The number of deaths across the nation fell in the first three months of 2020 despite the novel coronavirus, according to data issued by the health ministry, adding weight to the government’s position that it was able to control the first wave of infections in the pandemic.
The mortality data, released Tuesday, showed Japan recorded 368,793 deaths in the first three months of this year — a 0.7 percent fall from the average of the same period in the past five years.
With its graying and declining population, Japan typically sees deaths rise versus the previous year.
Although Japan has had the fewest number of confirmed COVID-19 infections and related deaths of any Group of Seven leading democracy, it has also had relatively low testing levels, which raised questions about whether the outbreak may have been worse than reported.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe this week ended the nationwide state of emergency in place since early April, declaring success in controlling the virus as confirmed infection numbers tailed off. Deaths have risen during the three months in seven of the last 10 years in Japan, ministry data showed. Mortality data for April was not yet available.
The decline in deaths for the first quarter may be due to precautions people took to prevent becoming infected, including an increased use of protective masks that may have helped slow a spread of the seasonal flu, said Mitsuyoshi Urashima, a professor in molecular epidemiology at the Jikei University School of Medicine in Tokyo.
“Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the number of influenza cases was quite low,” said Urashima. “That may have lead to the low excess mortality.
“But we can’t say there was no excess mortality until we see the data for April, May and June,” he added.
Calculating excess mortality — the number of people who died in a period compared to the baseline — has been used to try to grasp the true scale of the fatalities from the outbreak, and compare the toll across countries that might not count causes of death in the same way.
The figure also helps to capture situations where the mortality rate may have fallen, such as Japan having seen fewer suicides and car accidents as a result of people staying home. A EuroMOMO tally found there have been over 159,000 excess deaths in Europe during the coronavirus pandemic.
Data for Tokyo through March was released earlier this month, but hadn’t previously been available for the country as a whole. Japan has been criticized for the comparatively slow release of its data, and for being hampered in its virus response by a reliance on antiquated technology.
“This is an emergency situation so we need things done quickly,” Urashima said. “Every day local authorities are faxing through coronavirus case details. It’s ridiculous. If the data on cause of deaths was just uploaded when the doctor writes it, we could calculate the figures on a daily basis.”