Lost in Communication: Japan’s Covid-19 Information Crisis

Every year in December, Japan’s Kanji Proficiency Society announces a single kanji character as the “Kanji of the Year”. The winner in 2020 was ‘mitsu’ (密) meaning close or dense thanks to the phrase ‘san-mitsu’ (3密), translated as the ‘Three Cs’ which was coined by authorities and circulated as the government’s main countermeasure against covid-19. This memorable catchphrase has three components which are to avoid closed spaces (密閉, mippei), crowded places (密集, misshū) and close contact (密接, missetsu). It was popularized by Tokyo Governor Koike Yuriko, a former television announcer known for her media presence and knack for communication demonstrated in press briefings made during the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic.

Making effective use of this buzzword certainly helped spread the government’s anti-infection guidelines to the public. This simple message was emphasized repeatedly via trusted news channels, the internet, social media platforms, and even announcements on public transport to raise public awareness on practical ways to prevent the spread coronavirus. Shortly after the introduction of the ‘Three Cs’ guidelines, then-Prime Minister Abe Shinzo declared a state of emergency in April – a move which reinforced the health safety message to the public. During the first wave of coronavirus cases, the government’s core prevention message consisted of the ‘Three Cs’ as well as voluntary calls to reduce social interaction and unnecessary outings which can be credited for being clear, consistent and easy to follow. Although critics were dissatisfied by the lack of concrete countermeasures, this public health message allowed the government to successfully reduce people’s movements and bring infections under control as the first state of emergency came to an end in late May.

This initial success during the first wave can be attributed to the effective strategic communication by the government and other authorities. The government’s covid-19 messaging, conveyed through a diverse set of words and actions, is aimed at guiding the public to recognize the threat of covid-19 and induce behavioral changes that can reduce the spread of the virus. In politics strategic communication consists of words, actions and images that are employed as a means to pursue policies and desired objectives by influencing and shaping the attitudes and behavior of target audiences. The Abe administration stressed the importance of strategic communication and although the government is yet to define what strategic communication means exactly, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Defense introduced the term in official documents in 2015 and 2018 respectively. 

However, Japan has also faced significant communication setbacks following the introduction of the controversial “Go To Travel” domestic subsidy which was launched in late July. Since then the government’s communication around covid-19 has been arguably confusing and inconsistent. The campaign offers up to 50 percent off accommodation and dining in an effort to kickstart the struggling tourism industry  – one of Japan’s hardest hit industries. The ambitious $12 billion (1.3 trillion yen) tourism stimulus plan has been adopted by new Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide who helped promote the campaign as Chief Cabinet Secretary under former Prime Minister Abe.

When the Go To Travel campaign was first unveiled Tokyo was excluded from the campaign due to the high number of coronavirus infections. But Tokyo was eventually added to the campaign once there was a downward trend in new daily infections. Tokyo’s inclusion to the now nationwide campaign not only boosted its popularity but also signaled to the public that it was safe to gradually resume social and economic activities. But, as coronavirus cases continue to skyrocket across the country the Go To campaign is full of contradictions especially when contrasted to the promotion of the ‘Three Cs’ prevention guidelines.

Japan has struggled with the seemingly irreconcilable task of striking a balance between public health and economic well-being. The absence of a coordinated national-level risk management strategy with a clear set of objectives has ultimately caused a communication breakdown leading to inconsistent messages and widening ‘say and do’ gaps between the authorities’ statements and their actions. In late November, new restrictions to the Go To campaign began with its temporary suspension in Sapporo and Osaka until mid-December. It would later be suspended nationwide for a short period from late December amid a flare up of infections. The reluctance to restrict the Go To campaign and the resulting confusion in official pandemic communication appears to stem directly from Abe with Suga backing its continuation even as cases in the capital surge. In early December, Suga acknowledged the serious domestic coronavirus situation, but reiterated the government’s intention to extend the campaign until around mid-June 2021.

The reluctance to restrict the Go To campaign and the resulting confusion in official pandemic communication appears to stem directly from Abe with Suga backing its continuation even as cases in the capital surge

The central government and local metropolitan governments have not always seen eye to eye on strengthening coronavirus countermeasures through a state of emergency. In May the Tokyo metropolitan government launched a coronavirus warning system in a bid to gradually reopen society while staying vigilant against a second wave. The warning mechanism consists of four levels and on November 19 a maximum level four warning was issued for the first time in two months requesting restaurants and bars shorten business hours while also urging people to avoid unnecessary outings. Koike repeatedly called on the central government to declare a state of emergency and requested people aged 65 and older and those with underlying health conditions to refrain from travelling in and out of Tokyo under the campaign until mid-December to contain the spike in new infections; in contrast, the central government had denied the need for a state of emergency and hesitated to suspend the campaign.

The central government hesitated to suspend the Go To Travel campaign despite calls from Tokyo Governor Koike Yuriko

Even public messages from within the central government were mixed. In late November, the cabinet minister in charge of the virus response, Nishimura Yasutoshi announced a “critical three weeks”, urging nationwide cooperation with the government’s efforts to contain the spread of the virus. He strongly requested people to “limit contact” and encouraged teleworking, particularly for young employees, while trying to spark a sense of crisis among the public. Even so, the government still refused to call a temporary halt to the travel campaign. The government was simultaneously using public funds to encourage travel and eating out, while also requesting people stay at home. These contradictory messages undoubtedly confused the public on what constitutes appropriate behavior in the face of rising infections. This communicative confusion severely damaged the credibility of the government’s core covid-19 prevention message and hindered one of its key channels for responding effectively to the pandemic.

The covid-19 pandemic has revealed how important and complex communication is in advancing policies and achieving objectives. Clear, consistent and timely messages that can convince people, especially people who are tired and frustrated by the uncertainty of a prolonged pandemic are imperative to beating the virus with minimal loss of life.

Nishimura’s “critical three weeks” ended on December 16 without pay off. According to the Yomiuri Shimbun, people’s movements did not show a noticeable reduction during these three weeks – a sharp contrast with the state of emergency declared in spring, when mobility fell rapidly. Eventually, on December 14, Suga declared a temporary suspension of the nationwide Go To Travel campaign – and on January 7, a second state of emergency was declared in Tokyo and its surrounding areas, which has since been extended to several other regions. Given the confusion and credibility gap created by the government’s own mixed messages in the past six months, it remains to be seen how effective covid-19 announcements will have on public behavior this time around.

Shin-ae Lee is a PhD student at the University of Tokyo's Graduate School of Public Policy, specializing in strategic communications of the Abe administration, Japan’s foreign and security policy, and Japan-Korea relations. She holds a MA in international studies from Seoul National University and a BA in political science from Ewha Womans University. She was previously a researcher with the Korea Institute for International Economic Policy.
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