperate.

The world, meanwhile, will be watching with interest, For, just as the outbreak on the Diamond Princess cruise ship moored at Yokohama in February 2020 influenced countries around the world at the beginning of the pandemic, so events in Japan three years later may help determine the global response at its end.

Philip Patrick is a lecturer at a Tokyo university and a freelance journalist.