Guest Blog: Pandemic Pressure Points –Economics Governance and Society in Japan

Written by: Joseph Black (CAPLUS law student Intern, 2021)

On 25 August 2021, the Australian Network for Japanese Law (ANJeL), the Australia-Japan Society of New South Wales (AJS), the Australia-Japan Research Centre (AJRC), the Japan Studies Association of Australia (JSAA) and the Centre for Asian and Pacific Law (CAPLUS) delivered a timely seminar entitled “Pandemic Pressure Points: Economics, Governance and Society in Japan”. The webinar was moderated by Dr Rowena Ward, JSAA Treasurer and Senior Lecturer in Japanese studies at the University of Wollongong. Panellists were Professor Yasuko Hassall Kobayashi, Associate Professor at Ritsumeikan University’s College of Global Liberal Arts (and Honorary Associate Professor, ANU College of Asia and the Pacific); ANJeL co-director Professor Luke Nottage from the University of Sydney Law School; and Professor Shiro Armstrong, AJRC director and Associate Professor of economics at the Australian National University (also co-editor of the East Asia Forum blog). Closing remarks were given by Masahiko Kiya, Consul-General of Japan in Sydney, and also Patron of AJS and on ANJeL’s Advisory Board. We had the privilege to explore diverse and topical themes: the impact of the pandemic on Japanese governance and its legal system, the impact of the pandemic on the Japanese economy, how the pandemic has disadvantaged vulnerable groups, and, among other themes, the emergence and potential of digitalisation in Japan.

Dr Ward commenced the substantive part of the seminar by sharing graphs reflecting vaccination and case numbers in Japan. While the number of cases has substantially increased since the middle of June 2021, deaths have recently come down compared to the 7-day average (~7 compared to 32), and have been kept very low by international standards even during earlier waves. Turning to age and sex statistics, males, especially in their 80s, are generally at a higher risk of death than females, and recently, there have been virtually no women in their 30s who have died from COVID. Around 40% of Japanese have received two doses. This number is somewhat higher than in Australia, which has also ramped up vaccinations over the last two months.

Following the statistics, Professor Kobayashi presented and dissected the economic disparity between women and men in the Japanese labour market amid the pandemic and the general social picture. Professor Kobayashi noted that women have generally had less income than men (~251.0 to 338.0); have been subject to precarious, part-time jobs at a higher rate than men; and have experienced more unemployment than men. Women with child/ren had the highest unemployment rate (11.5% compared to 4.2% for men and 9.1% for women) according to May 2020 statistics. As Professor Armstrong later suggested, the actual rate of unemployment figure may be unknown for all women (and men), as the unemployed may not have started looking for employment and are therefore not incorporated in unemployment statistics. Professor Kobayashi noted that there has been an increasing number of telephone consultations for domestic violence (skyrocketing from around 9,000 in January 2020 to over 17,000 between March and April 2020). Furthermore, women have found themselves tasked with ever-more domestic responsibilities, and would like men to participate more in the household than pre-pandemic (21% of tasks to about a quarter).

Professor Armstrong turned to the Japanese economy, and discussed the immediate impacts of the pandemic on the economy. He noted that, while the economy did not shrink this quarter, we may miss the ‘Olympic bounce’ that historically accompanies the Olympics (Tokyo was in a state of emergency and we did not see the type of tourism that follows the Olympics). Nonregular workers, women, young people, the elderly, and the vulnerable in Japanese society have particularly experienced financial hardship. Unlike Australia, Japan has provided limited stimuli, and it has taken considerable time for Japanese to receive checks and masks.

Later, Professor Nottage discussed Japanese law before and amid the pandemic. Japan has been comparatively unusual in pandemic management by not imposing criminal or other legal sanctions on individuals, but instead relying mainly on community norms and self-responsibility to limit movement and COVID-19 spread. One question is whether this provides another example of what Professor John Haley identified as a persistent pattern of “authority without power” in Japanese legal history, meaning authorities don’t have or want to invoke legal powers. An illustration is the practice of informal “administrative guidance” to influence business activity, quite common until the 1980s.

However, Professor Nottage observed that with the COVID-19 pandemic, the government did have constitutional power to extend emergency powers to restrict business activity (which it eventually legislated for, but still in a soft manner compared to Australia and other countries) and even to restrict movement by citizens. The government seems to have decided not to introduce harder lockdown measures because legally they still have to be proportionate, and Japanese citizens and firms generally act responsibly anyway. Another reason is that compensation should be paid if constraints are legislated, and the Japanese government already has high levels of national debt. The response has arguably struck quite a good balance, if we focus on the very low death rates (as the government seems to have done from the outset of the pandemic) combined with benefits from keeping the economy largely open. As one Tokyo-based law professor remarked, a visitor nowadays wouldn’t really know that Japan was going through a global pandemic, except for people wearing masks in crowded situations, somewhat fewer commuters as more work or have university studies from home, and some organisations restricting numbers and hours of operation.

The recent reliance mainly on self- and community responsibility does sit somewhat uneasily with the reforms implemented after an all-of-government report on justice system reform, aimed at making the law more part of everyday life in Japan. Those changes to civil and criminal justice, as well as the expansion of legal education and professionals, were aimed at allowing businesses more flexibility instead of ex ante regulation by public authorities, but improved processes to provide ex post remedies for misbehaviour through more functional courts or alternative dispute resolution systems. But in public health, especially in crises like a pandemic, prevention is usually better than cure. There are downsides, too, in moving socio-economic ordering in an overly legalistic direction.

Professor Nottage also mentioned some areas where the pandemic has had significant impact on Japan’s legal system, drawing on a series of YouTube interviews with various experts in Japanese law, funded through the Japan Foundation Sydney for ANJeL and the JSAA. Japan’s contract and consumer law systems seems to be responding comparatively well, but the pandemic challenges have forced the courts to bring forward plans to digitalise their still mostly paper-based procedures. By contrast, the rapid worldwide shift to remote hearings in international arbitration and mediation creates opportunities for newly established ADR institutions in Japan, but also significant competition.

The webinar also had a variety of questions and answers during the question segment, in the Sydney Law School podcasts recording. For further developments and perspectives, the AJRC is holding a Japan Update 2021 online seminar on 8 September 2021 over 10:00AM-3:00PM AEST.

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Joseph Black is a Juris Doctor student at the University of Sydney and anticipates commencing his Masters of International Law program from February 2022. Joseph is an intern with the CAPLUS and is interested in Japanese Law, Chinese Law, Indonesian Law, East Asian Studies, and other fields.