Japan and Korea Won’t Let A Pandemic Stop Them Fighting

Existing quarrels are being pushed forward as the virus spreads.

Officers assist passengers arriving at a quarantine station at Narita airport on March 9. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced on March 5  that foreign arrivals who have recently been in China or South Korea would be required to spend 14 days in quarantine.
Officers assist passengers arriving at a quarantine station at Narita airport on March 9. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced on March 5 that foreign arrivals who have recently been in China or South Korea would be required to spend 14 days in quarantine. KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP via Getty Images

Japan and South Korea have shown that when times gets hard, they can still prioritize the most important thing: blaming each other. While both countries have been hit hard by the new coronavirus, with South Korea suffering a serious outbreak and Japan’s economy faltering, instead of working together they have launched mutual travel restrictions that the World Health Organization says are unnecessary and unproductive and that will only worsen the growing economic impact.

For Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the action is part of an effort to demonstrate leadership after initially appearing to be leaving the problem to his subordinates. He had managed to cause more problems when he waded directly into the issue by suddenly announcing last month that the government would ask all schools to close on just four days’ notice. This left parents, including health care workers badly needed on the front line, scrambling to deal with having their children stuck at home. Officials in the education ministry privately said that Abe had not consulted them about the idea, something he tacitly acknowledged in defending his actions a few days later, saying that he understood the steps had “been causing great trouble to the Japanese people.”

In his latest policy move, Abe announced last week that Japan is nullifying tourist visas from China and South Korea, and anyone coming in will be asked to self-quarantine for 14 days. That comes on top of outright bans from the worst-affected areas in the two countries plus Iran and parts of Italy. “We are in a crucial period. It’s important not to hesitate to take decisive action on border controls,” Abe said in his announcement. “We will take aggressive action.”

The statement seemed conveniently timed to come just after Chinese President Xi Jinping delayed a much-anticipated visit to Japan that had been set for April, thereby avoiding the problematic optics of welcoming a nation’s leaders while his compatriots were in lockdown. The Chinese took the new restrictions in stride, although they took the opportunity to impose their own limits on Japanese coming into China.

[Mapping the Coronavirus Outbreak: Get daily updates on the pandemic and learn how it’s affecting countries around the world.]

South Korea, with over 7,700 cases—until the Italian outbreak the second-hardest-hit country in the world—was not as sanguine, however. Officials dismissed the restrictions as improper, said that such a travel ban was not based on proper science, and suggested the action was “intended as something other than for quarantine purposes.” South Korea has dealt with the outbreak swiftly, instituted testing on a vast scale, and been praised for its response internationally. In a statement, the foreign ministry said that the country had taken all the proper steps in trying to deal with the virus and said that it is “rather the [South Korean] government which is watching Japan’s response to COVID-19 with concern.” After denouncing the measure as a bad idea, it said it would impose its own ban on Japanese visitors “based on the principle of reciprocity.”

The World Health Organization felt it needed to weigh in, with Mike Ryan, the WHO official leading the response to the virus, saying that “Japan and Korea are both doing a fine job in the face of this epidemic,” adding that “I think we should focus on that and not necessarily on political spats over travel restrictions.”

This is just the latest round in a more than yearlong dispute between Tokyo and Seoul that seems to be rivaling Japan’s cold war with North Korea. Nobody can agree who started it. Since last July, South Koreans have largely boycotted Japanese stores and consumer products and have all but stopped visiting Japan. Given that South Koreans were one of the single largest group of foreign tourists, the impact has been significant. The boycott came after Japan placed export restrictions on chemicals needed in manufacturing semiconductors, a vital industry for South Korea. Japan says it took that action for export control purposes but also linked the action to South Korean court rulings that upheld claims by Koreans who were forced to work for Japanese companies during World II. Japan says all such claims were settled in the peace treaty between the two countries in 1965. South Korea counters that Japan has yet to apologize properly for its wartime behavior, and some have suggested the treaty should be renegotiated.

But criticism of the Japanese coronavirus response is not just coming from South Korea. Opposition parties have grilled government ministers on issues such as testing and the handling of a quarantine on the Diamond Princess cruise ship that docked in Yokohama, Japan. The vessel became one of the biggest clusters of infection anywhere with 696 cases, including seven deaths.

In some ways, Japan has avoided too harsh an international spotlight by the sheer fact that the problems are worsening elsewhere. With sharp spikes in the number of cases in Italy and Iran, Japan now has the 10th-largest number of cases (excluding the Diamond Princess). Japanese officials are hopeful that a recent decline in the number of new cases daily will also represent a trend, although the numbers remain choppy with 59 new cases on Tuesday but only two reported on Wednesday.

Those figures are themselves the subject of some controversy. Some experts have noted that the country is testing relatively few people. In order to get tested, a person must call a special phone line and go through their symptoms before being authorized to go to a publicly nondisclosed testing center. Figures from Japan’s health ministry that it can test 3,800 people daily with a total of around 10,000 tests so far is a far cry from the 222,000 tested in South Korea. This has led to a suspicion among critics that the government is discouraging tests that might spike the number of people identified as having the virus and further worsen the government’s reputation. According to Masahiro Kami, the chair of the Medical Governance Research Institute, a private-sector group in Tokyo, the official numbers are likely “the tip of the iceberg.”

One point that no one disputes is the impact all of this is having on Japan’s economy. Even before the virus hit the headlines, Japan’s economy was on a surprisingly steep slide after an increase in the national consumption tax and in response to softening demand from China amid its trade war with the United States. Revised figures released Monday showed that a downturn in the last three months of the year was even worse than initially expected with the GDP falling at a 7.1 percent annual rate, the worst since 2014. Since then, voluntary shutdowns and various restrictions have had a severe impact. Goldman Sachs has sharply downgraded its forecast and now predicts that the economy will contract another 2.2 percent, at an annualized rate.

Most of the data since the outbreak has yet to be calculated, but Japan’s immigration service testified in parliament last week that the number of inbound international tourists fell to fewer than 1 million in February, down from 2.37 million a year before. The number of Chinese entrants plunged roughly 90 percent to under 60,000. Looking at the worsening prospects, the government on Tuesday approved a $10 billion spending package to help businesses hit by the crisis, with one-half to go to zero-interest loans for small and medium businesses.

This is just the latest round in a more than yearlong dispute between Tokyo and Seoul that seems to be rivaling Japan’s cold war with North Korea.

Abe has also extended the government’s recommendation that large-scale crowd events be canceled for another 10 days, with the baseball and soccer federations already canceling events. He is also seeking fresh powers to declare a state of emergency so officials can impose mandatory shutdowns of events and order quarantines of people. Also at risk are the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games, an event Japan had hoped would showcase the country in much the same way that the 1964 Games had boosted postwar Japan’s image. At this point, organizers are unwilling to go beyond saying that the plans remain in place, but a number of Japanese and foreign officials have talked about alternatives, such as a delay until the fall or having events without spectators.

With face masks sold out almost everywhere in the country, except at sharply inflated prices on some online sites, the government also made it a crime to resell masks at a profit, with a fine of up to $10,000. The legislation comes just in time after it was revealed that a local lawmaker had made nearly $90,000 selling masks on his website. As is the habit of Japanese politicians and business leaders, he apologized.

William Sposato is a Tokyo-based writer who has been following Japan’s politics and economics for more than 20 years. He previously worked at Reuters and The Wall Street Journal.

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