Pandemic highlights Japan’s historical lack of leadership and management

By Chihiro Kai

“My evaluation of the Japanese COVID measures is that they are purely optimism based with no evidence, no grounds, as well as with very much a normative bias involved in there as well. And this has been consistent throughout this period, and it has only led to confusion and delays. And, I think particularly the delays in vaccinations is our definitive failure.” 

Yukio Edano, the leader of the most competitive opposition party in the upcoming October 21 general election, said to the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan on June 11.

The Constitutional Democratic Party leader further said the Olympics could invite an unprecedented domestic explosion in infection cases compounded by immigration and increased domestic travel due to summer vacation.

Edano said Japan historically lacks the leadership and management skills required to guide its citizens during turbulent times, an unresolved flaw from the mid to post-war era particularly highlighted by the pandemic.

Despite the anomalous nature of the pandemic, Edano said the COVID-19 subsidy program enacted in April 2020 during the Abe administration foreshadowed Japan’s fragmented and floundering response to the pandemic. The confusion and lack of organization that plagued local governments in their distribution of the 100,000 yen relief funds was the red flag the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, responsible for prefectural and municipal COVID-19 operations, failed to address. 

“We could already see the logistic failures, the lack of capacity and the disparities and so on in the local governments at the time,” Edano said. “The fact this was not noticed, and there was no overall management, no overall control tower, and no overall strategy put in place from that period when it should have been noticed is the key factor in regards to the vaccination program issues.” 

He then critiqued the current administration’s track record with PCR testing, hospital bed acquisition and vaccine rollouts. All three criteria for analysis held the overarching theme of a leadership vacuum. 

  • PCR testing 

Edano said the National Research Center on Infectious Diseases in the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare claimed jurisdiction over PCR tests and testing administration. This federal presence deterred the private sector and university institutions from getting involved, contributing to the low testing numbers. 

“And the issue there is not so much only with the research institutes, but the fact that the government never stood out and said ‘this is a problem, and that way of doing things is not right,'” Edano said. 

  • Hospital beds 

Edano said the MHLW ran away from its obligations to public health by pushing the responsibility of securing hospital beds to the prefectures. He said the government chose to cut spendings instead of providing the financial support each prefecture’s medical system required to buy necessary medical gear. Edano said this was “the reason that there was not this shift or these improvements in the number of hospital beds.” 

  • Immunization campaign 

Edano said that as local governments are responsible for implementing vaccination plans, what each body required to execute their operations effectively varies depending on the region’s population and size. He said the MHLW and the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications should have listened to these municipalities’ diverse requests and helped them prepare a personalized program from the very beginning. 

“This would have been one way to adapt and to have a much smoother progress in regards to this (vaccination initiative), but both of the ministries responsible for this did no such thing.” 

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Edano further said the responsibility for the mismanagement of the Olympics and COVID-19 also lies with the previous administration. 

“The decision which was made by then prime minister Abe last year to postpone the games for one year rather than two when there was still no view in sight at all of a vaccination program and so on. I think his responsibility for only postponing for one year at that time is something severe that we should look into as well,” he said. 

Both prime minister Suga’s and Abe’s COVID-19 measures have drawn criticism from Japan’s doctors, scientists and their representative bodies. On a May 27 FCCJ press conference, the chairman of Japan Doctors Union, Naoto Ueyama, called upon the international community to pressure the Japanese government to cancel the Olympics at the risk of public health and the birth of a new “Tokyo Olympic strain.” 

The CDP leader said both administrations’ COVID-19 measures symbolize their prime ministers’ views on science. He said he thinks both leaders attempted to use scholars and their opinions to justify their political decisions when innately, scientific knowledge should provide the materials for crafting policies.  

“There are times when politicians need to make decisions which aren’t the same as those suggested by science. That happened 10 years ago. If we had gone ahead following exactly what was being recommended by scientists and academics at the time of the nuclear explosion, we would not be sitting here today,” he said. “Ultimately, it is politicians; it is politics that take responsibility for those final decisions.” 

If the CDP were to replace the LDP as the ruling party, Edano said his administration would tackle the critical strategic management flaw in Japanese governing and ensure precise coordination between joint administrative bodies during policy implementations. 

Profile of CDP leader Edano Yukio: the exhausted face of a nuclear disaster

Edano was the chief cabinet secretary and spokesperson for the government during the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant disaster. He gained notoriety for his nearly hourly press conferences following the meltdown and the light-blue emergency workmen jumpsuit he donned at all times in front of the press. #edano_nero, translating to “Edano, sleep,” trended on Twitter in the days following the March 11 earthquake as the deep bags beneath the chief cabinet secretary’s eyes grew and rumors spread of him neglecting sleep for 100 hours immediately succeeding the disaster.

As the leader of a nine-month-old party posing the greatest threat to the Liberal Democratic Party, Edano has spoken at numerous press conferences this past year. In March, as the nation marked the tenth anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake, the former chief cabinet secretary said he aims to eliminate nuclear power in Japan. 

With the general election less than four months away, Edano promoted his book “Edano Vision” during the FCCJ press conference. 

“The neoliberalism which has been so pervasive in recent years is now becoming a thing of the past. The system of mass production that has been in place since the Industrial Revolution and looking at that as the way to create wealth is also something of the past. And we are now seeing the importance of the redistribution of wealth and also recognizing the importance of essential work for the social and economic development which we are promoting,” he said. 

Despite the LDP’s and Suga’s plummeting approval rates, past fluctuations in public opinion for the ruling party did not translate to changes in voting behavior. Edano addressed his party’s poor performance in public polls and said he relies on entrance polls to gauge election results. According to Edano, entrance polls conducted by his party accurately predicted the April 25, 2021 election in Hiroshima and Hokkaido where two of his candidates won seats.

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Chihiro Kai

Chihiro Kai

Chihiro Kai is a senior journalism student at the University of Kansas with a background in evolutionary biology and a blackbelt in Shorinji Kempo.

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