On February 26, the New York Times (NYT) published an opinion piece by Koichi Nakano, identified only as “professor of political science at Sophia University.” This screed was entitled “Japan Can’t Handle the Coronavirus. Can It Host the Olympics?” and began by declaring, “The Japanese government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak has been staggeringly incompetent.”
On March 2, the NYT published a muted Japanese government response to the highly partisan opinion piece. Oddly, The Sankei News article about this response appeared among the most-read articles (Number 1) on May 8, possibly due to a Twitter post about the article.
What Did the Article Say?
The criticism of Prime Minister Shizo Abe and his government was rather mundane and echoed what had been said previously in both foreign and domestic reports:
- The government was slow to act.
- There were personal protective equipment (PPE) shortages.
- There was limited testing, and seeking a test was discouraged.
- Infection was spreading among the passengers and crew onboard the Diamond Princess.
- When the quarantine of the Diamond Princess passengers was ended, they were not tested.
- Government officials who had boarded the ship were not tested later.
- Abe was not focused on the epidemic.
- Abe is a hereditary politician not popular with the people.
None of these claims are totally false. Some have substantial validity. The issue for me is the venue for making these statements and what readers of the NYT were not told.
Who is Nakano Koichi?
The author of this piece is indeed a Jochi (Sophia) university professor, but he is no detached Ivory Tower academic. He is decidedly left wing. A reviewer partial to Nakano and his writing has described him as “a leading voice in the anti-Abe movement.”
Unless well-versed in Japanese politics and academia, there is no way for a foreign reader to judge how seriously to take Nakano. The NYT failure to provide a proper bio was irresponsible.
Nakano as a Sound Bite Source
Because of his fluency in English and left-wing politics, Nakano is a frequent source of sound bites for foreign journalists. That was particularly the case in the period up to the cancellation of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Typical of his statements is this one made to CNBC: “Instead of demonstrating and winning international trust about Japan’s crisis management capability ahead of the Olympics, he (Abe) did just the opposite and made the international community doubt if Japan can handle this.”
Although toned down for the NYT piece, his rhetoric elsewhere might well put off even some NYT readers who are uncomfortable with the “socialism” of Bernie Sanders. Even more so would be his apparent attraction for the Japan Communist Party, although I would stress that it is now more of a European-style social democratic party than the Stalin-era bogeyman of American political history.
In making his criticism of how the Japanese government handled the Diamond Princess, Nakano betrays, as have many other commentators, a stunning lack of knowledge about what quarantines of ships or geographical areas are intended to accomplish.
Quarantines are intended to limit or preferably stop the spread of infection from the quarantined population to the population outside of quarantine. Limiting the spread of infection within the quarantined ship or area is at most a very secondary consideration.
This was pointed out in various venues, including the NBR Japan Forum. How Japan handled the Diamond Princess may have been bad in PR terms, but it was not notably different from other cruise ship cases or geographical quarantines in this period.
The Olympics Conspiracy Theory
Nakano has also been a contributor to what I call the Olympics Conspiracy Theory, the idea that the Abe government was hiding the true level of infection in Japan in order to keep alive a July start for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
For example, Nakano was cited in an early April attempt by the U.S. television network ABC to keep the Olympics Conspiracy Theory alive. In an article headlined “Japan’s sudden spike in coronavirus cases after Tokyo Olympics postponement raises eyebrows,” he supplies four separate quotations taken by the authors as supportive of the conspiracy theory.
I, for one, am extremely skeptical of the Olympics Conspiracy Theory. It requires that one believe that essentially the entire medical establishment, as well as all local governments, acquiesced in the conspiracy. Yet, Abe’s many critics have yet to find any concrete evidence of its existence.
Why Japanese Partisan Politics in the ‘New York Times’
British friends have suggested that the Abe-bashing in American liberal media is really stealth Trump-bashing. There may be some merit to this — Nakano has described Abe as “Trump before Trump.” But while there may well be this perception on the part of U.S. editors, there is no reality behind it.
My own view based on two decades of research and teaching about “Japan in the Foreign Imagination” is that articles like this are stealth whataboutism intended to reassure foreign readers, primarily Americans in this case, of their superiority over the Japanese.
Why Trash the Japanese Government in the NYT?
I am a Japanese citizen. I can and do vote. I do not vote for the LDP. In questioning Nakano’s treatment of Abe, I am not singing “Stand By Your Man.” I too have my questions about how the Abe government responded to the Diamond Princess and subsequent developments. I even share Nakano’s view that Yuriko Koike, the governor of Tokyo, has proven a more effective and engaged leader than Abe, and I am particularly pleased because I voted for her.
I cannot, however, see any utility whatsoever in Nakano trash-talking Abe and his government before the NYT readership. Doubtless there are Japanese voters who read the NYT. Indeed, I am one, but I doubt there are many, even any, of us who make our voting booth choices on the basis of what Nakano or anyone else writes in the NYT.
A bigger issue for me is how foreign readers respond to commentary of this type, especially when it comes from a Japanese academic. The NYT does not allow comments to items in the “Opinion” series, but comments to similar criticism in the Japan Times and Japan Today can serve as a proxy for the missing NYT comments. These range from questioning the intelligence of the Japanese who vote for the LDP (Abe as a prime minister is elected by party members, not general voters) to blatantly racist statements about Japan and the Japanese.
Where is the Update to This Piece?
Nearly three months have passed since Nakano’s screed was published. Contrary to what should have followed from the policy failures listed by Nakano, Japan seems to have weathered the pandemic far better than a number of countries, including Britain, Italy, and Spain, to say nothing of the United States.
Despite having only a voluntary “lockdown” because of constitutional limits on the power of the prime minister, there was a high level of compliance with both national and local government requests that people stay home and that they practice physical distancing when necessity required that they be out and about.
Grudging recognition that Japan appears to have done rather well has started to appear in English. The title of the most detailed article on the situation in Japan as of mid-May perfectly described the situation. “Japan's coronavirus response is flawed -- but it works.” Nothing comparable has appeared in the NYT.
Since mid-January, the NYT Tokyo bureau chief Motoko Rich has repeatedly cited the lack of testing in Japan in articles and on Twitter leaving the impression that Japan was on the verge of calamity. Now that this appears not to be the case, rather than analyze why Japan escaped disaster, she has returned to what appears to be her favorite theme: unequal (by her standards) gender relations in Japan, especially the division of housework. In so doing she is once again reassuring New York Times readers of their superiority vis a vis the Japanese.
Only Nakano can say why he chose to trash-talk Abe in the NYT in English. He can do it in Japan in both Japanese and English. He has in fact done this a number of times. He is not, for example, a Uighur in China facing arrest for even the most minor criticism of the Chinese government.
Only the New York Times editors can explain why they chose to run an extremely partisan piece that involves political issues with no relevance to American readers.
Whatever the reasoning, both have much to answer for, Nakano more so than the NYT because he has other options on the one hand. On the other hand, the anti-Japanese bias of the NYT is structural, and has manifested itself in other blatantly racist editorializing. Making someone who writes condescending, clichéd, and repetitious articles its Tokyo bureau chief is a further sign of NYT contempt for Japan and the Japanese.
Nakano, with his years in the U.S. and the U.K., should be well aware of the cultural racism that is found among Anglophone elites. And he should be doing nothing to feed it. Similarly, Japanese individuals and corporations should be doing nothing to feed the NYT revenue through paid subscriptions or advertising.
Author: Earl H. Kinmonth