Roland Kelts is the author of “Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the US”, an editor of “Monkey: New Writing from Japan” and a visiting professor at Waseda University.
Japan is known worldwide for its punctual and efficient customer service, and during most of the pandemic – with the country in varying degrees of lockdown – it has been a godsend.
Food deliveries arrive at your door, hot and tightly sealed, up to 10 minutes sooner than promised. Packages sent from all over the country are delivered to you the next morning by gloved couriers. Convenience stores are really convenient – located everywhere, well stocked, impeccably sanitized, and open 24/7, even in the smallest towns.
In Tokyo, public clocks are everywhere. While it is true that you can set your watch on departures and arrivals of Japanese trains, from high speed shinkansen to suburban trains and more humble subways, you don’t really need a watch here.
Yet now that Japan has to keep pace with global vaccinations just two months before the start of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, the country is far behind and is scrambling to catch up. Only 2% of its population has been fully immunized, placing Japan at the bottom of the 37 developed countries that make up the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.
Which give? Why is the country hesitating over vaccine delivery when all conventional metrics – history, culture, trade, and the looming global review of the Olympics – would indicate that Japan is a regional if not a global leader?
I call it systemic myopia of Japan: an obsession with making every node in the system work well without a bigger picture of what the system should do.
Japan’s economic, cultural and political models assume a stable state that is under control so that it can afford to sweat the little things. When Japanese systems are isolated from interruptions, they are built to perfection. The precision in the precision of the details makes everyday life here functional, safe and reliable. It’s a great place to call home.
But when it comes to thinking long-term and large-scale to deal with crises or big plans – like speeding up a nationwide vaccine rollout against a global virus while welcoming an extravaganza international sports – Japan clings to an outdated step by step. means, to require an employee in person hanko buffers during the lockdown of lengthy vaccine approval procedures, whatever the realities.
Last summer, Finance Minister Taro Aso cited Japan’s “higher level of cultural norms” as the reason for its then low number of COVID deaths. Now, with mortalities exceeding 12,000, Aso is silent.
The most heartbreaking example of mental disjunction in Japan came 10 years ago, after the 2011 collapses at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Six days after the government’s frantic response began, TV footage showed a lone helicopter hovering 300 feet above the factory, eclipsed by the buildings below, spraying 2,000 gallons of water onto the smoking dome of ‘a damaged reactor – water blown by the wind in white vapor trails. which were washed away by the sea.
Prime Minister Naoto Kan had commanded the only self-defense helicopter in a desperate effort to prevent the damage from spreading. But to me it looked like a pitiful symbol of too little, too late.
I remember that helicopter now, as the government reestablishes short-term states of emergency at the very last minute, calling for restraint but offering no guidance or game plan, spraying mist on the toxic dome of COVID infections, hospitalizations and deaths.
To be fair, in Japanese art, engineering, and cuisine, less is usually better. Most of her prized creative accomplishments champion the miniature and the minimal: exquisite netsuke dolls, lacquers and ceramics, spare flower arrangements and haiku poetry, portable electronic engineering and hand-carved wood carpentry. Even its unparalleled and pioneering forms of popular culture, manga, and anime rely on highly selective linework and limited-frame animation techniques for their unique appeal.
The success of post-war Japan rests on its ability to think big in a small space. The entire archipelago covers fewer square miles than the US state of California, but is home to more than three times the state’s population. Seventy percent is mountainous terrain that is largely uninhabitable, with little area for agricultural land and no indigenous oil reserves. For centuries, and out of necessity, Japan has excelled at making small things with few resources that have very big effects.
The island nation thrived in times of isolation but failed in its colonial ambitions, welcoming outsiders with suspicion. Immigration remains low and since the first state of emergency last April, a long list of foreign nationals have been barred from entry. Until Friday, only one foreign vaccine, Pfizer-BioNTech, was authorized.
A certain degree of inward-looking self-respect has long adapted and rewarded indigenous sensibility. Over more than 200 years sakoku – closed country – period 1639 to 1853, as Western powers stumbled upon themselves to secure global trade routes and Asia’s wealth, Japan closed its ports and saw its civilization flourish. Until the United States forced the country to open in 1853 with its armada of potential Black Ships super-spreaders, Japan was doing very well under the self-imposed lockdown.
But Japan has also proven that it can implement comprehensive policies and programs when it is under enough pressure to do so, especially when that pressure comes from outside. Gaiatsu – foreign pressure – largely motivated the acquisitive study of the country and the adaptation of Western technologies in its process of modernization during the Meiji period (1868-1912), when the virtues of education and travel were valued.
Pressed again by the West almost a century later, at the end of World War II, Japan implemented sweeping plans for growth and societal change. It is no accident that Japan’s global spirit was inspired by its first and so far the only Olympic Games in 1964. As author Robert Whiting points out in his recent memoir, “Tokyo Junkie”, in 1960, less than a quarter of Tokyo’s neighborhoods had a sewer system. Four years later, by the time the torch was lit, they had the fastest train in the world and many flush toilets.
Today, as I write, the clocks are all correct, deliveries fast, stores well stocked. But what looks like a constant sensibility from the outside manifests itself in a million discrete and siled obsessions, without the coordination necessary to trigger meaningful action. While Japan’s image abroad is more compelling than ever, its systemic myopia inside the country creates a confusing micro-focus that lacks vision, as the country’s poor immunization planning reveals.
Government and business offices in Japan tend to be as precise as they are sclerotic. Everyone at each booth knows how to focus their i’s and cross their t’s, making everyday life smooth and efficient. But when it comes to conceptualizing anything beyond his desk, their screens go blank.
A growing chorus of foreign voices is now calling on Tokyo to cancel the games, and a national petition created last week has nearly 400,000 signatures. But it remains to be seen if pressure of any kind can pull Japan out of its nearsightedness this time around. What is clear is that a crisis like COVID on the cusp of an international event like the Olympics cannot be resolved by a department that micromanages its own workspace.