While many countries are grappling with their worst coronavirus outbreaks so far, there is little to no COVID-19 infection in Japan. Observers are trying to understand why.
Back in late summer, the outlook for coronavirus in Japan was low. The outbreak, which coincided with the Tokyo Olympics, killed dozens of people a day and overwhelmed hospitals.
However, since September, when Japan stepped up its vaccination campaign, the country has seen a sharp drop in reported cases and eventually deaths.
Since then, the situation has only improved. Japan this month has reported on average less than one COVID-19 death per day – a shockingly low number for a country of 126 million.
No one really knows exactly why Japan has been so successful, especially at a time when other countries, even its closest neighbors, have been hit by severe winter waves of coronavirus.
There are many possible explanations. Almost 80% of the Japanese population is fully vaccinated. Almost everyone wears masks. Even after the government eased restrictions in the fall, people continued to distance themselves from society.
Some researchers point to low obesity rates in Japan. Several recent studies have concluded that COVID-19 is more serious in obese people.
Cultural customs can also play a role. For example, Japanese people usually don’t kiss, hug, or even shake hands when greeting. Many Japanese people are also relatively calm in public, said Kentaro Iwata, an infectious disease specialist at Japan’s Kobe University.
“Disguise and silence in public is very important. [for fighting the virus]… Everyone knows this, but in some parts of the world it can be very difficult to practice, possibly due to cultural reasons, ”Iwata, who has been dealing with infectious outbreaks for over 20 years, said via email.
These factors, however, do not explain why neighboring South Korea, which shares many cultural traits, is grappling with its worst COVID-19 outbreak.
One possible explanation is that Japan is testing far fewer people, said Kenji Shibuya, an epidemiologist and researcher at the Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research.
In the first half of December, an average of 44,623 people were tested daily in Japan, according to government data. South Korea, with less than half of Japan’s population, performed an average of 238,901 tests per day during the same period, according to official figures.
Due to the lack of trials in Japan, it is hard to believe that official case data reflect reality on the ground, Shibuya told Voice of America in an email.
However, if lack of testing were a major factor, Japan would likely see a spike in other metrics, such as hospital admissions or respiratory deaths, as other experts have noted.
In the absence of any definitive explanation, some researchers have tried to define the so-called X factor. One study even found that many Japanese people have a genetic trait associated with white blood cells that helps fight COVID-19. Others speculate that the spreading variant of the coronavirus in Japan may have become extinct.
Whatever the reason for Japan’s success, the battle is not over yet, said Shibuya, who said he still expects the country to have a winter wave of infections.
A possible ominous sign is that Japan this week has identified the first cases of transmission among the population of a variant of the omicron, which scientists say is spreading much faster than previous versions of the virus. Many of those infected with the omicron have never traveled abroad, officials said.