On November 4, 2022, Mr. Hayato Kume (UTokyo alumnus), First Secretary of the Embassy of Japan in the USA, gave a talk titled “Japan’s Coronavirus Policies as Seen from my Perspective Gained in the United States.” hosted by Satsuki-kai America of D.C. and New York and co-hosted by Friends of UTokyo. The lecture was lively and well-attended by 26 participants from the US and Japan representing various backgrounds.
In 2006, Mr. Kume joined the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare in Japan. During his tenure at the Ministry he worked on a wide range of areas including policies for healthcare, those for the disabled people, and reforms in employment regulations. After serving as Deputy Director of the Ministry’s Headquarters of COVID-19 Response, he was made in-charge of the department overseeing COVID-19 and global health as the First Secretary of the Embassy of Japan in the USA in September 2020. In this lecture, he shared his own experience serving in the Headquarters for the COVID-19 Response in Japan and his reflections on Japan’s coronavirus policies after observing the US coronavirus policies on a first-hand basis. Using a slide presentation, he covered the following five main topics: 1) a statistical comparison of Japan with other G7 countries regarding coronavirus infection numbers and rates of vaccinations, 2) the circumstances surrounding the Japanese government’s initial response to the pandemic, 3) the conflict in prioritizing economy and medical resources, 4) the Japanese government’s progression from vaccine procurement to inoculation of the populace, and 5) discoveries made in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic.
The comment by one of the participants is representative of the positive feedback from the audience when he said “I was glad to learn of the carefully planned strategies of the Japanese government’s coronavirus response”. In the words of another participant, “[Mr. Kume] shed light on why the positive developments in Japan were not publicized abroad and how such communication can be improved”. Another participant said that “I was truly glad to hear the stories of those who worked so hard on the frontlines during the coronavirus pandemic.”
Many of the participants, who included FUTI Vice-President Dr. Yuichiro Kuwama, were experts in medical fields, public health or pharmaceutical studies. This mix in the audience resulted in a Q&A session with thought-provoking discussions and lively exchange of opinions.
Excerpts from the lively discussion that ensued are below:
I would like to ask your views on policies/perspectives or methods of the pandemic response that the US, Japan and other countries would benefit from utilizing.
Early on in Japan’s response to the new coronavirus, fortunately or unfortunately, a team of specialists was placed on the Diamond Princess cruise ship to manage the situation and study the characteristics of the coronavirus (including asymptomatic infections and aerosol transmission). Their discoveries that were made early on in the pandemic helped Japan to form policies later on. Moreover, drawing on their prior experience of the “novel” influenza and SARS virus, the Japanese government was able to quickly institute the system of retrospective tracing firmly in place in respect to infection recognition, testing, and isolation. Also, Japan can take pride in its ability to plan countermeasures that are sensitive to regional characteristics because of their unique public health centers in each region. On the other hand, the US had an advantage in that the government and private sector have been investing in and working on vaccines even before the coronavirus pandemic, so that the quick development and implementation of a highly efficacious vaccine was possible. Compared to other countries, vaccine development was delayed in Japan due to a higher level of vaccine hesitancy and past experience of lawsuits that caused many pharmaceutical companies to withdraw from vaccine development. I believe that this issue will be a topic for discussion in Japan going forward.
In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, restaurants in the US ceased operation, but in Japan restaurants only shortened the business hours. Please share with us your thoughts on this matter.
In Japan, measures such as the closing of restaurants were not imposed. However, I believe that the measures taken by Japan, including the establishment of detailed guidelines to help mitigate the spread of infections such as shortening business hours, limiting the number of customers allowed to enter the facility, and limiting the alcohol supply had a solid effect. As I discussed in my presentation, finding a balance between economic and public health needs was essential, and these are difficult decisions.
Early on in Japan, the HPV vaccine (cervical cancer vaccine) inoculation rate was low, but I have heard that because of the wide-spread practice/implementation of Covid vaccination, the resistance to vaccines more generally has been reduced and the HPV vaccine inoculation rate has gone up. What do you think?
As the Covid wave peaked, the public’s scientific literacy about vaccines in general has gone up, and I think it shows great progress that the HPV vaccine inoculation rate has accelerated. However, I should caution that vaccines have to contend with efficacy and safety since vaccines can have widely different effects on different individuals. Therefore, the decision to be vaccinated rests on each individual and must be made after weighing the risks and benefits. From now on, it is important for the government to disseminate information regarding vaccines by working closely with specialists and the public.
I believe that a topic of this kind of lecture also could include the current state of mass media.
Absolutely. However, understandably the mass media needs to consider viewership numbers and there is a risk that viewership preference influences broadcast of news contents. In order to mitigate the effect of such a possibility, it is critical to further improve the scientific literacy of the public.
Mr. Kume closed by saying, “It has been my pleasure to have the opportunity to present to everybody the effort by the Japanese government to counter coronavirus infections, and to have stimulating discussions with many of you.”
Author/translator: Satsuki kai America DC/NY Event Team