Prime Minister Shinzo Abe last week declared a state of emergency due to the nation’s rising COVID-19 infections. But the measure, made possible by a recent amendment to the law against infectious diseases, only empowered governors of the designated hot-spot prefectures to request citizens and private businesses to practice social distancing, such as minimizing outings, working from home, and closing or reducing hours of the businesses. The lack of enforcement provisions, such as fines, invited broad skepticism as to its effectiveness.

Abe’s “soft approach” in the critical make-or-break stage of the outbreak has been attributed to the limited legal authority of the government and the uncertainties about the epidemic in this country. However, given that even the opposition parties are criticizing Abe of “missing the right timing to declare an emergency by a week” and that his Liberal Democratic Party itself did not call for a stronger amendment to the anti-infectious disease law, Japan’s soft approach must have its origin somewhere else.

Despite Abe’s reputation as a leader capable of making bold decisions, such as altering the government’s interpretation of the Constitution over collective self-defense, his response to the novel coronavirus outbreak that started in Wuhan, China, was slow and incremental from the beginning.

As Abe prepared for an April summit (eventually aborted) with Chinese President Xi Jinping, the government tried to avoid a diplomatic embarrassment for Beijing by keeping the door open to Chinese tourists from Hubei Province (of which Wuhan is the capital) until Feb.1. An outbreak in Hokkaido, a popular destination for Chinese tourists, led to a ban on visitors from neighboring Zhejiang Province on Feb. 13, but Japan kept accepting tourists from other parts of China for weeks.

The government, meanwhile, traced domestic infection routes and selectively tested people who had close contact with COVID-19 patients as test kits were in short supply. As Europe and the United States experienced an explosion of infection cases and a collapse of medical systems in some cities, the death toll in Japan remained low, although the limited testing kept the true number of infections, including those who were asymptomatic, unknown.

While epidemiology experts give credit to Japan’s aggressive tracking of infection routes as the right approach to an outbreak in its initial stage, they have called for a shift to a social distancing strategy or insist that a complete lockdown is necessary in the second stage to flatten the infection peak and avoid overburdening the medical system. As more and more cases of untraceable infections appeared, Japan’s soft approach of merely requesting social distancing instead of mandating a tight lockdown of population centers, is being viewed with skepticism.

Decision-making amid uncertainties is no easy task. A lack of data, and perhaps more importantly proven theories, does not excuse the decision-makers from making one. Doing nothing is a decision in and of itself. However, Abe’s adoption of a soft social distancing strategy is not a result of indecision. A lack of scientific certainties as the basis of rational decisions allows personal values and beliefs to play a greater role in policy-making.

Political psychology emphasizes the role of individual leaders’ upbringing and their psyche in making decisions. Abe’s 2013 book, “Atarashii Kuni e” (Toward a new nationhood), offers hints that might explain his soft approach in the fight against the virus.

In the book, Abe traces his own national pride to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. He emphasizes the sense of belonging (identity) as an essential basis for any adaptation of cosmopolitanism. His “love of community” is the binary opposite of individual-based rationality.

The idea, originally presented in his vision of a “beautiful nation” and now re-emphasized in the “new nationhood,” weighs sacrificing of self-interests and devotion to the well-being of the whole community based on morality over a polity based on pluralistic competitions which mechanically assures that an aggregate sum of individual interests roughly resembles “common goods.” Abe’s dissatisfaction with the amoral thinking of (Western) political pluralism is evident in his writings.

The orderly image of Japanese citizens amid a disaster was strongly forged in the Japanese and global discourse on the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami of 2011. The panic buying of toilet paper, masks, sanitizer and other commodities is happening amid the COVID-19 outbreak, but rather quietly in a culture of shame.

Panic buying is not unique to Japan even during the ongoing pandemic. What is different is that it is understood more in terms of a “collective action” problem in the West, whereas it is more a morale issue in Japan. It is an irony in the Western perspective that the self-regulating market mechanism fails, whereas in Japan moral principles should guide consumer behavior in a crisis.

Explaining panic buying as a self-fulfilling prophecy and a collective consequence of rational individual behavior (as reported in recent media articles) did not stop the panic buying in Japan, but it does not relieve the Japanese of their shame. They go early to the store at the opening hour and orderly queue up to buy. Abe wants to utilize this cultural value in his fight against the pandemic.

Abe’s emphasis on love of community may relate to the fact that he has no children of his own. Family as the foundation of all communities is also viewed as the home of moral education. From this perspective, Abe is only speaking (in disappointment) of his view that families and communities today are not properly performing this function when he promotes moral education at public schools as a lamentable substitute to family-based moral education.

His disappointment is primarily aimed at the postwar baby-boom generation and their immediate offspring, but not present-day youths. Abe — without children of his own — is not a part of this failure.

Instead, he has staked the success of social distancing on the present-day youths, with whom he comfortably communicates, with the message that their responsible behavior is necessary to save the community. Mobile data research from the two weekends prior to the state of emergency declaration have shown that indeed youths are showing a greater reduction in their mobility, and the worst non-compliance with the call for social-distancing belong to those over 60.

In November 1970, when right-wing novelist Yukio Mishima called for a coup by the Self-Defense Forces, lamenting the postwar loss of national spirit, young people then did not echo his anger. Mishima then committed ritualistic suicide. The same generation — now in their 60s — is not with whom Abe has hope.

Abe sees that the “new nation” (of the youths) is challenged to show to the world the superiority of its morally driven social distancing strategy over the authoritarian Chinese lockdown and the disastrous liberty-to-lockdown flipflop of the pluralist West. Will Japanese youth revive Abe’s conservative nostalgia by defeating the coronavirus? We will see.

Yoichiro Sato is a professor at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Beppu, Oita Prefecture.

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