Political Elements of Japan’s COVID-19 Response

First of all, here is a pre-print of an article written by Giulio Pugliese and myself on “Japan in 2020”. It is not short, essentially being a combined COVID-19 response review article together with a year in review article.

I was also asked to write something for East Asia Forum about the relationship between COVID-19, the Olympics, and Japan’s upcoming House of Representatives election that must be held by the end of October this year. Current reports are pointing to the beginning of September for the election if the government’s calculated risk of holding the Olympics (with spectators) turns out to be prescient. There is also an LDP election for president mandated for September, the winner of which is almost certainly going to become Prime Minister of Japan. The figures and commentary below are useful data points supporting assertions in that article, which you can read here.

This first figure shows the PCR Positivity Rate for Japan’s various PCR testing facilities throughout 2020 as reported by the MHLW.

This is essentially the number of individuals receiving a positive COVID-19 PCR test divided by the number of individuals tested (not the positives to test ratio as people are tested multiple times). A rolling seven-day mean is used to smooth out the day-to-day fluctuations in reporting and testing.

Knowing how much testing to do is difficult when testing everyone regularly is not an option. Especially at the outset of a pandemic when various systems have not been streamlined or stress-tested, there are labour and resource trade-offs that have to be considered. Also important is to avoid throngs of infected people crowding medical facilities where other vulnerable patients also congregate. It also seems the more one tests, the more one finds COVID-19 positives. The so-called R2 for testing to cases is often over 0.9 (the degree to which the number of positive individual cases is determined by variation in the number of PCR tested individuals).

Obviously, the cause of this is that testing is not a random sample, but self-selected or demand driven; nevertheless, it is still difficult to know what level of testing gives you at least a reasonable indication of the trends, even if not the exact prevalence of COVID-19 (which would require mass scale testing, which some countries have gone for). The WHO, however, suggests that a PCR Positivity Rate around 5 percent or under is an appropriate level and an indicator of sufficient testing, while anything greatly above that suggests insufficient testing likely to result in poor information and the underestimation of prevalence by orders of magnitude.

In Japan’s case, the above figure shows that for most of 2020 the PCR Positivity Rate was under or around the WHO indicator. It actually worsened following the announcement of the postponement of the Olympic Games. Testing began to rapidly scale up just prior to the announcement, but the curious thing is that, even though testing capacity and administration increased after Olympics postponement, so too did the PCR Positivity Rate. If Olympics postponement was the ultimate cause of increased testing, and therefore the increase in confirmed cases, we should have seen the exact opposite trend. In essence, the demand for testing increased as symptoms resembling COVID-19 also increased rapidly around that time. Researchers subsequently identified the ‘European Strain’ as the culprit of the big jump in infections starting in March through to July, suggesting it was the government’s failure to lockdown the borders to Europe and the US, rather than undertesting that let the original ‘Wuhan Strain’ to proliferate undercover, that was the driver of the first state of emergency in May 2020. This failure of course is still a political driver—connected as it was to the Olympics and diplomatic considerations. But such considerations are not a good explanation for (purposeful) undertesting (especially as it would be self-defeating in the long-run). In any respect, antibody testing in June and December 2020 lent credence to the claim that COVID-19 just simply was not that prevalent in Japan during 2020.

Political Evaluation of Government Responsiveness During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Subjectively, the story is quite different. The following figures relate to the Japanese public’s evaluation of the central government’s COVID-19 response as well as general political sentiment during the pandemic crisis up until June 21, 2021. This is of course something different from the evaluation of Japan’s overall response, where a number of different actors, including local governments, medical authorities, and the public itself, were involved. In the first figure, we see low public evaluation of the personal leadership shown by both Prime Ministers Abe and Suga during 2020 according to surveys conducted by both the right-leaning Yomiuri Shimbun and left-leaning Asahi Shimbun.

This next two data points were constructed using survey data from 7 major media companies’ regular surveys. All organizations asked virtually identical questions about how respondents rated the central government’s overall COVID-19 response. The sources were the Asahi Shimbun, Kyodo News, Jiji News, Yomiuri Shimbun, Nikkei Shimbun, Mainichi Shimbun, and NHK. I considered Sankei/FNN surveys for other items in 2021, but due to a fake survey scandal, the data from 2020 is unusable. The company took a break from surveying anyhow.

Beyond evaluation of government response, the media companies asked a variety of other questions.

The first figure below shows that, perhaps unlike a lot of overseas jurisdictions battling COVID-19, there was little pressure on the Japanese government to open up economically in 2020—if anything, quite the opposite. Of course, had there been more severe lockdowns like elsewhere, the outlook may have changed, but we will never know.

This next figure shows a rare drop in LDP party vote intention in the next House of Representatives election of about 10 percent (Yomiuri and the Asahi). This is not of a scale that would imperil an LDP majority at a House of Representatives election, especially as the LDP still retains overwhelming advantages in the small member districts due to its strategic voting relationship with Komeito and the vote-value disparity advantage for rural electorates. Nevertheless, if this trend continued through to the next election, it would cost some seats and is the sort of thing intra-party rivals could point to in any subsequent leadership contest, say one due to take place in September 2021.

The next two figures show that the public is currently not too enamored with Prime Minister Suga and that at this point they would not mind seeing the LDP go in another direction in September’s leadership contest. Of course, there is the small matter of the Olympics and a national election to traverse. A ‘safe and secure’ Olympics and policy proposals that interest the public in the general election, such as a minimum hourly wage boost to ¥1000 that would also apply to rural areas, could still give Suga a big boost that might allow him to unite the party behind him.

If the calculated risk of holding the Olympics turns bad, however, the House of Representatives election can still be delayed until October to give the government time to deal with whatever problems arise. However, given Suga’s already precarious position, the LDP would also need this time to select a new leader ahead of the House of Representatives election as Suga stands down to ‘take responsibility’ on the LDP’s behalf.

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