Foreign pundits and journalists occasionally invent stories about Japan. But more typically they take something that has been said by Japanese and exaggerate it to portray Japan and the Japanese in a negative light, with the apparent added authority that comes from being able to cite Japanese sources.
This is particularly easy to do because there is a widespread and reprehensible pattern where Japanese pushing a “reform” agenda denigrate Japan or the Japanese people and assert that the grass is greener somewhere (or everywhere) else. Foreign reporters and pundits tend to uncritically accept such statements of foreign superiority because they confirm their own belief that they are superior to the Japanese and Japan.
The Japan Times is a leading supplier of such “the grass is greener elsewhere” statements. Their articles then get picked up, especially by the many foreign journalists and pundits who cannot read Japanese.
Two articles from The Japan Times on vaccinations illustrate this point, highlighting the pattern of bogus claims about the situation outside of Japan.
No Shot, No School: The U.S. Case
On June 26, 2018, The Japan Times published a translation from the Japanese language publication Sentaku under the title “Japan’s backward vaccination policy.” Midway through the article was a paragraph so factually wrong that it casts a pall over the entire article:
The U.S. has a strict “No Shot, No School” rule. Many European countries also have the same system. Japan moved in the opposite direction in 1994 when it turned regular vaccinations from an obligation into something one must make efforts to receive.
It is constitutionally impossible for “the U.S.” to have such a rule because education is the responsibility of the individual states, which likewise set school attendance and vaccination policy for their own population.
Moreover, far from “no shot, no school” being a rule in the U.S., nearly all states provide for religious exemptions, and many also provide philosophical exemptions from vaccination.
Not only do many states allow opting out of immunization programs on religious ground, 17 states, including Texas with a population of 28.7 million, allow opt-outs “for unspecified personal or philosophical reasons.” Thus, even if states have a nominal “no shot, no school” law on the books, it does not mean that the 95% vaccination rate required for “herd immunity” is achieved, let alone that all children are vaccinated.
Further, because the U.S. is in effect one large free trade area with free movement among 50 largely sovereign states, this means that infection can spread easily.
Those states with overall low vaccination rates, or significant pockets where the vaccination rate is low, are not just notoriously conservative states like Texas. Washington, Oregon, and California now have or have had until quite recently significant vaccination gaps.
In the U.S., at least one social media site has taken to “cracking down on hashtags attached to posts containing factually incorrect content” about vaccinations.
No Shot, No School: The European Case
A Newsweek article on anti-vaxxer myths took up seven countries with significant gaps in vaccination protection. Five are European: France, Italy, Ukraine, and Britain. (Japan and Brazil were the other two.)
Germany was not in the list, but it too has a significant problem with unvaccinated children. At the beginning of May the government proposed a fine of €2,500 (about $2,800 USD) for parents who refuse to allow their children to be vaccinated. Whether this will become law has yet to be seen.
In December 2018, the new populist Italian government attracted condemnation for appearing to be weakening the already lax vaccination regime in Italy. However, in the face of a large-scale measles outbreaks in several European countries, it backtracked and made proof of vaccination mandatory for school children.
Israel is another country with a lax vaccination regime and substantial religious opposition to vaccination.
According to the United Nations, there are 44 countries in Europe. How many have a “no shot, no School” rule is nowhere stated in the 2016 study. And even if there is a rule, enforcement must be verified. The 28 countries in the European Union set their own policies in this area, and some major countries, including Italy and Germany, either have lax laws, lax enforcement, or both.
Because of free movement among the 26 E.U. countries that are part of the Schengen Area, the country with the most lax regime sets the standard for all the other countries. This is unavoidable because measles is highly contagious and people can infect others before they themselves show symptoms.
A Vaccination Backwater or a Journalistic Backwater
The second and most recent article in The Japan Times appeared on May 10, 2019, under the headline “Japan struggles to ditch 'vaccine backwater' image due to policy gaps, making it vulnerable to outbreaks.” As is all too common with The Japan Times pejorative headlines, the content contradicted the headline, with the primary source of information for the article explicitly saying, “In terms of vaccination policy, Japan is not a backwater anymore, but it isn’t a leading nation either.”
In fact, when I did an internet search on Japan + vaccination[s] + backwater, the only usage of this term I found were in The Japan Times or articles that cited this particular Japan Times article. In other words, it would appear that The Japan Times was either making fake “news” or spreading it.
Similarly, in an English language internet search I could find no evidence for the article’s claim that “Japan is more than 10 years behind European and North American countries in its inoculation policy and his view is widely shared.” I did, however, find Japanese language examples of this or a similar claim.
No Shot, No School: The Japanese Case
The vaccination gaps found elsewhere do not make the situation in Japan good. However, they do show that the “grass is greener everywhere else” pattern of claims about Japan are fake “news.”
In the case of Japan, an unprotected cohort of adults was the result of worries about a MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine causing aseptic meningitis. This fear in the first half of the 1990s led the government to recommend this vaccine but not make it mandatory. In retrospect, the worries were not justified. But given that some vaccines have had undesirable — even deadly — side effects, the government was between a rock and a hard place on this issue.
Courts in Japan have been rather quick to link side effects to government mandated vaccinations on the basis of evidence that some experts consider very weak. Claims that the MMR causes autism, a significant factor in the debate in the U.S. and some European countries (notably Britain and Italy), was not an issue in Japan.
While the vaccination gap in Japan is largely in terms of rubella (measles), the U.S. has pockets where vaccination rates for chickenpox are low and where there have been significant outbreaks of the disease.
To be sure, there is room for improvement in the scheduling, pricing, and approval of vaccinations in Japan. Some of the points made in the second Japan Times article are valid. But advocacy of reform should be based on comparison of Japanese reality with foreign reality — not comparison of Japanese reality with foreign theory or ideals.
To honestly and definitively state that “Japan moved in the opposite direction” as The Japan Times Sentaku article did, would require a comparison between Japan and each of the 50 U.S. states, and each of the 44 countries in Europe.
No evidence from such a comparison is offered in the article. Indeed, there is no real comparison with the U.S. reality or that of any single European country.
The Grass is Greener Everywhere Else
Would-be Japanese reformers have been using “the grass is greener in…” since at least the time of Ogyu Sorai (1666-1728). He used an idealized China, which he had never visited, as a model for suggested reforms to the Tokugawa regime.
The Meiji Restoration intensified this pattern. Japanese who traveled abroad could see for themselves that there were numerous areas where some countries, especially Britain, were decades ahead of Japan in terms of manufacturing and military capability.
Defeat in the Pacific War largely as the result of the much greater U.S. manufacturing capability provided additional proponents of the theory that someone must be doing it better than we Japanese over a wide range of areas.
Sometimes it is indeed the case that the grass is greener elsewhere. When elder care reform was being debated in Japan, those involved carefully studied best practice foreign models and used what they had learned to shape domestic policy.
But, there are also many cases of bogus claims about how green the grass is and how well it is maintained in America, Europe, “the West,” or sometimes just “in foreign countries.” Very often those making such claims have little detailed knowledge of policy and practice in any single foreign country, let alone the whole of the U.S., Europe, or “the West.” They tend to accept PR claims as fact.
I have encountered this personally in doing research for a Japanese government entity. Longitudinal studies are not done to test whether something that appeared true at one point remains so today. Claims of universal validity are made for policies that may well be very country-specific.
Although there are cases where foreign writers make criticisms entirely out of thin air and their own sense of superiority, it is more frequently the case that these writers pick up on something that Japanese have said as part of an internal debate, exaggerate it, and then turn it against Japan and the Japanese.
The Japan Times is far and away the most often cited English language news originating in Japan. As such it has a particular responsibility to avoid publishing fake “news” claims of the type taken up here.
A new owner took over The Japan Times in 2017. Although several of the more vociferous and repetitive purveyors of exaggerated criticisms of Japan are no longer with the publication, it still carries an inordinate number of items that unjustifiably denigrate Japan, to say nothing of articles with gross factual errors.
Those pushing a reform agenda need to stop comparing Japan with an idealized model of what is being done elsewhere. And The Japan Times needs to stop broadcasting bogus claims about how Japan is behind what other countries are doing.
Comparisons when made should reflect reality in Japan versus reality elsewhere. And they should cover a broad range of cases, not be cherry picked to provide support for a particular reform agenda.
Author: Dr. Earl H. Kinmonth