Japan’s response to COVID 19: Slow and low-tech approach


Jianne Soriano - [email protected] 2017, APrIGF 2019, Former IGF MAG member

While the rest of the world is in a strict lockdown, notably places in Europe, Japan seems to be living in a different reality. The country is in a state of emergency but because of its post-war constitution, it cannot be put in a strict lockdown to protect human rights and civil liberties. Instead, it can only “request” residents to stay home except for essential travel and for shops to be closed down or hours shortened.

Japan’s response to COVID 19: Country’s slow and low-tech approach


Governors of prefectures are given more power to “request” shops to close down, especially shopping malls, pachinko parlors, and those deemed non-essential. However, public transportation is running. Medical facilities will still be open as well as supermarkets. Currently, Tokyo is at the epicenter of the virus just more than 4,000 cases, the highest among all prefectures, and the country’s overall total is over 14,000 as of the date of writing.


With more people requested to stay home, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has requested private sectors to allow remote work or as it is known in Japan, telework. Japan presents an image of a technologically advanced society with intelligent robots but the reality is far different. The country is still very much low-tech and lagging behind other advanced nations. In many ways, the government is still not 100% digitized.

Even as the world moves towards online, a lot of Japanese companies are not ready for telework. Some of the reasons include lack of internet infrastructure as most companies don’t even own a laptop, the corporate culture of manual work such as stamping (Hanko) documents, and bureaucratic measures such as the use of tax. In fact, the minister in charge of cybersecurity previously admitted that he has never used a computer. Many homes also lack high-speed internet connections. 

UPDATE: But call for more digitalization is being set into place. Currently in review, is to move seals (Hanko) to digital steals so it can stop hampering companies from allowing telework.


The Ministry of Health utilized the messing app, LINE, to conduct a survey between March 31 to April. The results revealed that only 5.6% of 24 million respondents were engaged in telework whereas another survey by a think tank showed only 13% working from home. Because of this, many salarymen (or workers in general) still need to commute to work. However, government data shows that crowds and traffic are down among major stations include Shinjuku and Shibuya.

The government reports that most of the cases don’t have a real infection route even though they are trying to maintain these clusters. The internet search engine, Yahoo will analyze users’ location information, as well as their search and purchase histories. They have already asked for users’ cooperation to give the company their location information. The telecommunication provider, Docomo NTT, has also used users’ data to analyze urban foot traffic.

In May, the government will offer a smartphone app that will warn users if they have been in contact with someone diagnosed with the new coronavirus similar to that from Singapore. However, these have raised privacy concerns. The app detects and records nearby phones that have the app installed; therefore, in order to be effective if most people use the app as well. To prevent misuse, only public officials are allowed to release information if a user has been diagnosed as infected.


Japan has the capacity to conduct 12,000 tests a day with plans to expand up to 20,000 tests but has only been doing about 4,000 a day, partly due to the lack of medical personnel and medical facilities. There are also strict criteria to get tested including having a fever (37.5 degrees) for at least 4 days and other respiratory symptoms. But even then, a doctor needs to request the medical facility for a test, which cannot be done easily. Mass testing is not implemented so that the medical infrastructure would not collapse due to overburden.


While disinformation is at large in other parts of the world, perhaps one of the most popular “fake news” that came during COVID-19 in Japan is toilet paper shortages which resulted in huge panic buying across the nation. 

Image Source: © Reuters

In general, Japan’s response to COVID19 has relied mostly on social conformity and peer pressure. Many are still not staying home due to mixed signaling from the government that seems to prioritize economic impact over public health and not enough incentives to stay home. While a stimulus package has just been approved, small to medium businesses are not all compensated if they are to shut down. The Tokyo government will offer compensation but it’s case-by-case basis if other prefectures will also follow suit.

Author BIO

By Jianne Soriano

By Jianne Soriano

Jianne, a Filipino-Hongkonger based in Japan. She has helped empower youth to be more involved in internet governance dialogues. She was a former United Nations IGF Multistakeholder Advisory Group member in 2018.

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