TOKYO – To understand how Japan has fared better than most countries in the world in containing the disastrous consequences of the coronavirus pandemic, consider Mika Yanagihara, who went to buy flowers last week in central Tokyo . Even when walking outside in temperatures in the mid-90s, she kept the lower half of her face fully covered.
“People are going to stare at you,” said Ms Yanagihara, 33, explaining why she didn’t dare take off her mask. “There is this pressure.”
Japan’s Covid death rate, just a twelfth that of the United States, is the lowest among the world’s wealthiest countries. With the world’s third-largest economy and 11th-largest population, Japan also leads the world in vaccinations and has historically had one of the lowest infection rates in the world.
Although no government authority has ever imposed masks or vaccinations or instituted lockdowns or mass surveillance, residents of Japan have largely escaped the worst ravages of the virus. Instead, in many ways, Japan let peer pressure do much of the work.
Even now, when the average daily cases have fallen to just 12 per 100,000 people – about a third of the average in the United States – a government survey in May found that almost 80% of people working in offices or enrolled in school wear masks and around 90% do so when using public transport. Cinemas, sports stadiums and shopping malls continue to require visitors to wear masks, and for the most part people are complying. The term “face pants” has become a buzzword, implying that dropping a mask would be as embarrassing as taking off your underwear in public.
Many factors have undoubtedly contributed to Japan’s coronavirus outcomes, including a nationalized healthcare system and tough border controls that outlast those of many other countries.
But social conformity – and the fear of public shame that is instilled from an early age – has been a key ingredient in Japan’s relative success in preventing Covid, experts say. Unlike many other countries, Japanese law does not allow the government to order lockdowns or vaccinations. The majority of the population followed suit taking into account the advice of scientific experts who encouraged people to wear masks and avoid situations where they would be in closed and unventilated areas with large crowds.
After a slow start, once Japan ramped up vaccine distribution, most people followed advisories to get them. Even without a warrant, nearly 90% of all people over 65, the most vulnerable population, received reminders, compared to 70% of seniors in the United States.
In Japan, “if you tell people to look good, they’ll all look good,” said Kazunari Onishi, associate professor of public health at St. Luke’s International University in Tokyo.
“Generally, I think being influenced by others and not thinking for yourself is a bad thing,” Dr Onishi added. But during the pandemic, he said, “it was a good thing.”
Unlike in the United States, wearing a mask or getting a shot never became ideological litmus tests. Although trust in government has plummeted during the pandemic, in a country where the same party has governed for almost four years since 1955, the public has put pragmatism over politics in the Covid approach.
Often people would check on each other or businesses would violate municipal demands to close early or stop serving alcohol during times designated as states of emergency.
“We received so many reports of stores opening that we started joking about the ‘self-restraint police,'” said Yuko Hirai, who works at Osaka’s emergency response department, the third largest prefecture in Japan. “People were definitely aware that society’s eyes were on them.”
The practice of staying in line with peers is instilled in schoolchildren, who wear uniforms in most public schools and are ashamed to follow institutional expectations. “Just being removed from the group is a big problem for Japanese children,” said Naomi Aoki, associate professor of public management at the University of Tokyo. “They still want to belong to a social group and don’t want to feel isolated.”
Children learn to act for the collective good. Students clean classroom floors and school grounds and take turns serving lunch in cafeterias.
Japanese culture also depends on an ethic of public self-discipline that can be mobilized into group action. When Emperor Hirohito died in 1988, pop singers postponed weddings and schools canceled festivals.
After the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011 caused severe power shortages, the public voluntarily reduced their electricity consumption. (With temperatures rising in Tokyo last week, residents are urged to do so again.)
During the pandemic, politicians have tapped “into this collective idea of restraint for the public good”, said James Wright, an anthropologist at London’s Alan Turing Institute who has studied Japan’s coronavirus response.
With few legal options to enforce the guidelines, authorities hoped people would voluntarily comply with calls to stay at home, said Hitoshi Oshitani, a professor of virology at Tohoku University in northeast Japan and government adviser.
Despite Japan’s culture of collectivism, Dr. Oshitani was surprised when businesses quickly closed and people refrained from going out. Companies that had never allowed telecommuting were sending their employees home with laptops. Families have canceled visits to older relatives. Nearly 200 industry groups representing theaters, professional sports teams and venues that have hosted weddings and funerals have released lengthy protocols to prevent infections.
The public embraced the guidelines and the overall death rate actually fell below that of the year immediately preceding the coronavirus outbreak.
Those who attempted to circumvent the advice were subject to public condemnation. Toshio Date, which operates a venue in Osaka devoted to Go and shogi board games, initially tried to stay open when the city asked restaurants, bars and other entertainment businesses to close.
When local TV stations started asking to film the club as an outlier, Mr Date, 58, got the message and quickly shut down. Even after infections took hold in Osaka, which has had the highest death rate in Japan, and businesses reopened, he said strangers frequently chided him for hosting too many customers.
Although the public provided most of the sticks, the government offered carrots in the form of economic grants to businesses.
In 2020, the country paid more than $40.5 billion to more than 4.2 million small and medium-sized enterprises and sole proprietorships, according to statistics from Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Development. ‘Industry.
Large companies received “cooperation money” based on their pre-pandemic income, up to 200,000 yen – just under $1,500 – per day.
Incentives were not universally effective. During the first summer of the pandemic, clusters of infections began to appear in central Tokyo’s nightlife districts as visitors to bars and cabarets ignored the advice of experts.
When businesses posted guidance on ventilating, masking and sanitizing with alcohol, city officials were dispatched to convince them to line up. It was only as a last resort that companies were fined or deprived of economic subsidies. In Tokyo, according to the city’s Bureau of Industrial and Labor Affairs, between 96 and 98 percent of companies eventually agreed to follow the rules.
Experts warn that voluntary compliance is no guarantee of indefinite success.
“The answer is like a game of Othello,” Dr Oshitani said, comparing the Japanese coronavirus results to the board game where one move can change a winning outcome to a losing outcome. “All of a sudden, the best performing countries can become the worst countries in the world,” he said.
For now, residents continue to bow to peer pressure.
Kae Kobe, 40, a receptionist at a Shibuya office, said that because her job is customer-oriented, she always wears her mask at work.
“Everyone still wears it,” she said. “So it’s hard to get rid of it.”
Hisako Ueno and Hikari Hida contributed report.