January 26, 2022 - 10:15am

Japan has placed 18 more of the country’s 47 prefectures into a ‘quasi-state of emergency’ in response to rising numbers of Omicron cases, bringing the total to 34. This comes after 62,000 cases were reported on Tuesday (an all-time high) with nearly 13,000 in Tokyo and 8,600 in Osaka (death rates, it should be said, remain very low).

The ‘quasi state of emergency’ sounds dramatic and ominous but on close examination is unlikely to be more onerous than any of the previous ‘quasi’ lockdowns in Japan’s Covid response, which have entailed relatively minor impositions on the public, usually framed as requests rather than regulations. The new rules aren’t much different; they merely empower regional governors to: ‘request dining establishments limit their opening hours’. However, in a nation where fear of being shamed by the curtain twitchers is at least as scary as official sanctions, most shops and bars will comply, revenues will plummet, and damage will be done to the hospitality industry.

And to what end? In the case of Okinawa, where the first cluster of cases were reported at US army bases, it was probably political in nature. The local governor Denny Tamaki, of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, faces reelection and is rumoured to be in some trouble. A nice bout of Yank-bashing goes down quite well in Okinawa, with its history of problems between the US forces and the locals.

And for Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who has Upper House elections on the horizon, there is a need to set a decisive tone and distinguish himself from his predecessor Yoshihide Suga, who was often accused of acting too slowly in response to Covid upticks. One of Kishida’s first actions as PM was to effectively return Japan to its isolationist ‘Sakoku’ past by closing the borders at the first utterance of the word Omicron. Well, almost — Japanese nationals could return, but nearly all foreigners, regardless of their circumstances, were temporarily excluded.

Suga was also notoriously reluctant to explain his rationale and Kishida seems keen to avoid that criticism too. He spent twenty minutes explaining his initial Omicron strategy in a press conference, about as long as Suga spent explaining anything in his entire tenure. The message was basically: ‘better safe than sorry, we don’t know what we’re dealing with’.

And yet, data from South Africa meant we did have a pretty good idea and it wasn’t particularly alarming; (90% of Okinawa’s Omicron cases were reported to be mild or to have no symptoms at all). Moreover, there is a serious question over whether stopping the spread of Omicron (‘nature’s vaccine’ according to some) is even desirable; and if it is, it’s not clear that these interventions will make any difference.

So, it appears that, in Japan as in so many other places, politics is triumphing over science — at least for now. The Japan Times reported that ‘not all’ of Kishida’s government are supportive, citing grumbles that the scientific case had not been made, and the economic damage too great.

The selective border closure has been controversial too. The head of the Japanese Business Federation called it pointless and self-defeating. And Michael Ryan, head of the WHO’s Health Emergencies Program questioned the efficacy and the ethics: “epidemiologically, I find it hard to understand. Does the virus read your passport? Does the virus know your nationality or where you are legally resident?” he asked.

Japan has thus far been through Covid with light restrictions and low political turmoil — it remains to be seen how long that lasts.

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