Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 film 'Ikuru' tells the story of Kanji Watanabe, a typical Japanese bureaucrat doing his typically bureaucratic chore — maintaining the bureaucracy while doing nothing. (Photo: akirakurosawa.info)
As international media publicize Japan’s inept response to the Covid-19 pandemic, friends ask me how that could be. After all, isn’t Japan supposed to be a model of efficiency?
Yet Japan has the lowest vaccination rate among wealthy nations, with fewer than 4 percent of its 126 million people inoculated so far.
The first group that was supposed to receive the vaccine was about 4.9 million medical personnel, and their vaccinations began on Feb. 17, Ash Wednesday.
We have gone through Lent and the Easter season, and still more than 60 percent of that group have yet to receive shots. In major population centers like Tokyo, fewer than 30 percent have been fully vaccinated. In many other countries, it would take two or three days to vaccinate them all.
Vaccination of residents aged 65 and over began April 12, yet fewer than two million shots have been administered so far.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has called in vain for an increased daily quota of one million vaccinations, triple the current rate.
Bureaucracy is the enemy of creative innovation. After all, promotions come with knowing, maintaining and 'working' the system
A media report claimed there were some 52 million vaccine doses available in storage, but no system in place to start their distribution. When confronted with that claim, a ministry spokesperson indignantly said it was false because there were only 28 million doses involved. He further asked that people please not criticize.
What is the problem?
Japan is officially a constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary form of government. That designation leaves out the most important power in Japanese society, the bureaucracy.
The Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 film Ikiru is one of the classics of world cinema. The title is usually translated “To live” but can also mean “He lives” or even “He will live.” It is the story of Kanji Watanabe, a typical bureaucrat doing his typically bureaucratic chore — maintaining the bureaucracy while doing nothing.
Eventually, his impending death awakens Watanabe to the meaningless nature of his work and he struggles to get the bureaucracy to actually serve. He succeeds — to the consternation of his fellows — but only in one case. After his death, all returns to normal.
Bureaucracy is the enemy of creative innovation. After all, promotions come with knowing, maintaining and “working” the system. Anything new is by definition something that the bureaucrats are not expert at. So, they stymie change, preventing or delaying it.
Usually, the problem is not active opposition so much as a lack of imagination that will allow an adaptive response. Following rules and precedent, even in unprecedented situations, is most congenial to the bureaucratic mindset.
In normal times, this can work well. So long as society moves smoothly, oiling the bureaucratic wheels is a real contribution to that smooth operation. That is one of the reasons that Japan generally functions so well even when the politician ministers who head the various bureaucracies are inept, ignorant or corrupt. Japan has intelligent, dedicated and honest bureaucrats.
However, in extraordinary times and situations, bureaucracy can be disastrous. A pandemic is, of course, an extraordinary situation.
When vaccines first became available overseas, the reaction of bureaucrats here was that the usual protocols for approving foreign drugs would have to be followed even though millions of people had already received the vaccines overseas.
That would have meant that the first vaccinations would be delayed until the summer of 2022. There was sufficient protest that the process was speeded up to take only about six weeks and tested some 200 people. In other words, a useless “test” allowed the bureaucrats to save a bit of face. But only one vaccine was approved and the others went through a longer, though comparatively speeded up, process.
In the meantime, vaccines that were meant to be shipped to Japan from Europe were used there instead of waiting for Japanese approval. How many cases of Covid-19 resulted from this? How many deaths?
The prime minister of Japan and the bishop of Rome may have much in common
A system to set up, supply and staff vaccination facilities is only now being set up. But movement is glacially slow and plagued with errors, certainly not appropriate to the emergency.
An additional delaying factor is a rule that only a physician or a nurse supervised by a physician may administer vaccinations. Permission has finally been given for dentists to give shots after special training, though anyone who receives dental care knows that dentists are already capable of giving injections. Now there is talk of allowing pharmacists to vaccinate as well.
In fact, I once received training in giving shots. A nurse gave me an orange and a syringe and had me practice before having me jab patients. Given enough oranges, Japan could greatly increase the number of vaccinators in no time at all.
So, my answer to friends abroad who ask what is happening in Japan is that bureaucrats are doing what they are best at and paid for, acting bureaucratically.
Among those friends are some who are familiar with another system where inept, clueless or corrupt politicians head agencies where bureaucrats unimaginatively respond to pressing needs by resorting to precedent and blocking changes that threaten their control.
The prime minister of Japan and the bishop of Rome may have much in common.
William Grimm is a missioner and priest in Tokyo and is the publisher of the Union of Catholic Asian News (UCA News). The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.
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