“Pandemic Shock Therapy”: A Critical View of Japan’s COVID-19 Policies

Justin Aukema

Figure 1: A discarded mask on the ground outside a subway station in Osaka. August 26, 2022. Photo by the author.


Throughout the COVID-19 period, governments around the world curtailed civil liberties in the name of health and safety. In the process, they helped facilitate one of the most massive centralizations and concentrations of wealth in recorded history. The impacts were devastating for the global working class, which now faces unprecedented levels of inequality and poverty. Meanwhile, the world’s richest have added billions to their already massive fortunes. On top of this, the rise of the biosecurity state has encouraged and accelerated already present trends including the penetration of Big Tech into people’s everyday lives and the progression of “surveillance capitalism.” In this milieu, journalist Naomi Klein, famous for her Shock Doctrine thesis, suggested that COVID-19 similarly served as an opportunity for a kind of Pandemic Shock Therapy designed to facilitate an upward transfer of wealth and to implement typically unpopular neoliberal reforms. In this essay, I confirm and build on Klein’s thesis by critically examining Japan’s COVID-19 policies. Contrary to the sanguine and affirmative portrayals of Japan’s COVID response as a relative “success story” in many Western media outlets, I argue instead that the country’s COVID polices masked an immense neoliberal agenda and wreaked havoc on the Japanese working class. To support this argument, I begin the essay with an outline of Japan’s COVID-19 policies before moving on to examine some of their damaging social effects, the erosion of civil rights that has taken place in the name of fighting the pandemic, and the increased digitization of Japanese society that these policies enabled.

Japan’s COVID-19 policies

Although Japan’s strict entry ban on most foreign tourists has attracted fierce criticism, there has been little serious analysis of the social effects of the rest of the country’s domestic COVID response. Much of the coverage that does exist tends to be mostly affirmative, focusing on the presumably benign and “voluntary” nature of the Japanese government’s pandemic dictums on the one hand, and their seemingly willful embrace by the Japanese public on the other. But as I outline in this section, this analysis is premature and based largely on faulty premises. In what follows, I examine some of Japan’s main COVID-19 policies including the use of states of emergency, stay-at-home orders, the closures of public spaces, and vaccines and masks. In each of these cases, I demonstrate how they have faced strong public opposition and have resulted in a quantifiable loss of civil liberties.

        State of emergency and closures

The use of states of emergency and stay-at-home orders or so-called “lockdowns” were one of the first and biggest factors that enabled subsequent wealth transfers, loss of civil liberties, and digitization. As such, they are an apt place to begin our examination. Many mass media accounts have depicted Japan’s response in this regard as being relatively benign in comparison to other countries that adopted more “hard lockdown” strategies. But as I demonstrate below, Japan did enact similar policies that ultimately served like ends.

In March 2020, the central government under the cabinet of Prime Minister Abe Shinzō passed the Act on Special Measures for Pandemic Influenza and New Infectious Diseases Preparedness and Response (hereafter “Special Measures Act”) which enabled the prime minister to declare a state of emergency in the name of protecting health and safety. This gave new powers to prime ministers and regional governors to close public facilities including schools, parks, museums, and elderly care facilities, as well as to put pressure on individuals to exercise “self-restraint” (jishuku) and to stay at home. Based on this, the government declared four separate states of emergency (kinkyū jitai sengen) throughout the pandemic which lasted a total of 266 days. In addition, additional measures, i.e. so-called “preventative spread” (manen bōshi measures, also referred to as “quasi-states of emergency” in English) were put in place for a total of 179 days

These were not merely abstractions. In March 2020, the government abruptly ordered nationwide school closures for K-12 students. This was extended through the first state of emergency from April, and school closures continued on a sporadic basis even into 2022. This is in spite of the fact that COVID poses the least risk to school aged children or that school closures themselves have been found to be ineffectual for fighting COVID's spread and damaging to children's development. Moreover, during the third state of emergency, Kyoto City alone temporarily closed 164 public facilities including parks, museums, and sports centers. And under the preventative measures, businesses’ operating hours were shortened and restricted under penalty of approximately 200,000 yen ($1,500) fine. In fact, under the Special Measures Act, Tokyo Governor Koike Yuriko ordered four Tokyo restaurants to pay 250,000 yen ($2,000) for refusing to shorten their business hours during the second state of emergency.

In the same way, the impact of the government’s calls to avoid “unnecessary outings” (fuyō fukyū no gaishutsu) and to exercise “self restraint” (jishuku) are noteworthy. As the Asahi Shimbun explained early in the pandemic, “although there is no monetary penalty for non-compliance [...], as a legal request for self-restraint (jishuku), it has a strong psychological impact.” This aspect is especially important in a society like Japan where failure to conform can often bring damning social stigma. The power of jishuku as a social control mechanism was already utilized extensively during Japan’s previous crisis, the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. During the COVID-19 crisis, this was ratcheted up to even further levels. By simple decree, many areas typically bustling with people were transformed into ghost towns overnight, a fact evidenced by images of Tokyo’s famous Shibuya crosswalk or Kyoto’s renowned tourist sites.

The forced closure of public spaces during COVID-19 has been a key component of Pandemic Shock Therapy in the country and has directly contributed to a transfer of wealth away from the public and toward the private sphere. In this way, Japan’s COVID-19 program differed from its Western counterparts only in form and not in content. Public spaces such as parks, museums, and libraries, bore the overwhelming brunt of negative repercussions from this, with many still closed or maintaining reduced hours even at the time of this writing. This stands in stark contrast to the continued operation of large private corporations and shopping malls, which ironically became meccas for human gathering and socialization during various states of emergency. One illustrative example of how COVID-19 policies resulted in the shuttering of public spaces was that of the Osaka Human Rights Museum (Liberty Osaka). The museum had operated in Osaka since 1985 and was especially focused on promoting the rights of marginalized and discriminated groups including Japan’s historical caste of burakumin, or “untouchables.” But when the right-wing neoliberal Hashimoto Tōru became Osaka Governor in 2008, he set his sights on closing the museum, commenting that he did not like its “negative” image. In 2013, the Hashimoto government cut off funding to the museum, but it continued to operate on government land. The pandemic, however, provided the government the chance it needed to revoke this privilege as well, and in June 2020 they forced the museum to close and tore down the building it had operated in. The irony of COVID-19 being used as an excuse to close a human rights museum, though, seemed to be lost on most of the liberal press.

In addition to cuts to the public sphere, the use of states of emergency resulted in the loss or suspension of fundamental human rights and civil liberties. This facet did not go totally unnoticed at the time. When the Special Measures Act was passed in March 2020, for instance, the Japan Communist Party’s Tamura Tomoko said it was “unnecessary,” and the Asahi Shimbun urged caution noting that it could lead to “feelings of entrapment in society at large.” Average citizens voiced their strong concerns as well. One letter to the Asahi editor that same month from a part-time worker and mother of two described the difficulties that school closures were having on families and their unhealthy effects on children. “Is it really necessary to sacrifice people’s daily lives for this [COVID-19]?” she asked. The Japan Federation of Bar Associations (JFBA) also took a strong stance against the Special Measures Act. In March 2020, they were quoted as saying that “there was great danger that [the Act] could be used to curtail civil liberties.” And when the government amended the Special Measures Act in January 2021, the JFBA expressed its strong concern stating that the bills restrict citizens’ and business operators’ rights by way of “threats of penalties and obligations” and that they “lack provisions to protect fundamental human rights.” They also accused the government of fostering “unjust discrimination and prejudice” against those infected with COVID-19, and explained that forced business closures or even reduced operating hours could cause people to “lose their livelihood or even their lives.”

On top of this, the Special Measures Act and states of emergency were even linked to Constitutional revision with potentially devastating effects for democracy in Japan. Constitutional revision has been a key aim of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) since its founding in the 1950s. Some of the major changes they have sought include giving more power to the emperor, curtailing individual rights, and allowing for Japan to have a military that can wage war. Additionally, since at least 2012, the LDP has aimed to establish an Emergency Power Amendment as well. Such an amendment would help them achieve other political aims. For example, it would give the Prime Minister's cabinet the right to rule by decree during a state of emergency, as well as the ability to suspend basic human rights, to obligate civic cooperation with the state, and even to withhold elections. In this scenario, the ruling LDP could potentially remain in power indefinitely simply by issuing repeated states of emergency. The LDP’s proposed Emergency Power Amendment was initially criticized as a “threat to Japanese democracy,” while their attempts at Constitutional revision were repeatedly dashed throughout the postwar largely due to strong public opposition. But media and government fear mongering throughout the COVID-19 pandemic effectively tipped the scales in the opposite direction. A 2022 survey by the Asahi Shimbun, for instance, found that a record number of Japanese voters, 56%, were in favor of revising the Constitution including amendments to allow the prime minister to declare states of emergency. On top of this, an overwhelming majority of respondents (68% in 2022 and 83% in 2021) felt that the government should do everything in its power to control new infections, even if it meant curtailing individual rights. In this way, COVID was the perfect pretext for the strengthening of authoritarian tendencies and the erosion of democracy in Japan, trends that have similarly occurred elsewhere in the world as well.

        Vaccines and masks

The second set of policies revolves around the use of the novel COVID-19 vaccines and, to a lesser extent, the wearing of masks. Contrary to popular opinion, these policies also have drawn fire from groups domestically. The use of COVID-19 vaccines has been hotly debated around the world and from multiple political and medical perspectives. There is not time or space here to accurately summarize all these arguments. Therefore, I will continue to analyze them from the standpoint of Pandemic Shock Therapy. In this regard, there are two important aspects to highlight. One is the cost of vaccines and the budgetary problems this creates; the other is the violation of human rights. Governments globally have poured record amounts of money into developing, purchasing, and administering vaccines. As of May 2022, for example, Japan had devoted 4.7 trillion yen (roughly $36 billion) on its COVID vaccine program. 2.4 trillion yen ($18.4 billion) was used to purchase vaccines from drug makers. In order to facilitate such spending, the Japanese government drastically increased its annual budgets from 2020 to reach an unprecedented high of 107.6 trillion yen for fiscal 2022. Much of this has been covered with the new issuance of government bonds thus adding to the country’s already ballooning debt. It should be mentioned that, ultimately, government debt is paid for by citizens’ taxes and that much Japanese government revenues already are used simply to service the interest on previously accumulated debt. The flip side of this increasing public deficit has been windfall profits for private drug makers. Drug maker Pfizer, for instance, made record revenues between 2021 and 2022 thanks to its COVID vaccine. The Guardian even called the COVID jab “one of the most lucrative products in history.” In this situation, therefore, we can say that various government’s vaccine programs, including Japan’s, have helped facilitate a massive transfer of wealth from the public to the private sector.

The other issue surrounding the COVID vaccines in Japan has been that of basic human rights. In this regard, the Japan Federation of Bar Associations has been perhaps the country’s most vocal critic. In February 2021, the same month that the Japanese government approved the use of COVID vaccines, the group issued a statement pointing out that the vaccines were “developed in an extremely short period of time” and are “novel vaccines” and thus “the potential for unforeseen side effects cannot be ruled out.” Based on this, they urged the government to exercise extreme caution with the use of vaccines as well as to respect “individual choice [...] whether or not to be vaccinated.” And in another report issued that month, the JFBA noted that because the government was actively promoting vaccination and facilitating peer pressure, Japanese citizens were effectively being “forced to receive the vaccines.” They also said that the policy could lead to “infringement on the individual’s right to choose,” as well as discrimination against the unvaccinated. This contradicts the often facile, albeit sometimes well-intended, interpretation of the supposedly “voluntary” nature Japan’s COVID vaccine policy.

In fact, subsequently, much of the adult Japanese population, over 80%, have received at least two doses of the vaccine. This seems to be a relative “success” story for the country’s vaccine administration program. However, the real picture is more complex. People have been especially hesitant to give the jabs to kids, for instance. Only about 20% of children aged five to eleven haven gotten the first shot, and even less for second doses and booster shots. Moreover, by the end of August 2022, only 64% of the public had received their third dose of the vaccine. The booster seemed to be especially unpopular with younger age groups, with barely 50% of people in their twenties getting it. In this milieu, high-ranking government officials and the mass-media have launched a coordinated campaign to push the boosters onto what seems to be an increasingly vaccine hesitant populace.

On top of this, the JFBA set up a hotline to document instances in which individuals were pressured into receiving a vaccine, resulting in human rights violations. In just two days in May 2021, for example, the group documented 208 cases, the majority of which were from individuals in the medical profession, elderly home faculty and residents, and university students. Especially notable from these cases were nursing school students who were told that if they did not receive the COVID vaccine they would not be allowed to take their practical training or even be allowed to graduate. Other complaints included hospital nurses and elderly home staff who were told that they would be fired if they did not get vaccinated. During a two-day hotline in October 2021, the JFBA recorded ninety-three more complaints and rights violations including individuals either being forced to get the vaccine or facing negative consequences for choosing to remain unvaccinated such as being fired from their jobs, or facing other kinds of harassment and discrimination. Some office workers, for instance, described the use of employee badges at the office place to distinguish between the vaccinated and unvaccinated. Others indicated that they were refused entry to local hospitals for choosing not to get the vaccine. This is just a sampling of how Japan’s vaccine policy was used to erode individuals’ civil rights. Nevertheless, these cases yield an important glimpse into the contested reception of the COVID vaccines in Japan and their effectual forced nature via peer pressure and negative repercussions for choosing to remain unvaccinated.

Figure 2: A poster instructing people to wear masks at a Japanese university cafeteria. August 26, 2022. Photo by the author.

A similar situation unfolded regarding the use of masks. The Japanese government instructed people to wear masks and to avoid crowded and poorly ventilated indoor spaces. At the same time, the government did not require masks to be worn outside when exercising or for small children. Nevertheless, many Japanese people donned masks in both these scenarios anyway. One reason for this is that many large stores, workplaces, and schools had their own separate mandatory mask rules, such as requiring masks for entry. Due to a paucity of space in Japan, this meant that people were de facto required to wear masks to go about their daily lives or when riding trains. Western and English language media superficially observed this phenomenon and concluded that Japanese people inherently prefer wearing masks. Indeed, the media frequently liked to refer to Japan’s unique “mask culture,” the country’s “love of masks,” and its long “mask history.” Yet this shallow coverage airbrushed over actual debates and complex realities surrounding masks in Japan, where popular opinion has been far from unanimous, let alone positive. There were highly publicized concerns about how masks might affect children with learning disabilities or negatively affect children’s development and language abilities, for instance. One impromptu NHK survey even found that a significant portion of the population would prefer not to wear masks, and the Asahi Shimbun reported that many Tokyoites were simply wearing masks because of “peer pressure” more than anything else.

The Social Effects of Japan’s COVID-19 Policies

Japan’s COVID policies took a heavy toll on the country’s working class. The full impact of these measures remains to be seen. Yet even with the limited data available, the evidence is fairly damning. For instance, the suicide rate, which had been declining yearly since around 2008 jumped to top 20,000 people per year in both 2020 and 2021. This was an increase of approximately 8,000 people, many of whom were young women in their twenties, over previous years. In May 2020, the Asahi reported that suicide prevention hotlines were being overwhelmed. “I’m afraid to go outside,” said one hotline caller; yet another mentioned that after her source of income disappeared she was contemplating killing her elderly mother whom she was caring for and then committing suicide. Moreover, in an especially disturbing trend, the number of children who committed suicide also reached record numbers, topping 400 in 2020. Experts cited the stress placed on children because of COVID policies including stay-at-home orders and school closures as a major possible factor.

Much of the social angst and depression was related to job loss and poverty. The Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare found that as of March 2022, 130,178 people had lost their jobs during the crisis while many more faced a loss of or decrease in income. Hardest hit were service workers and small shop owners, as well as part-time workers, many of whom are women and youth. Already 40% of the Japanese working population are on part-time or precarious employment contracts. Furthermore, even those with full-time employment face a situation of extreme exploitation in the form of overwork and low pay, i.e. “precarious regular workers.” In a special series on poverty and COVID-19 in the Tōyō Keizai, Waseda Professor Hashimoto Kenji found that the working class and underclass of part-time workers experienced drastic decline in their income throughout the COVID period. A full 38% of the lowest class of earners had fallen below the poverty line. Many of these were college students or women already working multiple part time jobs, meaning that they often were not reflected in official statistics on unemployment (although this also jumped to 3% during the pandemic). Indeed, one early national study, from May 2020, found that 40% of university students had reduced incomes from part time job cuts, while a study from Aichi Prefecture reported 60% of its students to be in such a situation. Accordingly, throughout 2021, an increasing number of students dropped out of university altogether. Even students who managed to graduate found the job market to be dire with fewer being hired for full-time jobs than in previous years. Meanwhile, for women, the situation was so severe that national public broadcaster NHK did a special segment titled “Women Who Have Lost Their Homes” (Ie o ushinau josei tachi) on the growing problem of female homelessness and the working poor.

Another effect of Japan’s COVID policies has been a deterioration of Japan’s public health services. When the pandemic began, the central government designated COVID with its highest level of disease classification, akin to Class I. This enabled the government to issue state of emergencies as well as to place limits on health services in the name of disease prevention. For instance, anyone with a fever was first required to get a PCR test at a government designated fever clinic prior to seeking medical treatment. On this basis alone, hospitals could, and did, turn patients away simply for having a fever. Meanwhile, the designated fever clinics were notoriously difficult to get tested at in the first place, thus leaving people in limbo. And even if one did successfully get a PRC test, they often found few hospitals willing or able to treat them if they had COVID. The Asahi Shimbun reported, for example, that most private hospitals, which already accounted for two thirds of all hospitals in Japan, were turning COVID patients away. Similarly, the Mainichi Shimbun noted that, out of 15,000 medical institutions in Tokyo, only about one third were accepting COVID patients. As a result, most COVID patients in Japan have had to treat themselves at home. The results of this were made apparent, for example, in August 2021 when a pregnant mother was turned away from ten different hospitals after seeking treatment for her COVID symptoms. Instead, she was forced to self-treat at home and just days later went into early labor, giving birth at home to a stillborn child.

In addition, other non-COVID related medical services were cut in the name of pandemic prevention. For instance, the Association of Obstetricians and Gynecologists reported that most hospitals in Japan were forcing pregnant women to give birth alone and refusing family visitation rights under the aegis of fighting COVID. The situation was putting tremendous stress on women, who reported feeling “isolated” and “alone” when giving birth. Indeed, hospitals reported some rise in women’s mental health issues because of their policies. Of the situation, Shizuoka University Professor Shirai Chiaki said that allowing fathers to be present at the time of birth or family visitations for pregnant women were, in fact, already regarded as an “additional service,” in Japan even before COVID. But this is contrary to health evidence that suggests such things are essential for the pregnant women’s safety and wellbeing. As such, she said, not allowing visitation is a “problem of the fundamental human rights of women and children.” The above examples illustrate that, far from advancing the cause of socialized medicine, COVID policies in Japan instead had the opposite effect by further reducing public health services and making disease prevention and treatment themselves issues of “personal responsibility” (jiko sekinin).

Digital transformation or digital nightmare?

Japan’s COVID-19 policies also accelerated the massive and rapid digitization of nearly all aspects of social life. For decades, Japanese business and political leaders had been lamenting the country’s presumably laggard attempts to go digital. Workplaces still sent forms by fax machine, and business transactions were often still signed and stamped in ink with individual’s personal name seals, or hanko. In the eyes of the ruling class, these “archaic” traditions were hindering productivity and efficiency. On top of this, Work From Home (WFH) or terewāku (tele-work) in Japanese had yet to catch on with much of the population, and school children’s computer skills seemed to be woefully deficient. The government had already, thus, been making a concerted effort to rectify this situation and to achieve a more “flexible” workforce along with an education that catered to individual rather than group performance and success. COVID-19 gave them the chance they had been waiting for. During the pandemic, Japanese tech companies rushed in to fill the gaps created by school and business closures, and the lack of face-to-face personal communication. They also strove to portray themselves as dutiful public servants and protectors of health and safety through the management of individual’s health information and by tracking the public’s movements. Yet these trends can be seen as strategic efforts to further ongoing neoliberal measures in Japan, especially through workplace reform and by ceding government functions and democratic control to private corporations. In particular, the powers of Big Tech during COVID-19 in Japan expanded in three ways: 1) the expansion of government surveillance and powers; 2) the shift to online “telework”; and 3) the increasing digitization of education.

First, the government signed a 390-million-yen contract with tech firm Persol Process & Technology to release a COVID-19 tracking app for smartphones in June 2020. People were encouraged to install the app which would let them know if they came in contact with COVID-infected persons. But the app was beset by problems such as compatibility issues and was roundly criticized in the liberal presses, not because it gave the government ability to monitor people’s movements, but because it was deemed as not being effective enough. Partly as a result of this, the mass media and liberal think-tanks began to lament Japan’s “failed” or too-slow digital transformation. In other words, they wanted the government to do more to advance the use of tech and IT.

The central government, meanwhile, was eager to respond to this call. In September 2020, Prime Minister Abe resigned and Suga Yoshihide took his place. Suga immediately announced his intent to establish a new Digital Agency to facilitate the country’s digitization. A key part of his digitization strategy was to promote the adoption of My Number cards and to link these cards to people’s health insurance, driver’s licenses, and bank accounts. The My Number system was passed in 2013 and came into effect in 2016 amidst much debate and opposition. It assigned all individuals in Japan an ID number that is supposed to be used to simplify government application procedures. But there have been major concerns about its potential use as a tool of government surveillance as well as its possible applications by the private sector. As a result, only 20% of the Japanese population had applied to get their My Number cards as of September 2020. In this way, COVID gave the government the excuse to push through unpopular reforms in the name of health and safety.

In this climate, the government passed the Basic Act on the Formation of a Digital Society (Dejitaru Shakai Keisei Kihon-hō; hereafter, “Digital Society Law”) in May 2021. By guaranteeing the penetration of Big Tech into people’s lives and the deregulation of people’s personal data, the Law was a technocrat’s dream come true. It was couched in glowing language about strengthening Japan’s “international competitiveness,” and increasing Japanese companies’ “productiveness” and “efficiency,” while simultaneously protecting people’s “health” and safety. But beyond this rhetoric was a massive transfer of power to the private sphere. The Law minced no words about this, noting that one of the key aims of realizing a “digital society” was to cede many daily operations of the central and local governments to private corporations. Moreover, it required regional governments to standardize their procedures for individual data collection and to digitize this information. In this regard, namely, the law would make it easier to share people’s data with companies. In addition, it aimed to incentivise working from home, to encourage consumers to make use of digital services, and to increase the use of Big Tech in education.

All these changes would be facilitated with the expansion of the My Number system and promoted through the new Digital Agency which was established via the Digital Society Law in September 2021. The Agency proudly advertised its mission to revolutionize government administration, and it fashioned itself as a public-private partnership under the slogan of “government as startup.” Accordingly, the Agency hired 200 of its 600-member staff from the private sector. Although newspapers were largely positive in their appraisal of the new agency, the close connections to the private sphere did leave some people wondering how the agency’s staff would avoid conflict of interest issues such as holding stocks in companies they might be acting as benefactors for. One of the first visible actions taken by the Digital Agency in regards to COVID-19 policy was the development and roll out of vaccine passport applications for smartphones.

The second aspect of digitization facilitated by COVID was the increasing move to get employees to work from home, i.e., so-called “telework” (terewāku in Japanese). Telework, which is similar to its English-language equivalent of Work From Home (WFH), is a key pillar of workplace reform. Its main aim is the creation of a more “flexible” workforce, which from the perspective of management means one that is more easily expendable and will work more “productively” for less money. The push toward telework was already well underway long before COVID. The Japan Telework Association was founded in 1991 to promote the cause; the Japan Business Federation (Keidanren), the country’s largest business association, had been urging increased telework from the early 2000s; and the Japanese government, too, was making a concerted effort to raise the number of telecommuters. They also wanted to increase the pace of telework adoption which in their view was not occurring quickly enough. Thus in 2006, for instance, the Abe government made plans to double the number of people working from home, and in 2017 it established an annual “Telework Day.” International organizations like the OECD also called on Japan to increase the use of telework, even up until 2019 and right before the COVID-19 crisis.

When the government declared the first state of emergency in April 2020 it also asked companies to reduce their number of employees who commuted to work by 70%. Many large corporations and ICT (Information and Communications Technology) companies readily complied with this, sometimes moving all or most of their operations online. The percentage of workers telecommuting jumped to 30% and even higher in Tokyo during the first state of emergency. Big companies and elites praised these moves. The Mainichi Shimbun found that 90% of 126 large corporations that it surveyed said they intended to continue using telework even after COVID-19 subsided. Meanwhile, then Prime Minister Abe Shinzō released a video of himself lounging about his home to the background music of the famous Japanese pop singer, Hoshino Gen, presumably in an attempt to make staying at home seem more appealing. The OECD issued perhaps the most gushing praise of COVID as a blessing in disguise for ushering in more telework. Telework could improve productivity and efficiency, it stated in a 2020 report, not to mention reduce labor costs. Toward this end, it encouraged its member states, Japan included, to adopt output/performance-based work styles rather than having scheduled working hours, and to invest more in ICT and digitization.

But the enthusiasm of elites and the media for telework contrast with its relative unpopularity and inaccessibility for much of the working class. Indeed, after the first state of emergency, the number of teleworkers steadily dropped to below 20% in April 2021 amidst problems and dissatisfaction. One major issue was the difficulty of implementing telework for smaller to medium sized companies. A survey found that while over 50% of large corporations had moved to telework, only less than 10% of small to medium sized companies had done so. Another issue was that much telework, and indeed staying at home in general, was only an option for the professional and managerial classes. Those in the service, transportation, and manufacturing sectors, for instance, did not have this option. One worker from a small precision parts factory said, for example, “‘telework’ is not a word in our vocabulary. [...] We have to work on the machines in our factory.” Another worker at a metalworks factory said, “If I could make money just by staying at home, I would. But I need to [come here] and work to live.” In fact, telework and staying at home themselves were largely only possible thanks to the labor of low-paid delivery and service workers.

At the same time, even those who could work from home often found the situation to be far from ideal. After just one month of telework, for example, many workers began to report increased feelings of stress, frustration, anger, depression, and alcohol consumption resulting from long work hours and an inability to separate work and private life. Others noted family problems arising from the dual pressures of work and child-raising, as well as from situations exacerbated by school closures. This was felt especially intensely in households where both parents worked remotely or in single-parent homes. Women, more than men, came under heavy pressure and stress due to the burden of having to cook and clean for telecommuting husbands and children doing online classes. In this milieu, even pro-business think tanks like the Japan Productivity Center had to admit that Japanese workers were feeling “telework fatigue” and that telework was “disliked by Japanese workers.”

Thirdly, COVID-19 policies facilitated the further penetration of big tech into children’s education. In fact, big tech companies had been pushing to digitize education in Japan long before COVID. Not only would this make it easier to centralize, monopolize, and control information, but it would also create a valuable new market for companies by putting a tablet in the hands of every school child, enabling companies to benefit from government subsidies. Bourgeois economists and politicians in Japan have justified this by saying that such moves help to train necessary workers which will be needed more during the ongoing digital ICT revolution. But this is circular logic. The “work” that they envision is predicated on further and continual digitization and marketization of people’s private and social lives. Children are learning to use tablets so that more children can learn to use tablets. The cause is the effect. Announcing that education must be digitized since education is being digitized amounts to a self-fulfilling prophecy!

The Japanese government had been promoting the acceleration of ICT in education for years prior to COVID-19. This included the use of digital blackboards, digital textbooks, and the policy of allotting one tablet or PC per student starting from the elementary school level. Toward this end, the government began conducting surveys and releasing data about the pace of ICT implementation across various prefectures in an attempt to spark competition. The aims of this were rarely explicitly stated since the assumed benefits of ICT and technology were largely taken to be a given. In other words, it was something akin to “common sense” that more technology in education would produce smarter kids. However, occasionally companies admitted that a major aim was actually the creation of new markets for tech goods especially amidst declining demand.

Toward this end, the government drew up the Global and Innovation Gateway for All (GIGA) plan in 2018 to further the digitization of education. Under this massive ¥461 billion ($4.4 billion) scheme, the government would cooperate with the private sector, mostly tech and electronics companies, to distribute computers to all school age children and to “promote ICT in schools.” The new plan proudly boasted how the use of ICT would allow constant monitoring of children at school and at home by “removing constraints such as time and distance.” It also noted how the new plan would enable increased “morality learning” and could work toward “improving efficiency in school operations.” Along with this, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) released a plan titled “Human Resource Development for Society 5.0.” The document called for radical changes to digitize education for the creation of “human resources” trained in “AI-related knowledge” and programming that could become important sources of value creation in the future. Specifically, it called for more incorporation of “EdTech and Big Data,” an education focused on STEM fields rather than the humanities, closer cooperation with corporations and businesses, and “individually optimized learning.” Also in 2018, the government revised the Basic Law on Education to encourage schools to shift entirely to digital textbooks which they positively noted would allow for increased data collection and better monitoring abilities.

COVID-19 gave digital education proponents the chance they needed to fully implement their agenda. When Prime Minister Abe declared school closures in March, thirteen million children suddenly found themselves stuck at home. Tech companies immediately recognized this as a golden opportunity. Education startups competed with established big-name players like NTT Communications for a piece of the digital education pie, a market that was already expected to grow by ¥310 billion ($3 billion) even before the pandemic. Pro-business mass-media like the Nikkei portrayed the school closures as a blessing in disguise that would “finally spur faster digital action” in Japan. Cities and local administrations, meanwhile, rushed to hand out tablets and computers to students. Many school administrators also embraced the changes. One elementary school principal from Japan’s tech hub in Shibuya praised the changes, claiming that “digital technology has made teaching much more efficient.” And he stressed that if Japan didn’t push ahead with digitization, it would “lose to China.” This echoes similar claims by Big Tech elites such as former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and reveals that the purpose of digitization is techno-nationalism and competition rather improving education.

Moreover, in this frenetic milieu, the government pushed ahead with the deregulation of personal data, concurrent with its goal of achieving a “Digital Society.” In January 2022, for instance, the government released its “Roadmap on the Utilization of Data in Education.” This was an astounding and expansive rethink of the entire notion of education itself which criticized taken for granted notions such as “teachers” and “school” itself. Namely, the plan called for a move away from teacher-led, classroom-based instruction to students in the same grade and instead toward one where “anybody, at any time and place, can learn with anybody in his/her own way.” However, this vision of society, it noted would only be possible with daily use of an ICT device such as a tablet and heavy monitoring and data collection. Regarding the latter in particular, the plan lamented the lack of standardization and difficulty of collecting data. So, it proposed closer collaboration with the private sector to better utilize students’ personal and learning data. This would include not only students’ educational records, but also potentially their health and physical records that would be utilized by private companies in a “convenient way.”

Japan’s push toward a digital society, itself enabled by the COVID-19 pandemic, was thus more concerned with increasing profits for Big Tech than improving children’s educational experiences. Moreover, once the system was in place, it showed no signs of reverting to a pre-crisis state. For example, a January 2022 survey found that over 80% of many Japanese municipalities planned to continue using online education even after the pandemic had subsided. Many were also pushing to have online classes recognized as regular student attendance, thus in effect eliminating the need for face-to-face schooling entirely. The imposition of private companies into education had also taken a seemingly irreversible hold. Tech firms like NEC, Casio, and Lenovo had all already developed educational programs for schools that were now either compulsory or semi-compulsory.

But much like telework, the accelerated push to increase the digitization of schools and society was beset with major problems. Namely, the increase in stay-at-home, online education was having highly detrimental physical and psychological effects on children and teachers. Relatedly, Japan’s school closures, the enabling factor behind the drive to further the use of big tech in the schools, were found to have negatively affected children’s learning and developmental abilities, especially those from poorer families and among young children, and, moreover, to have had no effect on controlling the spread of COVID-19 in the first place. Likewise, studies found that university students were suffering from increased mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, and even suicidal thoughts, as well as a decline in social and other cognitive skills as a result of the shift to online classes. Others noted that children and students had experienced damaged vision and eyesight from spending more hours staring at computer and smartphone screens. And increased online education was taking a heavy toll on teachers, many of whom were found to be suffering from mental health issues and a greatly increased workload. Even though this is just a brief glimpse of the situation, it already gives a much different picture than the congratulatory statements coming out of the halls of big tech and Diet meetings.


The popular image of Japan’s COVID policies is that they have been relatively benign. But the truth is that the country’s pandemic policies exacerbated poverty and inequality, resulted in the loss of civil liberties, and benefited large corporations and Big Tech companies. In short, the COVID-19 pandemic in Japan provided the opportunity to advance a neoliberal and technocratic agenda at the expense of Japanese workers and democracy. As such, Japan’s COVID response can be aptly termed a kind of Pandemic Shock Therapy.

Admittedly, the idea that COVID prevention measures abetted neoliberalism rather than countered it has not been a popular one among mainstream and even left-leaning academics and economists. Many have even interpreted the increased role of the state and large stimulus spending during COVID as a sign that the era of neoliberalism has ended. But this misunderstands of how modern nation-states assist the concentration and accumulation of capital. An apt comparison would be the 2008 Lehman Shock when the US government bailed out large banks and corporations with taxpayer money. In the same way, the COVID crisis was an opportunity to cede the very operation of many government functions to the private sector while pandemic prevention policies also created valuable new markets and profits for large pharmaceutical and tech companies.

It is only with this more critical eye that we can accurately gauge the negative social and economic impacts of COVID policies for the working class. In this essay, I focused on some of these damaging repercussions for average people and workers in Japan. To make my case, I drew mainly from readily available source and news-media material. This suggests, on the one hand, that the actual depth and severity of the situation is likely even much worse than I have indicated here. On the other hand, we can say positively that the basic information is there for more people to continue putting the pieces of the puzzle together. If, that is, they dare to look behind the mask of congenial governments and a obliging populaces, and to take a more critical peek at governments’ COVID-19 policies.

Author Bio

Justin Aukema is an Associate Professor in the Department of Economics at Osaka Metropolitan University. He specializes in modern Japanese history and has authored recent pieces in the Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus and at New Multitude. He can be contacted at aukemajk@gmail.com.


The author would like to thank Elena Louise Lange for her kind edits of an earlier draft of this article, as well as Joseph Essertier for his patient comments, corrections, and encouragement.

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