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Hi Blog. The Diamond Princess cruise ship case (which has been discussed extensively on Debito.org this past week) fell within my SNA monthly column window this time, so here’s my take on it. Enjoy. Debito Arudou Ph.D.
Visible Minorities: Japan’s Botched Response to the Coronavirus
By Debito Arudou, Shingetsu News Agency, Feb 17, 2020
SNA (Tokyo) — The drama of cruise ship Diamond Princess, currently moored at Yokohama and quarantined by Japan’s Health Ministry due to some of the 3,700 passengers and crew testing positive for the coronavirus, is a human rights crisis.
The Covid-19 outbreak that originated in China has killed more than 1,700 people and sickened tens of thousands.
Here’s my take: Surprise! I’m not going to argue that the prison-ship conditions are due to racism, but more a matter of official stupidity.
Racist would be what happened in Japan during the SARS outbreak in 2002-2003 and the H1N1 swine flu in 2009. Back then, some hotels and other businesses refused entry not only to all “Chinese,” but also to all foreigners (and it happened to me, even though I’m not a foreigner). Racist was the idea that the contagion was a foreign thing, and Japanese (who by that time had also been infected) were somehow immune.
To be sure, exclusions like that are indeed happening again here and in other countries, as public fears outrun the coronavirus’s infection rate. But to see the Diamond Princess fiasco in the same light would miss the point: It’s more Japan’s germophobia than xenophobia.
Remember that Japan is a place where face masks are fashion, and even bokin (bacteria-resistant) bicycle handlebar grips are marketable. Even after definitive science on the non-contagiousness of Hansen’s Disease was known, Japan was one of the last countries to abolish its leper colonies. Japan’s over-prescription of antibiotics has created medicine-resistant superbugs. Indeed, cleanliness has reached the point of becoming impossibly antiseptic.
Given this aversion to germs, it’s no wonder Japan’s knee-jerk reaction was to make the Diamond Princess into a lazaret.
Nevertheless, the Japanese government botched it. The right thing, as Italy and Hong Kong did with their cruise ships, would have been to immediately test everyone on the ship and then quarantine those certifiably infected, or to quarantine everyone off-ship in hotel rooms for the two-week period. There should have been enough hotel rooms for 3,700 people considering the preparations for the Olympics this summer.
Instead, they kept everyone on board, dubiously citing insufficient testing kits, and converted the ship into an incubator—thus ensuring that more people would infect each other. The Diamond Princess has become the largest coronavirus outbreak outside of China.
Why? Here’s where the stupid comes in: authorities just didn’t want Japan’s infection statistics to go up.
If passengers had deboarded, they would have officially entered the country, and anyone testing positive would have to be added to Japan’s official numbers of infected. This would embarrass Japan’s leaders, who are suffused with the chauvinism that “rich, developed Japan is not like China or the rest of Asia.” Many a statistic that might dent national pride (such as Japan’s celebrated, but artificially-low unemployment rates) are routinely fudged. Sure enough, according to the Johns Hopkins Department of Civil and Systems Engineering website, the 355 confirmed cases on the Diamond Princess remain uncounted by any country.
But again, this stone-headedness is not a matter of racism, because the largest nationality on board (1281 passengers, about a third), are in fact Japanese. They’ve been caught up in the stupid and not getting any exceptional treatment. They’ll just have to stay on board and gaman (persevere) like everyone else.
But that’s another thing the Japanese government botched: the willingness of all the passengers to simply gaman the stupid. The Diamond Princess is an international ship, and passengers from other countries aren’t going to do what’s expected by Japanese authorities. They are not going to quietly do as they’re told.
In fact, many people with different historical touchstones about being quarantined might object to being trapped on a Kalaupapa, a Swinburne Island, a Poveglia, or a wartime “hell ship.” So they did something about it. Passengers and crew have internet access, and they complained loudly to their respective governments and media about the increasingly intolerable conditions they have been subjected to.
Viral videos and interviews have turned the Diamond Princess into a much bigger embarrassment than some statistical infection rate blip. Instead of looking like Asia’s foremost modern, clean, and civilized country, Japan has only managed to look unprepared to handle international standards of disease control, or for that matter the international tourism Japan wants so badly.
However, the Diamond Princess isn’t just another case of Japan’s ham-fisted handling of international issues that usually goes unnoticed by the outside world. People might actually die from the official incompetence this time.
This sore lack of viable emergency plans, despite all the prior waves of epidemics, is once again due to Japan’s vestigial self-image of being an isolated island chain, and how that fact somehow keeps it safe and immune from problems plaguing the rest of the world.
At this point, all the Japanese government can hope for is the disease will run its course in a few weeks, and everyone will just get sick, recover, and go home. But if somebody dies on this modern-day “hell ship” they’ve created, that’s not a blameless Act of God; that’s on them.
It’s time for Japan to stop reverting to type. It’s time to realize that freaking out and shutting out the outside world, then expecting the public to gaman no matter what mistakes the short-sighted bureaucrats make, is no longer viable public policy. Overcome the stupid national pride, and learn some lessons from how other countries manage crises.
For breaking news, follow on Twitter @ShingetsuNews
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18 comments on “My SNA Visible Minorities column 7: “Japan’s Botched Response to the Diamond Princess Coronavirus isn’t Racism; it’s Stupidity”, Feb 17, 2020 (full text)”
On BBC World News a professor from John Hopkins University has just called the quarantine of the Diamond Princess ‘a political stunt’.
And he would know; JHU was including the Diamond Princess cases in Japan’s total on their website until last week, when they started listing them as ‘other’.
So I guess political pressure was put on the university. Do they have any positions funded by the Japanese government/japanese companies/institutions?
I think that the creation of a floating version of Wuhan can only be partly attributable to the GoJ being embarrassed / loosing face over rising infection statistics — there is an economic component to consider: “Concerns are rife that if the virus is perceived to be widespread in Japan, it may cause a blow to tourism and the economy.”
Japan wants cruise ship infected separated from country’s total over economy fears
“But if somebody dies on this modern-day “hell ship” they’ve created, that’s not a blameless Act of God; that’s on them. ”
When this happens, and it will, it will be interesting to see how the “Someone must be held responsible” will clash with the “We did our best to keep the foreign scourge out but failed.”
Public health officials bowing in mock apologies, that will be it. God has never had that much to do with it as far as Japan is concerned, in any calamity. It’s always a matter of who gets the blame. The ‘foreigners’ disease is the easiest and most convenient. After all, they brought it here on their ship, and they are the weakest and least able to fight back.
We Japanese are the blameless victims.
Shoe on the other foot;
Japanese being discriminated against over virus fears.
My heart bleeds.
Happening in Paris too…
Just read your article on the SNA site. You are to be highly congratulated, it’s brilliant! You have the great ability to tell it exactly as it really is. I found myself just nodding all the way through!
Tokyo Ramen shop owner bans foreigners, due to corona virus, says “this is not discrimination ”
Just in case he later tries to claim “Japanese Language Only”
the archived evidence shows he stated “Japanese PEOPLE Only”
Fellow keen observer /u/Wolframite notes:
“Well, if you wish to support a Tokyo ramen restaurant that has no such policy …sanctuary ramenya, if there were such a thing …, head over to Ginza Kagari Honten https://www.instagram.com/kagari_honten/ where last night ( probably unknowingly ) they served former Diamond Princess passengers Matthew Smith and his wife Katherine :
And, on their first night out, martinis and steak at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse in Hibiya:
Here’s another version of the same story:
Picture of the establishment.
Very good article. And there are many other good articles on this site, But by the way, who is behind SNA? There is no name, to be found on the site especially on the “about” page, so nobody is in charge? If we support the site via Paetron, who gets the money?
— Michael Penn. Look him up.
There was something else I’ve been meaning to say for the last two weeks…
Tokyo’s plan to use cruise ships to make up for the shortfall in hotel rooms during the Olympics!
Funnily (?) enough, the article says that the Sun Princess has been contracted, owned and operated by Sun Cruises, who also own and operate the Diamond Princess. I wonder how that plan is working out?
We all know that nationalist pride and saving face for the Olympics demands that Japan doesn’t have the highest number of Coronavirus cases outside of China, so just how do you keep this number down?
One answer is to browbeat international organizations to list cases on the Diamond Princess separately.
Another is simply to refuse to test people who turn up at hospitals in Japan complaining of Coronavirus symptoms;
There! The ancient Japanese tradition of ignoring uncomfortable realities. Something about putting a lid on a stinking pot, but, uh, whatever, not solving problems seems to be a major ‘thing’ in the culture.
And as predicted by The Daily Beast 2 weeks ago, Abe exploits virus panic (induced by his poor leadership) to pass a ‘temporary’ Emergency Law that gives him the power to suspend individual rights…just like the LDP wanted to put into a new fascist constitution.
But he won t take any action that would inconvenience him personally like banning baseball or closing restaurants since he greatly enjoys watching pro baseball games and eating out (which he does every day). He does not hesitate however, to close the schools since he has no children personally.
Oh, the terrible burden of power.
Absent Abe didn’t have anything to say when the Diamond Princess disaster was unfolding, then spent a frantic two weeks ramming his ‘emergency law’ through the Diet, and now he’s been sitting on that for a week.
‘Headless chicken’ and ‘drama queen’ spring to mind.
I guess he’ll proclaim a state of emergency and get the right-wingers wet in their pants AFTER the IOC cancels the Tokyo olympics for him because international teams are in lock-down in their home countries. Then he can blame it on ‘foreigners’ for ruining everything. Because, after all, Japan’s infection rate is so low (so is it’s testing rate!).
I’m the meantime, I guess the government doesn’t mind it’s pensions and social welfare burden being reduced by deaths due to ‘other causes’ since Japans autopsy rate is about 1.5%. Cause of death will be listed as pneumonia rather then Coronavirus?
This is interesting. South Korea is now turning the things around as they successfully put the number of cases in control after the spike on March 3. In terms of promptness and transparency, they are ahead of Japan. A pulitzer prize-winning journalist Glenn Greenwald gave them an unreserved praise on twitter:
“South Korea’s approach to Covid-19 has been far less authoritarian & brutal than China or Italy’s and of other countries in western Europe, yet more effective than almost anyone’s. Read about why: isolation, social distancing, targeted quarantines, etc”