Viral Politics: Why Japan’s Hesitates to Use Force or Call a Pandemic War

Across the world, the Coronavirus pandemic is being used as a test of true colors. The extremity of the situation calls into question our trust in government, companies and corporations, and even relationships between friends and family. Though we are dealing with a global pandemic, the individual responses of governments varies IMMENSELY. Japan, which has been considered a slow actor in responding to the pandemic, has come under scrutiny internationally in late February and early March as the number of confirmed coronavirus cases was confirmed.

Many claim the country’s stubbornness in pushing through for the Olympics and for prioritizing the economy have put its residents at risk. Others claim the testing procedures, far below capacity for the daily available tests,

However, there are greater nuances with roots in the history of Japan through the 20th century and the contemporary political system that affect how the country will and can respond.

Why Japan Is Not Saying the Pandemic is a War

President Macron of France During His Lockdown TV Conference. Image Source: Morocco World News

When the lockdown was declared in France, President Macron gave a news conference to the country, pushing the seriousness and urgency of the situation, declaring that the state of things in France was war. All resources would be mobilized towards dealing with the Coronavirus, the cooperation of ordinary people in staying home was made mandatory, not up for negotiation, and those who violated the call to stay at home faced increasingly steep fines as police patrolled the streets. Those following Japanese news in recent days will see that not only is the rhetoric very different in Japan.

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SDF Aid in Airport Screening and Transport Home. Image Source:

After WWII, (with great pressure from other countries, particularly the United States) Japan vowed to never again become a country capable of war, and it is inscribed in the current Constitution. While there are defense forces, known as the SDF, or 自衛隊, they have very little public presence or visibility, and they do not have the same associations with patriotism and duty to country that a (standing) army would have in other countries. (When travel restrictions were widely placed in Japan, the SDF was stationed at major airports such as Narita and Haneda to conduct testing and to provide private transportation to those heading into mandatory quarantine.)

A huge aspect of the postwar rhetoric is shaped around the need to believe that Japan is a country at peace, (in Japanese, heiwa no kuni 平和の国) and that nothing will threaten that peace. It is something you will find in the speeches of Prime Ministers and the emperor. And while it neglects the societal issues that do exist in Japan, among the public, there is at least an outward facing consensus that Japan is a country at peace. The kind of rhetoric engaged by President Macron, which might serve as a sobering call for individuals in France, would be shocking, and a very threat to the national identity of postwar Japan.

Use of Force in Japanese Politics: Why the Postwar Constitution Matters

The Japanese Characters for Peace, Used Frequently in Political Rhetoric. Image Source:

Every time a conference is given, something seems to fall flat for the public is the actual mechanism for enforcement.

While it is true that local up to prefectural government have the authority to close schools (which in most places is set until the end of the Japanese Golden Week holiday, April 6th) other forms of enforcement, are really just strong suggestions, some of which for businesses do include incentives, rather than requirements. What gives? Many citizens in Japan are asking for overt, strict, mandatory measures to be taken. Why? Only 70% of white collar (aka office jobs) in Japan are currently able to transition into remote work. What that means is that unless the government demands that companies allow their employees to stay home, employees have no choice but to continue commuting to the office, unless they use paid leave (which is notoriously scant in Japan) or quit of their own accord, which would bring on an instability that the majority of workers do not want to find themselves in given the greater economic slump taking hold globally.

However, as we mention above, the powers of the central government were limited greatly by the Postwar Constitution as we mentioned. Though Prime Minister Abe has issued a state of emergency that covers the entire country, in order for the measures of a state of emergency to include the right to force by the government, the Constitution itself would need to be amended, which is a whole other political question that would call for debate beyond the situation of the Coronavirus Pandemic.

So No Lockdown?

Aerial Shots of London in Lockdown. Image Source:

Prime Minister Abe has stated multiple times that no lockdown by force will be conducted in Japan, as has been done abroad. Politically, this has been a move that has been received with mixed reviews, both domestically and abroad. Instead, the keywords for efforts by citizens can be summed up as gaishutsu jishuku (外出自粛) or simply, self restraint in going out. Many citizens do feel confused as to what exactly they should be doing, particularly those who still are being called to go to work but would rather stay at home.

The government is hoping to keep the economy afloat, at least to a minimum, so the current strategy is to limit businesses and offer incentives and stimulus money to those who are suffering (including offering every registered resident 100,000 JPY, approximately 930 USD) and to shut down schools, while still keeping public transportation up and running for those majority of people who still need to go into the office.

What are the measures in your country? Did you know that Japan’ constitution prohibited it from waging war? Let us know in the comments below!

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