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Opinion Why is Japan failing so badly on vaccinations?

A nurse receives the first dose of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine at Fujita Health University Hospital in Toyoake, Aichi prefecture, central Japan, on March 8. (Kyodo News via AP)
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William Pesek is a Tokyo-based writer and author of “Japanization: What the World Can Learn from Japan’s Lost Decades.”

Japan, which is still planning to host the Tokyo Olympics this July, finds itself in a truly awkward position — trailing Colombia, Latvia and Turkey in the global vaccination race.

A nation famed for first-world logistical competence is running dead last among the 37 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development members, the club of wealthy nations. This dismal performance isn’t just imperiling the Olympics — or the world’s third-biggest economy. It’s challenging basic notions about whether Japan can change at all.

“Japan’s 1.6 percent rate of vaccination puts it on par with Myanmar, a failed state — not exactly a ringing endorsement of Tokyo’s shambolic rollout,” quips longtime Tokyo resident Jeff Kingston, head of Asia studies at Temple University’s local campus. “This is an own goal of epic proportions.”

There are many explanations for why Japan has been so glacial about inoculating its population (which is aging faster than any other in the world). One is that Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s Liberal Democratic Party was betting on domestic drugmakers to come up with a homegrown vaccine. When none materialized, Tokyo joined the long line of other nations competing to source vaccines from outside suppliers.

A labyrinthine approval process hasn’t helped. Tradition-bound Tokyo has long required pharmaceutical companies to do soup-to-nuts clinical trials locally, rather than incorporating studies and data done elsewhere. So far, only Pfizer’s vaccine has gotten a green light from the authorities. Moderna and others are still trying.

Full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic

Over the past 15 months, Japan often stood out as a coronavirus success case. As of May 4, the country has recorded just over 10,000 deaths in a population of 126 million. That has reduced the urgency for vaccines or a robust testing program. Japan also has a lively “anti-vaxxer” movement. Skepticism dates back to the 1990s amid unproven concerns about shots for measles, mumps and rubella.

Japan’s medical establishment is as conservative as they come. While many Americans turn to CVS and Walgreens for shots, the Japanese often expect only doctors or registered nurses to administer them. Dentists raising their hands are being told to stand by.

As infection rates jump anew, Japan’s 20-year battle against deflation is in grave peril. In mid-2020, Suga’s predecessor, Shinzo Abe, tossed more than $2.2 trillion, roughly 40 percent of gross domestic product, at a cratering economy.

During his eight years in power from 2012 to 2020, Abe had pledged to completely remake the economy. The country’s dismal vaccination results are merely the latest evidence of the hollowness of his promises. The insularity, red tape, bloat, opacity and aversion to foreign ideas Abe’s party pledged to reform are still very much with Japan today. And public frustration is rising fast.

If Abe, and now Suga, had moved earlier to internationalize labor markets, incentivize innovation, empower women and take on a change-averse bureaucracy, Japan might not be last in the developed-nation class on vaccinations. Its economy wouldn’t be losing ground as China sprints by.

Now Japan faces its very worst fear: flopping on the world stage.

In 2013, when Abe made his pitch to the International Olympic Committee, he won by billing Tokyo as a “safe pair of hands.” How ironic to see Japan lagging on vaccinations far behind Turkey, which had proposed Istanbul for 2020.

Ironic, too, to see an event Japan sold as the “Recovery Olympics” highlighting its unreadiness for prime time. Sexism scandals among top Olympic officials have made global headlines — reminding onlookers why Japan lags Angola and Sri Lanka in gender equality.

Meantime, bureaucratic tussles among government agencies are sowing epic confusion. No one really seems to understand the latest rules on testing, quarantine and contact-tracing protocols, which foreign staff can fly in with athletes, or whether locals can attend events. Now even the torch relays meant to drum up Olympic enthusiasm have veered into farce — with cancellations over infection fears. In one relay alone last week, in southwestern Kagoshima, at least six staffers were diagnosed with covid-19.

By delaying vaccinations, Japan has left the Olympics vulnerable to new variants, some probably yet to be discovered. The 80,000 athletes and support staff are set to arrive this summer in one of the world’s most densely populated cities from all corners of the globe where they can mix and match viral variants. Gee, what could go wrong? Not surprisingly, as many as 80 percent of Japanese think 2021 isn’t the time to risk a giant superspreader event that history might judge harshly.

If the Games do happen, there might be some national pride knowing that few places could have pulled them off in the face of such adversity. But even if the Japanese succeed, the feel-good factor is likely to be short-lived. The only thing worse than an Olympics marked by asterisks or footnotes is one with a death count.

That’s indeed where Japan finds itself on vaccines — more in league with the Philippines and Thailand than with Asian success stories such as Singapore and South Korea. It’s not a good look for a country that was hoping to use the Olympics to profile its status as a good global citizen.

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