Shinzo Abe’s hebdomas horribilis

Things are moving fast in 2020. Just over a month ago, the Prime Minister delivered his policy address to the 201st session of the Diet, where he said this:

「日本オリンピック」。坂井さんがこう表現した六十四年大会は、まさに、国民が一丸となって成し遂げました。未来への躍動感あふれる日本の姿に、世界の目は釘付けとなった。

 半世紀ぶりに、あの感動が、再び、我が国にやってきます。

 本年のオリンピック・パラリンピックもまた、日本全体が力を合わせて、世界中に感動を与える最高の大会とする。そして、そこから、国民一丸となって、新しい時代へと、皆さん、共に、踏み出していこうではありませんか。

“Japan’s Olympics.” This was how Mr. Sakai [Yoshinori Sakai, the Olympic flame torchbearer who lit the cauldron in the last Tokyo Olympics] described 1964 Summer Olympic Games, which the nation came together to accomplish. The eyes of the world were on Japan, which was filled a vibrant dynamism for the future.

After half a century, that emotion will once again come to our country.

This year’s Olympic and Paralympic Games will once again, with the combined strength of all of Japan, be the best Games to wow the world. And from there, the nation will come together as one, and step forward into a new era.

(This is my own translation, since at posting time, the Government hasn’t released an official translation of the Prime Minister’s policy address.)

A household name recognized around the world (can you say the same for his predecessors?), Mr. Abe has truly made new beginnings to be a part of his brand. In his ideal and beautiful Japan, which indeed came together to mark the new Emperor’s reign last year, women are finally part of the workplace, economic growth will rebound, the Olympics will bring the world’s attention to Japan, and the Constitution will finally recognize the existence of the Self-Defense Forces.

Mr. Abe has actually said most of the above for the past seven years. In my cynical view, this week, we got to see what Mr. Abe’s Japan of the future is like.

Abenomics’s directionless arrows

After Japan raised its consumption tax last October and weathered a terrible typhoon, Japan announced that its fourth quarter GDP in 2019 fell at an annualized rate of 6.3 percent—far more than anyone was expecting, apparently.

As Robin Harding writes for the Financial Times:

The big questions are whether a technical recession could turn into a deeper downturn; whether there is anything the government and the Bank of Japan can do about it; and where this leaves Mr Abe’s ambition to revive Japan’s economy as the prime minister’s own time in office draws to a close.

Masamichi Adachi, UBS chief economist, said the latest growth numbers were “very weak, dismal, shockingly bad” and showed that the economy was struggling even before the virus struck. “Japan will definitely suffer from a plunge in inbound tourism and from weaker goods trade given the level of activity in China is so low,” he said.

I’m not an economics expert, but what can Mr. Abe do to make the numbers look better? Pour more money into the economy? Or follow the IMF’s recommendations and (eventually) raise the consumption tax to 20 percent?

The floating petri dish in Yokohama

Last month, a 80-year-old man from Hong Kong started coughing. Despite his cough, he got on a cruise ship called the Diamond Princess, which eventually sailed to Okinawa and Yokohama. In Yokohama, everyone on the cruise was quarantined for two weeks.

If you only watched the Japanese news media in the last month, you wouldn’t really know how big of a deal COVID-19 was to Japan. What you would have learned, on the other hand, is that the Suginami Ward Police were handing out Valentine’s Day chocolates.

TV Asahi, February 15, 2020

As for what was actually happening on the Diamond Princess, Suryatapa Bhattacharya wrote one dispatch for the Wall Street Journal:

The nearly 2,400 passengers who remain are largely trapped in their cabins. Health workers in masks and body suits knock on doors to ask selected passengers, including the elderly, to open wide for a throat swab. Used bedsheets and towels go into bags for incineration.

Anxiety and boredom appear the most common symptoms aboard what amounts to a floating petri dish. Aun Na Tan, of Melbourne, Australia, her husband, a 19-year-old son, and a daughter, 16, are stuck in a windowless cabin with two bunk beds. While the teens practice handstands, Ms. Tan said, “my husband is trying to learn.”

Shipboard entertainers have been assigned to record trivia quiz shows and origami-making for passengers to join along on cabin TVs. The magician recorded a performance, and a room steward demonstrated how to make a bed.

A month later, over 600 people on board contracted COVID-19, of which two had died. But none of these people count towards the number of infections recorded in Japan on the SmartNews app. Is it because what happens on a cruise ship in Yokohama has nothing to do with the rest of the nation?

Screenshot taken February 21, 2020.

On February 19, Kentaro Iwata, an infectious disease specialist at Kobe University Hospital, alleged on a viral video on YouTube that the Government had mishandled the Diamond Princess quarantine. As Rocky Swift reports for Reuters:

“The cruise ship was completely inadequate in terms of the infection control,” he said in his video. “There was no single professional infection control person inside the ship and there was nobody in charge of infection prevention as a professional. The bureaucrats were in charge of everything.” 

His English and Japanese language videos criticising what he saw inside have been seen more than 1 million times and forced a response from the government. 

When asked about the videos and the criticism, the government’s top spokesman, Yoshihide Suga, said staff on the boat were thoroughly protected from infection through the use of masks and hand washing. The government has repeatedly defended its measures as appropriate.

An interview by Kasane Nakamura for Huffington Post Japan with an unnamed member of the medical personnel on board the Diamond Princess echoed Dr. Iwata’s concerns. The interviewee also said that the ship was not divided into clean or contaminated zones. Ministry officials did not brief the crew on health and sanitation management, and instead said it was okay for the crew to wear the same mask for the whole day, which, in the interviewee’s opinion, was meaningless.

Dr. Iwata’s video opened a floodgate of comparisons about the Diamond Princess quarantine and the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Other journalists starting spotlighting the allegedly self-serving culture that pervades the bureaucrats at the Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare.

And in a move smacking of Carrie Lam’s own smug arrogance, Gaku Hashimoto posted a photo on Twitter of two sad A4 sheets of paper taped in a hallway saying that the cruise ship was indeed divided into clean and contaminated zones. Dr. Iwata quickly pointed out that cross-contamination would happen on the spot where Mr. Hashimoto had taken his photo of the paper signs. Mr. Hashimoto’s picture survived on Twitter for two hours.

Dr. Iwata himself deleted the video after a day. According to Buzzfeed Japan and Motoko Rich, the New York Times‘ Tokyo bureau chief, Dr. Iwata told journalists at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club Japan that he deleted the video, because “he had been told by someone he trusted on board the ship that protocols dividing clean/green zones from dirty/red zones on the ship had improved”, and Japan’s Institute of Infections Diseases had published more data on the cruise infections.

What about the Olympics?

A shrinking economy, and the same bureaucratic impotence in Mr. Abe’s Japan of the future. Now the news media is now full of speculation about what’s going to happen to the Tokyo Olympics this summer. Here’s Charles Campbell’s take for Time:

Already, his insistence during the bidding process that radiation from the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant meltdown would be tackled has been called out after Greenpeace found radiation hotspots in December near where the Olympic torch relay will pass. Similar assurances that COVID-19 will not disrupt the Games will be treated with skepticism, says Jules Boykoff, a politics professor at Pacific University, Oregon who studies the Olympics and played soccer for Team USA. “For many, when they hear Abe and other officials saying that COVID-19 will not affect the Olympics, they hear the unmistakable ring of previous empty promises.”

But it’s unclear what a Plan B might look like. Simon Chadwick, professor of the Eurasian Sport Industry at France’s Emlyon business School, suggests a networked event held across different countries is a more likely alternative. (The 2020 UEFA European Soccer Championships and 2022 Commonwealth Games are slated for such a format.) Yet there will be considerable resistance from sponsors and broadcasters who have already ploughed vast resources into securing rights deals and promotional activities.

According to Shinya Kobayashi, a sports writer, the FIBA Asia Cup qualifiers in Chiba have been postponed, and the Tokyo Marathon is refusing general participants (and refunds). As Kobayashi writes for Diamond Magazine Online:

こうしたスポーツイベント中止や自粛の動きは、コロナウイルスの感染が広がる限り続くと予想される。現実に、東京オリンピックの足元が揺らいでいる。それなのに、IOCや組織委ばかりが「実施」を強く主張し続ける。東京オリンピックがまるで「砂上の楼閣」のように見えてくる。

It is predicted that organizers will continue to cancel or refrain from holding sports events so long as coronavirus infections continue to spread. In reality, the Tokyo Olympics are on shaky ground. However, only the IOC and the Organizing Committee continue to insist that the Olympics will continue. The Tokyo Olympics are beginning to look like nothing but a house of cards.

 一体、誰のための、何のためのオリンピックなのか。

For whom, and for what, are we holding the Olympics for?

 私は、オリンピックの意義、スポーツの目的を社会全体で共有すべきだとずっと願ってきた。いまは、皮肉にもウイルスによってだけれど、スポーツの社会的目的や位置づけを共有する好機と捉えてもいいのではないかと思う。しかし、日本政府にも、スポーツ庁にも、そのような意識も、改革の使命感も感じられない。

I had hoped that the Games would share the meaning of the Olympics and the purpose of sports with all of society. It might seem ironic, but I think the virus is a good opportunity to share with all the purpose and place sports in our society. However, I feel that neither the Japanese Government nor the Japan Sports Agency has that kind of awareness and mission for reform.

Perhaps I can answer Mr. Iwata’s question. The Tokyo Olympics, backed by a critical mass of corporate household names whipped into national service by Dentsu, is too big to fail. And so is Mr. Abe himself. Who else is there to run Japan?

Tales from Tabata is not a primary news source. For updates on COVID-19 in Japan, please see the Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare’s site and other primary news sources.