Government and governance, Health, Arts, culture & society | Asia, East Asia

15 June 2020

With much of the world enforcing lockdowns, life in Japan has been less disrupted, and its experience with COVID-19 shows the importance of a tailored approach to crisis, Matteo Convertino writes.

A recent commentary in The Japan Times analysed the Japanese government’s ‘Three Cs’ model of responding to COVID-19. The three Cs stand for ‘Closed, Crowded, and Close’, and refer to a plan for all citizens to avoid enclosed spaces with poor ventilation, crowded places, and close physical contact settings such as close-range conversations.

Japan’s approach, and its focus on gentle measures and not heavily enforcing the three Cs may seem strange to the eyes of people in countries where strict lockdowns have been adopted, or even a dangerous gamble.

However, Japan’s focus on informing the community, considering its intrinsic features, and allowing it to self-regulate, has had its strengths, and should be considered carefully as a possible example for policymakers.

When considering the Japanese government’s approach, it’s essential to bring in a broader view of the major elements characterising Japanese society, whether it be public behaviour, its sanitation, food security, environmental health, government structure, or healthcare system. What brings all of these together, and has had a huge impact on the country’s response to the coronavirus, is the value placed on collective good that is fundamental to both Japanese culture and policy-making.

The importance of the collective is deeply embedded in Japanese culture, and is reinforced through education social learning. In Japanese society, the collective is always more important than the individual self, because there is the deep belief that collective wellbeing and performance will translate into individual wellbeing and performance. Facing a pandemic, this is a very useful attitude for a population to have.

Just one example is the wearing of masks. Wearing masks is not done to protect oneself, but to avoid spreading even a cold to somebody else, and it is a form of respect to others, so it has been common in Japan even before the coronavirus. This attitude extends to the environment: preservation of the environment, and its enhancement, are primary values in Japan, and this translates into better population health outcomes.

More on this: Podcast: Pandemic policy perspectives

Cleaner environments reduce the spread of any virus. In cultural terms, this is also a matter of hospitality, another deeply rooted value in Japan.

In the end, taking care of one another is considered a matter of love. Public health, both in terms of infectious diseases that are dramatically fast, but also in a longer-term sense, is easier when the population respects their environment.

The Japanese approach to this meant that many policies other countries adopted in response to the pandemic – especially related to cleaning and social distancing – effectively existed in Japan even before any emergency declaration was issued.

This meant policies put in place for the pandemic simply reinforced behaviour already rooted in the population, both in terms of respect for others and cleanliness.

Of course, Japan did have to make changes, such as ensuring the widespread availability of disinfectant to clean hands in any public building, educating people via targeted messages in cities, keeping windows opened in trains and subways, chair distancing in cafeterias of universities, industries and restaurants, and limiting travelling, but these went down well in communities used to doing what is necessary to keep the environment safe and clean.

There are plenty of examples of self-imposed behavioural change generated by awareness of the virus in Japan, which are certain to have led to lower case numbers, and showed that the population often self-regulated to avert risks to public health. This meant there was no need for lockdown, as there might have been in other countries.

More on this: Asian responses to COVID-19

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to pandemic response, because populations are heterogeneous and mass control is only necessary in certain specific situations. Japan’s example should lead policymakers to question whether it makes more sense to lock away the public from danger, or whether it might be more effective to educate people so that they can avoid that risk themselves.

It has to be noted that soon after the glowing review of the three Cs policy in The Japan Times was written, Japan started to suffer a second wave with a steep growth of cases in April from 3,000 to 15,000 total cases, mostly due to imported cases as Japanese people and permanent residents returned from Europe or the United States.

It’s possible that insufficient border control caused this hiccup, but after testing and quarantining, the government got the second wave under control, and overall, it seems Japan is flattening the curve relatively successfully.

What’s most likely is that the first phase of the pandemic was a test of preparedness, while the second was a test of the tightness of the systems the government put in place to deal with the pandemic long-term, and so doesn’t serve to undermine the argument that Japan’s culture made it well-prepared and resilient in the face of the outbreak and lockdowns unnecessary.

But is the Japanese model applicable to anything beyond COVID-19, or to other pandemics?

Well, looking to Japan’s responses to natural catastrophes can be helpful. The adoption of extreme mass-scale interventions in response to crises in Japan has usually been unnecessary, with the government opting to support community responses, and so this model may be helpful for understanding disaster response more generally.

In all, what Japan’s experience with COVID-19 may show is that mass-scale interventions like lockdowns may only be necessary in places where the population is less likely to regulate itself to avert danger. This may be more common in highly capitalistic countries, or any country where individualism and self-preservation as well as poor environmental health, rather than the collective good, are the predominant values in the population.

Further, policymakers should play close attention to the dynamics of their own countries, instead of pursuing a one-size-fits-all approach to this and future crises, and look to educate populations and emphasise the collective value of protecting one another and the environment. Doing so may open the door to more flexible, tailored, and ultimately successful approaches to responding to disaster as well as helping build long-term community wellbeing and resilience.

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