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Inside Japanese politics

Japan and Korea: Deference to authority shapes virus response

Mood in Japan surprises South Koreans, who tend to question their government

A mirror at a shopping mall reflects a crowd of people in Tokyo. Japan's and South Korea's approaches to the pandemic illustrate the neighbors' cultural differences.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- In Japan, as in much of the rest of the world, the pandemic has robbed spring of its sense of renewal.

This is usually a time for meetings and partings, for school graduation and entrance ceremonies, and for events that fill the streets with bustling crowds. It is a time to admire cherry blossoms and begin new sports seasons, as well as to travel domestically and abroad on spring break.

But the public mood is far more subdued this year as people curtail activities for fear of spreading the new coronavirus.

Japan has yet to declare a state of emergency. Though the parliament passed revised legislation Friday empowering the government to do so, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters the following day that conditions do not warrant it yet.

Yet the public is taking action regardless. The shift began with Abe's late-February request to close schools nationwide as a precaution.

A South Korean who moved to Japan recently marveled at the government's influence. Once it decides on a policy, "people fall in line without criticism even if they have complaints," this person said.

Beyond cancellations of big events, other signs of the change in the nation's collective psyche are evident around Tokyo.

In early March, a sign posted at a Buddhist temple announced that regular sutra-copying events were on hold. A notice posted last week at the entrance to a gym -- facilities singled out by Abe as crowded spaces where the virus can be transmitted easily -- stated that all pool and studio classes were halted through March.

And an annual spring high school baseball tournament at the renowned Koshien ballpark, a major fixture on the Japanese sports calendar, was canceled March 11.

The speed with which Japanese society has shifted gears to hunker down and ride out the pandemic has surprised people in neighboring South Korea, which is also battling an outbreak. The Japanese tendency to avoid standing out from the pack has fostered this show of discipline and self-restraint.

This is not to say that Japanese people fully trust their government.

The country has not been immune to panic-buying of masks, toilet paper, tissues, rice and instant noodles. Though rumors have fueled the hoarding, it can also be seen as a sign that people believe they need to rely on themselves, not the government, to keep themselves safe. Yet even when store shelves stay bare of masks, the public has not directed its anger at the authorities.

The government seems aware of the weight Abe's word carries among the public.

His request "couldn't be more serious," a senior official in the prime minister's office said.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Abe benefits from a cultural inclination to listen to authority, especially in times of crisis. (Source photo by Reuters)

Japan has yet to go so far as declaring an emergency in part because it does not see the situation meeting the two main requirements: the threat of a rapid, nationwide viral spread that would severely impact people's lives and economic well-being, and a clear and serious threat to the lives or health of citizens.

But some also say that such a declaration would be tantamount to Abe giving up on holding the Tokyo Olympics this summer. The government's wish to avoid this outcome aligns with Japan's cultural inclination to listen to authorities even when not compelled to do so.

The country has reported 874 cases of the novel coronavirus and 29 deaths as of Wednesday, not counting passengers on the Diamond Princess cruise ship that was docked off the coast of Yokohama in February. Japan, being a destination for Chinese tourists traveling for the Lunar New Year holiday, began seeing cases relatively early, but the rate of spread has been relatively slow.

Meanwhile, in South Korea -- which has seen what some in the media have dubbed a "mask crisis" -- people are aiming their frustration over inability to get things they need squarely at their government.

South Koreans "are not a people who endure things quietly," one said.

"They need to direct their anger at someone or something, and this time, the mask issue is fueling growing anger at the government," the source said.

South Korea had more than 8,000 confirmed cases of the virus on Wednesday, 10 times as many as Japan. Authorities have tested aggressively for the pathogen and taken drastic steps, including legislation that allows for imprisoning people who refuse to comply with quarantines.

South Koreans often say that they naturally distrust what their government tells them.

After 25 years of dictatorship from 1963 to 1988 -- under Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan -- and the process of democratization that followed, people "see it as the job of citizens to correct the government's mistakes," a South Korean journalist said.

When Middle East respiratory syndrome struck South Korea in 2015, authorities urged the public to take precautionary measures and made bundles of free face masks available at subway stations. Yet almost no South Koreans wore them. Practically the only ones who used masks were Japanese living or traveling in the country.

A book by The Korea Economic Daily published the following year argued that some members of the public, even as they blamed the government for the outbreak's spread, traveled or used such facilities as public baths despite being directed to self-quarantine after coming in contact with MERS patients or being treated at hospitals with MERS cases.

Mistrust of authority and refusal to follow instructions helped the disease spread. The more draconian measures taken by South Korea this time around, such as threatening prison for those failing to comply with quarantines, are rooted in this painful experience.

It is risky to make sweeping generalizations about a given country -- some coronavirus carriers in Japan have defied requests to stay at home, for example. But the contrasting approaches of Japan and South Korea to the pandemic do seem to illustrate cultural differences.

This "invisible enemy" will continue to test the political leadership of a Japanese government that prides itself on stability.

Inside Japanese Politics is a column that focuses on the details and inner workings of Tokyo statecraft, policy and foreign relations.

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