Tag Archives: Japan

A strange love affair: Why won’t Japan get rid of fax machines?

Japan has always caught the imagination of Westerners throughout the ages as a place of exoticism and mystical wisdom. More recently, after its post-war massive industrialization and economic boom, the land of the rising sun has become synonymous with a kind of techno-utopia, its low-crime, neon-lit urban life serving as inspiration for what the future might look like. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, for instance, was obviously modeled after Tokyo, as are several other cyberpunk worlds.

But for a country crisscrossed by bullet trains, packed with glass skyscrapers, and filled with high-end robots, Japan is remarkably clinging on to the fax machine, a technology that has been obsolete in the West for years.

The hallmark of the 1980s office era, the fax machine is still a central pillar of Japanese communication in both corporate and government environments. And by all accounts, this antiqued mode of communication is there to stay for years to come, despite notable efforts to scrape fax in favor of digital technology.

Fax machines have obviously been a nuisance during the pandemic. Even though many Japanese employees were allowed to work from home in order to slow down the spread of the virus, whenever an important document had to be sent to another branch or tax forms filled, they had to return to the office to send and receive faxes. Even the best fax online is still subpar compared to other solutions available today. No matter how you put it, dealing with faxes is still a hassle — whether it’s Japan or another country.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s cabinet hasn’t been sitting watching this absurd situation unfold idly. As part of a nationwide push for all government bodies to go fully digital, the administration formed an “anti-fax reform” cabinet tasked with banishing the fax machine from Tokyo’s bureaucratic district of Kasumigaseki, as a start. But this common-sense policy has been met with surprising backlash.

Hundreds of government offices banded together, arguing that it would be “impossible” to replace the fax machine. According to local newspaper Hokkaido Shimbun, banning faxes poses serious security risks and causes “anxiety over the communication environment,” it quoted pro-fax officer clerks saying.

That’s an odd thing to say when there are obviously much faster and arguably more secure means of modern communication like e-mail and encrypted instant messaging. But in order to understand Japan’s seemingly irrational reticence to abolish an outdated technology, we need to view the situation through a cultural lens.

Hanko seals. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

In Japan, instead of a signature, people and businesses use a personalized hanko seal. This centuries-old tradition, which was first introduced from China and initially limited only to nobility, is still widely in use for signing contracts, business transactions, and various crucial administration procedures such as enrolling in the national pension program. There are three main types of such hanko seals used by the Japanese people in everyday life: a seal registered with the municipal authorities used to make binding contracts; a seal registered with a bank for payments; and an all-purpose hanko with no legal purpose.

During one government review, officials cataloged almost 15,000 occasions when the only way to satisfy Japan’s fastidious bureaucracy was using a hanko seal. The government’s latest crackdown on hanko seals, set on a backdrop of lockdowns and teleworking environments due to the pandemic, targeted 785 different types of bureaucratic procedures that require the stamp, or 96% of the total.

A lot of progress has been made in abolishing the hanko in many key government institutions, universities, and large corporations. But despite progress in digitalization, there are still many areas that are hesitant in embracing a paperless bureaucracy. While more than 75% of executives at small and medium-sized Japanese businesses replied to a survey last year saying they were in favor of abolishing hanko seals, more than half added that it would be nevertheless difficult to end the practice.

As such, there are still many ministries and agencies that still use faxes when handling highly confidential information. This includes courts and the police, which fear that online communication is more prone to security lapses.

It’s a rather absurd situation. The fate of fax is, of course, sealed. Japan will eventually abolish the fax altogether but before their final divorce, it seems fax printers have at least a couple more years of ink left in them. If anything, this serves as a reminder that even super-advanced technophilic societies suffer from the same biases and drawbacks that people elsewhere in the world share. Perhaps it is time to destroy your idols.

This cafe in Japan has robot waiters controlled remotely by disabled workers

In Japan, as in most other countries, disabled people are often invisible, hidden away in a homogeneous society that prioritizes productivity and fitting in. While the country has made some progress, issuing new anti-discrimination laws and ratifying a UN rights treaty, the issue is far from solved. Now, a cafe in Tokyo hopes to make a difference, bringing together technology and inclusion in a unique type of café. 

Image credit: Ory Lab.

DAWN, or Diverse Avatar Working Network, is a café managed by robots operated remotely by people with physical disabilities such as Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) and Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA). The operators, referred as pilots, can control the robots from home, using a mouse, tablet or gaze-controlled remote. 

The cafe is the latest project of the Japanese robotics company Ory Laboratory, which has the overall purpose of creating an accessible society. Its co-founder and CEO Kentaro Yoshifuji got the idea of a cafe with remote-controlled robots after spending a long time in hospital when he was a child – unable to go to school for over three years. 

The project started in 2018 as a pilot and has changed three times ever since. Following positive feedback from customers, Ory Laboratory opened a permanent café in Tokyo’s Nihonbashi district in June this year. The researchers behind the robot, Kazuaki Takeuchi, and Yoichi Yamazaki, even published paper last year describing how the robots were developed and how they can be used.

The robots are called OriHime-D. Users can remotely control them as their real avatars, that is, an alter ego with body by selecting prepared patterned motions. In addition, the user can communicate with real speech sound and speech synthesis. This enables communication for persons with difficulty speaking unable to engage in physical work. The researchers behind the project emphasize that the more abstract and vague the robot shape is, the more the user’s personality can show up.

A unique coffee shop

The café in Tokyo has several types of OriHime robots, which have been used previously when it was all only a pilot project. There’s one table top-stationary robot that takes order from customers, capable of taking on different poses. Tables at the café also come with an iPad to support the interaction with the robots, operated by pilots remotely.

Pilots, wherever they are based, can watch the customers through their computer screens while moving the robots around the café with a software that can be operated with slight eye movements. The OriHime are about 1.20 centimeters tall and come with a camera, microphone and speaker, which they use to speak and take orders in a space.

There’s also a larger robot that is used to bring food to the customers. This provides opportunities for people who face difficulties in chatting with customers. At the same time, instead of having baristas, the cafe comes with a “TeleBarista OriHime” with automatically brews any coffee selected by customers and is then taken to the table. 

The café is a joint effort between Ory Laboratory, All Nippon Airways (ANA), the Nippon Foundation, and the Avatar Robotic Consultative Association (ARCA). Each operator gets paid 1,000 yen ($8.80) an hour, which is the standard wage in Japan. As well as working with the cafe, Ory’s robots can also be found in transportations and department stores. 

If you’re in Tokyo and would like to have a cup of coffee at Dawn, here’s how you can find it:

Japan to dump contaminated water from Fukushima into the ocean

More than one million metric tons of treated radioactive water will soon be released from the destroyed Fukushima nuclear plant into the ocean, following a decision by the Japanese government. The plan has raised strong criticism at home, especially by fishermen, and among neighboring countries such as China.

IAEA inspector visit Fukushima. Image credit: Flickr / IAEA

The decision comes more than a decade after the nuclear disaster in 2011 at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, which suffered meltdowns in three of its reactors due to an earthquake and a tsunami. Seeking to control the radioactive fallout, over 1,000 tanks were used to hold the treated but still radioactive water that kept the reactors cool.

But the solution was only temporary, as the company in charge of the plant is now running out of storage room for this water. Experts have repeatedly suggested releasing it into the sea in a controlled manner, but locals vehemently opposed the plan. Now, the government said releasing the water was the “most realistic option.”

Prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, told a meeting of ministers this week that the government had decided that releasing the water into the Pacific Ocean was “unavoidable in order to achieve Fukushima’s recovery”. Work to release the water will begin in about two years, with the entire process expected to take decades.

The water stored in the tanks won’t be discharged as it is. Instead, it will be treated through a system that removes most of the radioactive material except for tritium, an isotope of hydrogen not harmful to humans in small amounts. Tritium “emits weak radiation” and its impact on health “is very low,” a government statement reads.

The discharging process will be monitored by third parties, including the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The agency’s head Mariano Grossi told CNN there is “no harm” in releasing treated water into the sea. This has been done in many parts of the world and no adverse environmental impact was reported, Grossi explained.

Still, the reassurances of Japan haven’t settled the nerves of neighboring countries, environmental groups, and local fishermen — worried over the implications of Japan’s decision. China said the plan was “extremely irresponsible”, and accused Japan of disregarding “domestic and foreign doubts and opposition”. In a statement, the Chinese foreign ministry said the releasing the water will “seriously damage international public health and safety and the vital interests of the people of neighboring countries.”

South Korea shared the concern, saying the decision could “directly or indirectly affect the safety of the Korean people and the surrounding environment in the future.” The country’s Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Choi Young-sam said at a news briefing that Japan should have consulted with neighboring countries and be more transparent.

Meanwhile, fishing communities said the water’s release will undo years of hard work to rebuild consumer confidence in their seafood. Kanji Tachiya, who heads a local fisheries cooperative in Fukushima, express his disagreement to AFP: “We can’t back this move to break that promise and release the water into the sea unilaterally.”

What is tempura?

Tempura batter is a Japanese take on the age-old art of deep-frying. But their approach creates the unique textures and flavors tempura imparts to any dish.

Shrimp tempura. Image via Pixabay.

Cultural exchange is always exciting, but never more so than when it involves food. You might know that the Italian pasta tradition started when Marco Polo… borrowed the idea of noodles during his adventures in Asia. In the spirit of fairness, Japanese cooks on the island of Nagasaki would also create a new culinary tradition starting from European customs. A technique that Portuguese missionaries used to cope with fasting or abstinence days thus served as the cornerstone of tempura.

What is tempura?

The term itself refers to a type of cooking where different food items are lightly dipped in batter and deep-fried. But it can also be used to refer to the batter itself, and that’s what we’ll be doing going forward.

Not very different in composition from other deep-fry batters in use around the world, tempura is a mixture of water, flour, and sometimes egg. Although simple in terms of ingredients, chefs will take great care to observe proper preparation steps. Their choices and approach have a great deal of effect on the finished item.

The most important steps to making tempura instead of regular ol’ batter is to keep everything at low temperature, in small batches, and keep mixing to a minimum. Tempura batter is made with iced water or mixed in a bowl placed inside a larger container holding ice. Mixing is done in small batches in order to allow for better quality control, and typically performed quite quickly with chopsticks. It’s not uncommon to see some sparkling water being thrown in the mix, too. Baking soda, oil, spices, or starch may also be used.

This set of conditions helps create the distinctive texture and hardness of fried tempura. Because it’s held at such a low temperature and mixed for a few seconds at most, it develops a fluffy, crunchy feel after being fried. The short mixing period also allows for clumps to form in the batter, which helps give its texture more variety and even more crunch. Furthermore, it prevents gluten networks from forming in the batter, giving it its glass-like properties.

Apart from appearing a bit smoother in texture, tempura doesn’t look all that different from other batters after being fried. But where your chicken wings, for example, would be coated in a soft layer with some crunchy bits, one fried in tempura would come out in a very hard, brittle shell. You can even tap on it and it would make a hollow noise like a gourd.

Can I make some?

Definitely. Tempura can be made from the comfort of your own home, where nobody can see you burn the batter. That is, of course, if you’re not somehow reading this from Japan during the Edo period — then it would be illegal for you to fry tempura at home.

It makes sense to ban indoor deep-frying when the local architectural style relies on wood and paper. Image credits Tanaka Juuyoh / Flickr.

Any type of soft wheat flour can be used; cake flour works fine, as does pastry or all-purpose flour. It doesn’t have to be gluten-free, but low-gluten varieties of flour can help make the process a bit more beginner-friendly. Still, when cooking anything that has a short list of ingredients, what you do to them is extremely important for the end result. So don’t expect to be perfect at it from your first try.

Once the batter is ready, however, you can start having fun with it. There’s that old, tongue-in-cheek folk wisdom that everything is tasty when deep-fried, and it holds true here. You can use tempura on pretty much everything from vegetables or greens to fish, meat, dairy, even whole steaks. You can even use it on ice cream. Just keep in mind that the tempura will cook relatively quickly, so if you’re planning on coating something like a steak, make sure it’s cooked before-hand.

How did we get it?

The very short story is that 1543 marked the first contact between Japan and Europe, as some Portuguese sailors washed ashore the island. Five years later, the first missionary (Francisco Xavier, a Jesuit) came to the island to spread their religion, in classic European fashion. Things went pretty well at first, with everyone making a lot of money out of mutual trade, but the Portuguese in particular.

Japan had so far been a relatively isolated culture, owing to its geographical seclusion. Most of their foreign affairs at this point included invading, being invaded by, or limited trade with other groups in East and Southeast Asia. Europeans were already present in the area by 1543, establishing bases mostly in India to cement the spice trade, but there had not been any direct contact between the two groups up to that point.

Needless to say, these two cultures — Japan and Portugal — were quite fascinated by the strange, exotic other, by their language, dress, and the items they had to trade. The Japanese were also taken aback by the ships Portuguese, which were more sophisticated than those available in Japan. But their guns were most impressive of all. In fact, the first three Portuguese traders to ever reach the island (António Mota, Francisco Zeimoto, and António Peixoto) were arguably allowed access into isolationist Japan because they showed off their muskets the minute they got there. Everyone wants to buy muskets, but Japan in particular wanted loads of muskets, as they had been fighting a civil war for almost 100 years by that point.

Portugal was also very interested in the exotic goods Japan had to offer, including silver. But they were especially interested in the Japanese themselves — more to the point, they were interested in buying people from Japan to be sold as slaves throughout Europe. Young women were the most sought-after, for all the wrong reasons. These people were likely the first Japanese individuals to reach Europe, as slaves, exotic concubines, and worse.

Still, despite the nastier parts of history, there was an understandable mutual interest between these two cultures to understand one another. Japan would have the most opportunity to do so as Portuguese (and later, Dutch) missionaries would live on the archipelago and try to convert the natives to Christianity. In the process, they were also given Christian names and encouraged to take up the traditions, customs, and lifestyle. This would eventually cause friction between the natives and these “southern barbarians”, leading to the Tokugawa Shogunate banning Christianity in 1614 and trying to expel all missionaries and execute all local converts in the next few decades.

Westerners (both Europeans and Americans) would eventually return with a lot of guns and big ships, explaining that Japan had none. It was a pretty compelling argument and this forced the island nation to open up to international trade (at, probably, very poor rates).

At some time between the missionaries getting to the island and their expulsion, it’s probable that the Japanese saw these Europeans create batter to deep-fry food during fasting days. We don’t know for sure but we’re pretty confident that the word “tempura” comes from the Latin term “temporo”, meaning “time of” or “time period”. The Portuguese and Spanish Catholics at the time still referred to Ember days by their Latin name, “quator tempora”. It’s possible that the process of dipping food in batter and frying it was thus wholesale ‘imported’ from the missionaries along with the words they used to describe why they were doing it.

Japan plans to join the pack and ban sales of new gasoline cars by 2030

Japan will soon join the growing list of countries set to ban sales of new gasoline-engine cars. The new policy, which should be announced as soon as next week, would ban sales by the mid-2030s, encouraging instead the use of electric or hybrid cars across the country to lower the country’s carbon emissions.

The streets of Tokyo. Image credit: Flickr / SoulSonic

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga wants to accelerate the decarbonization of the automobile industry as part of the country’s climate goals. Japan has already committed to being carbon neutral by 2050, in line with the Paris Agreement on climate change, but questions remain on how it will accomplish this.

The Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry will hold a meeting next week with automakers representatives to discuss the details of the policy to reduce the use of gasoline vehicles. Electric and hybrid cars currently account for about 29% of the country’s 5.2 million new registration.

Japanese manufacturer Toyota was among the first producers to popularize hybrid vehicles years ago with the Prius and now, Japanese automakers are considered the world’s top producers in the segment. Nevertheless, the domestic market for electrified vehicles has plateaued in recent years, with registrations in decline last year.

If the government moves forward with its plan, “pure gasoline vehicles will likely disappear from Japanese roads by 2050,” Satoru Yoshida, a commodities analyst at Rakuten Securities, told Bloomberg. This would lead to a decline in gasoline demand, depending on the number of hybrid cars, as they are partially based on gasoline.

Still, Yoshida said Japan will likely seek to keep hybrid vehicles on the road considering a complete halt in production of gasoline engines would negatively affect small factories and parts-suppliers. This means the transition to transportation that doesn’t rely on polluting fossil fuels might take a longer time.

Japan was the sixth-largest contributor to global greenhouse emissions in 2017, according to the International Energy Agency. Following the meltdown in Fukushima, after which the nuclear reactors were shut down, the country has struggled to reduce its carbon emissions. Its reliance on fossil fuels only increased since then.

The country has regularly received criticism for continuing to build coal-fired plants at home, as well as financing projects to build them abroad, especially in Southeast Asia. Japan currently has 140 coal-fired power plants under operation, which provide a third of its total electricity generation.

Nevertheless, Japan has taken some steps to reduce its emissions. The country’s upcoming plan for cleaner vehicles is part of a global trend of reducing sales of diesel cars. China, the largest vehicle market in the world, has already announced a plan to phase out sales of conventional by 2035. The UK also set a goal for 2030, while France and Singapore hope to achieve this by 2040.

Out of love with love itself: Japanese singles are increasingly disinterested in dating

The much-discussed social woes in Japan don’t seem to be going away anytime soon. According to a new study, 1 in 4 women and 1 in 3 men in their 30s are single, and half of these singles aren’t interested in heterosexual relationships.

Dating, it seems, is slowly falling out of fashion in Japan.

Hakone Jinjya Heiwa-no-Torii. Credit: Creative Commons.

Herbivore-ization

Japan’s overall population is aging and declining. It’s not just the very high life expectancy (though that does play a big role), the country’s low fertility rates are also to blame. Japanese media has long speculated about a purported decrease in interest for dating and sex and an increase in virginity, something they call “herbivore-ization”, unmarried adults disinterested in romantic partners are sometimes called “herbivores” in Japan.

But until now, it wasn’t clear that this phenomenon truly exists.

“This herbivore phenomenon, both its definition and even does it really exist, has been hotly debated for a decade in Japan, but nationally representative data have been lacking,” said Dr. Peter Ueda, an expert in epidemiology and last author of the research published in the journal PLOS ONE.

The new analysis draws on data collected by the National Fertility Survey of Japan, a questionnaire designed and implemented approximately every five years between 1987 and 2015 and shows that indeed, a large number of millennial adults are uninterested in romance — with the caveat that the study only tracks heterosexual relationships, so the approximately 10% of Japan’s population who identify has LGBT is excluded from this data.

Researchers explain the gap between single men and single women years can be explained by women being more likely to date older men, but the overall figures are high and seem to be growing. In 1992, 27.4% of women and 40.4% of men in Japan aged 18 to 39 were single. By 2015, 40.7% of women and 50.8% of men of the same age range were single.

Culture is an important factor in shaping romantic relationships. The peer pressure pushing towards marriage is strong in Japan, but it seems to be working counterproductively.

“After age 30, either you’re married or you’re single. Very few people in the older age groups are unmarried and in a relationship. It could be speculated that promoting marriage as the most socially acceptable form of relationship between adults has built a barrier to forming romantic relationships in Japan,” said Ueda.

The disinterest in romantic relationships does seem to be growing in younger people. Around one-third of women (37.4%) and men (36.6%) aged 18 to 24 said they were not interested in a relationship, compared to just 1 in 7 (14.4%) women and 1 in 5 men (19.5%) aged 30 to 34 who describe themselves as single and disinterested.

But it’s not just culture that’s shaping these social trends — it’s also economic status. Simply put, the trend seems to be more pronounced in poorer people and less pronounced in those who are better off. It’s unclear what the causality is here (or even if there is any), but it at least gives authorities an indication of where to act if they want to address this.

“Among men, lower income was strongly associated with being single, although this does not necessarily represent causality. If we transferred a million dollars into their bank account right now, it is not clear if single people would increase their interest in changing their relationship status. However, it would not be too far-fetched to expect that lower income and precarious employment constitute disadvantages in the Japanese dating market,” said Ueda.

“The herbivore phenomenon may be partly socioeconomic adversity. If government policies directly addressed the situation of low-income, low-education populations, I think some people with a lack of job security or financial resources may have new interest in dating,” said Dr. Haruka Sakamoto, an expert in public health and co-author of the research publication.

This isn’t exactly surprising. In Europe and the US, marriage has been shown to be associated with higher status and education, but it’s not well known how these factors affect single people. But if low socioeconomic status is indeed one of the causes, Japan’s infamously poor work–life balance can’t be helping. The country’s decline in wages and lifetime employment along with a high gender pay gap (estimated around 24%, one of the largest in the world), small living spaces, and the high cost of raising a child are all potential causes contributing to the fall of relationship-seeking in Japan.

The COVID-19 pandemic is expected to have also contributed to a decline in romantic relationships, not just in Japan but elsewhere in the world as well.

Journal Reference: Ghaznavi et al. The Herbivore’s Dilemma: Trends in and Factors Associated with Heterosexual Relationship Status and Interest in Romantic Relationships Among Young Adults in Japan – Analysis of National Surveys, 1987-2015. PLOS ONE. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0241571
https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0241571

Japan, the sixth-largest emitter, pledges to become carbon neutral by 2050

The world’s third-largest economy is aiming to cut greenhouse gases to zero and become a carbon-neutral society by 2050, said Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga. The move represents a major shift in the country’s position on climate change, following weaker commitments questioned by environmental organizations.

Takahama nuclear power plant in Japan. Credit IAEA

“We will bring the total amount of greenhouse gas (emitted by Japan) to net-zero by 2050, meaning carbon neutral,” Suga said in his first policy address to parliament since taking office. “I declare we will aim to realize a decarbonized society,” he added, to applause from lawmakers.

Japan had previously aimed at achieving an 80% reduction in emissions by 2050 followed by carbon neutrality “as soon as possible”, likely sometime in the second half of the century. This has been repeatedly criticized by climate activists as vague and unambitious. The Paris Agreement asks all countries to achieve decarbonization by 2050.

Takaharu Niimi, a climate change specialist at the Japan Research Institute, told AFP that Suga’s announcement was in line with an international move towards stronger commitments on the environment. “Considering the international trend, I think the time is right for Japan to declare the plan,” Niimi told AFP.

The country was under pressure to clarify its long-term ambitions, especially after carbon neutrality announcements earlier this year by China and South Korea. The shift puts Japan in line with its neighboring countries.

Suga didn’t give precise details on how Japan, still heavily reliant on coal, will achieve the goal but said the technology would be essential. He said the key will be innovation, citing examples including next-generation solar batteries. The country will push for more renewable energy and nuclear power, he added.

Japan was the sixth-largest contributor to global greenhouse emissions in 2017, according to the International Energy Agency. Following the meltdown in Fukushima, after which the nuclear reactors were shut down, the country has struggled to reduce its carbon emissions. Its reliance on fossil fuels only increased since then.

The country has regularly received criticism for continuing to build coal-fired plants at home, as well as financing projects to build them abroad, especially in Southeast Asia. Japan has 140 coal-fired power plants under operation, which provide a third of its total electricity generation.

The carbon neutrality goal will likely mean a big shift in the country’s energy plan, currently under review. The most recent plan, from 2018, aims to have between 22% to 24% of the country’s energy needs met by renewable sources including wind and solar by 2030. This has been described as unambitious by energy experts.

Greenpeace Japan welcomed Suga’s commitment to carbon neutrality but said there should be no role in the country’s future for nuclear power.

“Nearly 10 years on from Fukushima we are still facing the disastrous consequences of nuclear power, and this radioactive legacy has made clear that nuclear energy has no place in a green, sustainable future,” the group’s executive director, Sam Annesley, said in a statement.

Japan had the coronavirus under control. Then, it opened up too quickly

Japan was doing almost everything right, and then it pushed the economy too quickly. Now, as authorities continue to encourage people to travel and inject money into the economy, coronavirus cases are surging across the entire Asian country.

Image credits: Jezael Melgoza.

The calls of Japanese authorities for people to travel and eat out seem extremely unusual in the current context, but then again, the whole pandemic was unusual in Japan.

When the coronavirus first reared its head in Japan, many feared a disaster. An aged population, clustered together in large urban centers, seemed like an excellent place for the virus to thrive. To make matters even worse, the country had no legal framework to impose a lockdown, so all authorities could do is close some venues down and urge people to stay home. Yet somehow, against all odds, it worked — just barely, as hospitals were filled to capacity two months ago, but it worked.

There was no silver bullet, not one strategy that helped Japan control the outbreak. The widespread usage of face masks was a key factor, and Japan’s culture of hygiene also helped. The grassroots response to the pandemic (which included hands-on, analog contact tracing) also played a role, as did several other atypical approaches that the government imposed. In this hodgepodge of measures, something worked, and Japan managed to flatten the curve. For a while, everything seemed to be going fine.

Then, Japan acted as if the virus was gone. It wasn’t.

The bad, the good, and then the bad again

After initial success, the Japanese government offered a masterclass in how not to deal with a pandemic. It started with tiny bouts of arrogance. Japan’s finance minister claimed that a higher “cultural standard” helped contain the disease, even as the country’s experts admitted they weren’t sure exactly what worked. Then, Japan’s panel of experts (praised for its leadership during the first wave) was dissolved in a political mix-up, as the government heavily prioritized supporting the economy.

By June, restaurants and bars were fully open, and most sporting events were back in full force — in stark contrast to neighboring regions, which opened up cautiously in stages. Things culminated with a much-derided campaign to encourage domestic travel just as infections were surging.

Now, experts believe Japan’s reopening was premature, and it’s causing cases to spike.

“This is the result of the government prioritizing economic activity by getting people to move around again over infection control,” said Yoshihito Niki, a professor of infectious diseases at Showa University’s School of Medicine.

Japan understood earlier than most countries that the coronavirus is mostly transmitted through air, and it understood (and accepted) that strict measures must be taken to control the spread. Yet somehow, it lost track of the plot.

Whether it was underestimating the resurgence of the virus or overestimating its own capacity, Japan acted as if the virus was gone and things could get back to normal. But unlike the islands of Iceland or New Zealand, which could realistically hope to eradicate the virus, Japan’s population of 126 million was always faced with the virus resurging from the shadows.

This is exactly what’s going on now.

From bad to worse

It’s not just that cases are surging in Japan, but the positivity rate is also increasing, which is another unfavorable sign. Japan’s initial approach was to focus on pooled testing and manual contact tracing, but both approaches lose effectiveness if the number of cases grows suddenly, and despite progress, Japan’s testing has fallen behind the curve. To make matters even worse, there are also accusations of officials misrepresenting data.

Despite doing well where others faltered initially, Japan now seems determined to repeat the mistakes of others. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga repeated Friday emphasized that another state of emergency isn’t required, motivating that the death rate remains low by almost any standards, and the medical system isn’t overburdened — ignoring the simple lesson that the higher death rate and burdening of the medical system comes with a delay of a couple of weeks.

“Hospitals can treat the infected,” said Koji Wada, a public health professor at the International University of Health and Welfare in Tokyo. “But only the government, through public health measures, can reduce the number of infected people.”

Shigeru Omi, the head of the current panel of experts advising the governments, warned officials against the domestic tourism push, only to be ignored. Furthermore, the country’s government has delegated responsibility to local governments, without showing clear guidance. Much like in the US, this lack of central responsibility is proving to be a counterproductive approach.

The window of opportunity is shutting

Local governments are trying to address the situation. In Osaka, authorities are asking people to avoid dining in large groups, and bars in Tokyo are asked to shorten operating hours; previously, Tokyo had to pay bars to shut down.

But these are baby steps in what, by all we’ve learned so far, appears to be a marathon.

Haruo Ozaki, the head of the Tokyo Medical Association, called on the lawmakers to produce legislation that allows the government to shut down businesses and impose other public health measures.

Japan still has some advantages over other areas (the widespread usage of face masks, for instance), but if the situation continues to be ignored, it seems hard to avoid a disaster.

“This is our last chance to mitigate the spread of infection,” said Ozaki.

There’s much to learn from the case of Japan. Initially, the country showed that an energetic early approach that plays on the country’s cultural strengths can be surprisingly effective. But no matter how good of a job you do, resting on your laurels and leaving your guard down is treacherous. Keeping the first wave in check and flattening the curve is only a long step. Many more are required afterward.

The coronavirus may be airborne. For Japan, this is old news

Some scientists and even the World Health Organization (WHO) are now warning there is growing evidence of airborne transmission of the novel coronavirus. This could change prevention measures against the virus in many countries but not in Japan, which had assumed this was the case months ago.

Credit Flickr

Airborne transmission involves small virus-containing droplets suspended in the air (aerosols) that linger for some time and are carried over distances greater than 1 meter by air currents. These droplets contain less virus than large respiratory droplets, but unlike the latter, they don’t fall rapidly to the ground.

Only a small group of diseases such as tuberculosis, chicken pox and measles have been considered transmissible through aerosols. Researchers are warning COVID-19 could join the list. The WHO said this shouldn’t be ruled out but argued more evidence is needed to actually confirm this.

“If the WHO recognizes what we did in Japan, then maybe in other parts of the world, they will change (their antiviral procedures),” Shin-Ichi Tanabe, a professor in Japan’s Waseda University, told CBS News. He co-wrote an open letter to the WHO asking it to acknowledge the airborne spread of the novel coronavirus

This was in fact what the WHO did last week, vindicating the strategy implemented by Japan in February when it asked the residents to avoid the so-called three Cs: cramped spaces, crowded areas and close conversation. Doing this at an early stage helped to put Japan ahead of the world and limit the spread of the virus, Tanabe said.

A graphic created by the Japanese government urges citizens to avoid cramped spaces, crowded areas, and close conversation – the “Three Cs” – to minimize the spread of the new coronavirus.

Tanabe and the group of scientists urged the WHO to enact recommendations for improvements in ventilation and the avoidance of crowded, enclosed environments —recommendations Japan broadly adopted months ago. This has helped Japan to reopen concert halls, stadiums and other venues, which can admit up to 5,000 people.

Makoto Tsubokura, a Japanese researcher at Kobe University, used the world’s fastest supercomputer, the Fugaku, to simulate how the virus travels in different environments. He argued that operating commuter trains with windows open and limiting the number of passengers may help reduce the risk of the novel coronavirus.

In order to achieve adequate ventilation, there needs to be space between passengers he argued, representing a drastic change from the usually packed commuter trains that Japan is used to. Other findings advised the installation of partitions in offices and classrooms, while hospital beds should be surrounded by curtains.

In an article to be published in the September issue of the scientific journal Environment International, Tanabe and other experts write that safeguarding indoor spaces can be done relatively simply and cheaply, by avoiding crowding and maintaining the flow of fresh air.

Japan is now being challenged by a new wave of infections, reaching 200 per day. The new cases are appearing not just in crowded nightlife spots, but also within homes and workplaces. This has prompted the government to consider asking businesses to shut down again in the metropolitan region.

Shops in Japan begin charging fees for plastic shopping bags

Retail shops across Japan from convenience stores to supermarkets are now required to charge their customers at least one yen (around one US cent) for plastic bags, a new rule that brings the country in line with other major economies and that seeks to reduce plastic waste generated in the country.

Credit Flickr

However, plastic shopping bags only account for 2% of all the plastic waste produced in the country, which means further actions will have to be taken. The governments hopes that the introduction of the fee will encourage customers to change their habits on a wider scale, reducing their plastic footprint.

Japan produces more plastic packaging waste per capita than any nation apart from the United States, according to the United Nations. Amid criticism from environmental organizations, with the new move the country vows to “curb excessive use of plastic and think about how to use it wisely”, according to a policy document.

The new rule seems to be having some effect, with one shopper making sure she brought her own bag. “There are lots of issues now, like the environment and global warming. Each of us needs to be more aware of these issues, and that is why I am carrying my own shopping bag,” Yoshimi Soeda told AFP outside a Tokyo store.

To introduce the fees, the government last December revised ordinances related to the law on containers and packaging recycling. Stores have also been handing out complimentary reusable shopping bags in advance to the fees to encourage shoppers to use them.

The Environment Ministry has launched a campaign to raise the proportion of shoppers who do not seek plastic bags at stores to 60% by the end of this year from 30% in March this year. Still, as much as some nine million tons of plastic waste are produced in Japan in a year, with plastic being a strong element of the country’s consumption culture.

Japan has a solid waste management system, and the government says more than 80% of the plastic waste produced in the country is recycled. But much of that recycling actually involves simply incinerating plastic, often to produce energy, a process that generates carbon dioxide and contributes to climate change.

Last year, the government announced a goal of reducing plastic waste by 25% by 2030. Plastic bottles in particular are a concern, as more than 22 billion are produced every year, according to the Council for PET Bottle Recycling. Now 85% of those bottles are recycled but the goal is to reach 100% by 2030.

The use of plastics is among the top concerns for Japanese citizens, according to a government survey, which showed that 89% of the respondents were concerned with the issue. More than half said they would be willing to use an eco-friendly alternative, replacing plastic straws and cutlery.

Face masks helped Japan avoid a coronavirus disaster

How is it that a crowded mega-city like Tokyo, without a stay at home order and with a menacing outbreak, managed to avoid a catastrophe? The key might lie in its people’s awareness of public hygiene — and masks in particular.

Face masks were widely accepted in Japan. Image credits: Zhipeng Ya.

Mask-wearing has become an anathema to many parts of the US (and some parts of Europe) — but it may be a good part of why Japan and several other Asian countries are faring so well comparatively.

When you look at the coronavirus mortality rate, it is substantially lower in several Asian countries than the US or many countries in Europe. Japan is a particularly striking example. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe ended the national state of emergency last week as Japan has by far the lowest coronavirus figures in the group of seven major economies. Even as Japan wobbled as it took a hit from a second wave of infections, it is still standing.

Japan has no legal way to enforce a lockdown, so it relied on its population to respect the quarantine — and while the crisis is far from over, it managed to stave off the infections to a relatively low number. There are currently under 20,000 confirmed cases in Japan, which for a country of over 126 million, is stunning. The fact that Japan managed to keep its infections so low despite its sprawling urban agglomerations is even more impressive.

In a recent press conference, Japan’s national expert panel addressed some questions about why the country seems to be faring so well — and they cite face masks as an important factor.

“There’s strong awareness of public hygiene, starting with the habit of washing our hands. And, due to historical experiences, there is widespread knowledge about preventing infections,” the panel explained.

“Another social factor is that Japanese people feel comfortable wearing masks on a daily basis. Many people are allergic to pollen, so they do this during the cedar pollen season from the beginning of the year until spring, as well as to protect against influenza.”

Face masks have been a major point of contention over the course of the pandemic. A part of that is owed to the initial guidance provided by organizations such as the WHO and CDC. In part due to fears of shortage, in part due to a hesitancy to issue guidance on incomplete evidence, early guidance on face masks was confusing and contradictory — this did not happen in Japan and several other Asian countries. Face masks were recommended from the start, and they were already widely accepted in these societies.

But even so, the panel explains, Japan only barely managed to escape a health disaster.

“Japan’s health care system was on the brink of collapse, and we just barely managed to avoid that, thanks to an all-Japan effort. Even though we didn’t go as far as a lockdown like those seen in the U.S. and Europe, there has been great social and economic sacrifice. It’s difficult to find a balance between preventing the spread of the disease and social and economic activity.”

In the end, it was the common-sense measures that made all the difference: physical distancing, wearing masks, and hand hygiene.

“Cluster surveillance has enabled us to ascertain what situations and places present a high risk. We have found out that wearing masks, hand hygiene, physical distancing and avoiding talking loudly are effective in preventing transmission.”

Something else that Japan did with great success was cluster tracing. The cluster-based approach to disease control was designed based on the recommendations of the WHO. Each infection cluster is traced to the original source and everyone in the cluster is isolated and treated as necessary. This way, you don’t test randomly and massively (which can also work), but you spend a lot more time tracing clusters. The approach is not perfect, but it works.

However, Japan is not out of the woods yet. In order to keep the situation under control, Japan plans to step up its cluster tracing, in addition to other measures such as antibody testing and physical distancing.

“A second wave is very possible, so we need to detect clusters faster than before. We also need to use the antigen testing we have developed, alongside PCR testing, to find cases before symptoms become serious,” the panel concludes.

Newborn in Japan receives first treatment with liver STEM cells

A team of doctors in Japan have successfully transplanted stem liver cells into a newborn baby who required transplant, marking a world first.

Stock image via Pxfuel.

This approach could be used in the future for other infants who require organ transplants but are still too young or frail to bear such an intervention, the team explains. The patient suffered from urea cycle disorder, a condition where the liver is not able to break down ammonia, a toxic compound, in the blood, but was considered too small to survive a surgical intervention.

Infant cells to treat infants

“The success of this trial demonstrates safety in the world’s first clinical trial using human ES (embryonic stem) cells for patients with liver disease,” said a press release of Japan’s National Center for Child Health and Development (NCCHD) following the procedure according to todayonline.

At only six days old, the infant (whose sex has hot been disclosed) was too small to undergo a liver transplant, which is not considered safe for patients under 6 kilograms (13 pounds), according to the NCCHD, which usually means they have to be around three to five months old.

However, the baby’s condition would have been fatal until then, so the doctors had to find an alternative way of treatment.

They settled on a “bridge treatment” meant to manage the condition until the baby was big enough for transplant. This procedure involved injecting 190 million liver cells derived from embryonic stem cells into the blood vessels of the liver. And it worked.

They report that the baby “did not see an increase in blood ammonia concentrations” after the procedure and grew up to “successfully complete the next treatment”, namely a liver transplant from its father. The patient was discharged from the hospital six months after birth.

This course of treatment can be used for infant (and perhaps adult) patients who are also waiting for a transplant in other parts of the world. Doctors at the NCCHD note that Europe and the US have a relatively stable supply of liver cells from brain-dead donors, while Japan only has a limited quantity to work with. So they had to use ES cells, which are harvested from fertilized eggs, which has caused some controversy regarding how ethical their use is.

The NCCHD is one of only two organisations in Japan allowed to work with ES cells to develop new medical treatments. It works with fertilised eggs whose use has been approved by both donors having already completed fertility treatment, according to the institute.

The treatment so far isn’t meant to replace transplants, but that’s definitely an exciting possibility for the future. Transplants save lives, but they rely on donors (whose numbers are limited) and require highly specialized equipment, doctors, and medicine to be successful. We can, however, hope that in the future a simple injection may replace the transplants of today.

Despite the pandemic, suicide rates keep declining in Japan

Stay at home. That has been the global message to avoid a further spread of the novel coronavirus, with diverse lockdowns now in place in many countries. But being at home without going outside can be challenging for our mental health.

Credit Fickr

The UN has said the coronavirus pandemic has exposed many years of neglect and underinvestment in addressing people’s mental health needs, calling for ambitious commitments from countries in the way they treat psychiatric illness.

A recent international survey of almost 11,000 people found that more than half of all adults had recently felt depressed or hopeless about the future: 57% in the United Kingdom, 67% in Spain, and 59% in Italy.

In the United States, the Disaster Distress Helpline saw a 338% increase in call volume in March compared with February 2020.

Nevertheless, that’s not necessarily the reality faced by all countries. In Japan, the suicide rate has dropped 20% in April compared to the same month last year – the biggest decline seen by Japan in five years.

Up to 1,455 people took their lives in April 2020 in Japan, which represents 359 fewer cases than in April 2019. The drop follows a long-term path, as suicide rates have been declining for a decade now. The peak was in 2003 with 34,000 cases, dropping to 20,000 last year.

With schools closed, children are safer from bullies

Despite the decline registered over the last few years, there was an increase in suicide rates among children, who were exposed to bullying at school. The academic year usually starts in April but now, with all schools closed, this likely helped to prevent more suicide cases.

“School is pressure for some young people, but this April there is no such pressure,” said Yukio Saito, a former head of telephone counseling service the Japanese Federation of Inochi-no-Denwa, told The Guardian. “At home with their families, they feel safe.”

The coronavirus infection reached its peak in Japan around mid-April, with about 500 cases registered per day. Following the peak, the government declared a state of emergency. Less tight restrictions were implemented than in other countries but suicide preventive organizations were forced to shut down their doors.

The fact that only a small number of people are commuting to work every day has helped to maintain the declining figures, Saito said. Nevertheless, she highlighted that if the pandemic hurts the economy badly, cases could go up. In 1997, during the Asian financial crisis, suicide rates went up by 35%

With many suicide helplines and organizations now closed, many people have shown their willingness to help. Half a million have carried out online training courses to prevent suicides during the last three weeks. The Zero Suicide Alliance created the course, which has already reached a million participants since it was launched in 2017.

Japan unveils stimulus package for businesses hit by the coronavirus epidemic

With the economy taking a long pause amid the coronavirus outbreak, medium and small-sized businesses are among the most affected, not being able to open their stores and having difficulties in paying wages.

Credit Wikipedia Commons

In Japan, the government has decided to step up and help businesses with a subsidy so they can pay their employees in full – as part of the largest stimulus package ever given by the country, totaling $990 billion.

Small and medium-sized companies suffering from sharp sales declines will be fully exempted from paying taxes such as consumption and property taxes. At the same time, they will have access to loans without interest or collateral and subsidies if their revenue drops significatively.

The Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare also plans to use an existing employment adjustment subsidy, which helps enterprises forced to temporarily lay off workers continue to pay them.

Before the pandemic, laid-off workers at companies that have halted operations are entitled to at least 60% of their regular pay. But now the government increased this to 90% to keep them from being dismissed, with the company chipping in the other 10%.

“A significant impact on economic activities is inevitable,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told a press conference, calling the current situation “the biggest crisis” of the postwar era. “I’m resolved to overcome this crisis, together with Japanese citizens, by mobilizing all possible policy means,” Abe said.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government and other localities across Japan have asked restaurants and other businesses to close or shorten hours during the health crisis. The central government’s financial support measures aim to maintain the income levels of workers in these industries.

The subsidy program’s parameters will cover 3 million companies and about 10 million employees. But the employment adjustment subsidy has not proved popular so far, partly owing to its complicated paperwork and the roughly one-month wait for processing applications.

Anxiety in the US economy

With US President Donald Trump eager to restart the economy as soon as possible, there is widespread anxiety among American workers that will eventually have to get back to work, a recent survey showed.

Over 80% of US workers said they would not feel safe going back to work if their state were to reopen now, according to a survey by Fishbowl, a popular workplace app. In New York, the epicenter of the pandemic, only 14% said they would feel safe to back to the office.

Just behind New York were the District of Columbia at 14.65%, Maryland at 15.28%, Washington at 15.57%, and California at 16.05%. The survey included employees at companies such as EY, Deloitte, Accenture, Amazon, Edelman, Nike, Google, KPMG, and many others.

Previous Fishbowl surveys have revealed that 54% of workers fear layoffs at their companies as a deep recession grips the country. Nationwide, at least 26 million people have lost their jobs in the U.S. over the last month, with low-wage workers among the most affected.

Coronavirus in Japan — live updates, cases, and news

Coronavirus cases and fatalities in Japan

The number is based on confirmed diagnostic tests. It is very likely that the true number of COVID-19 cases is higher as many cases are asymptomatic.

New COVID-19 cases and fatalities per day in Japan

This is a good indicator of “flattening the curve” — when there is a steady decreasing trend, it is an indicator that the spread of the disease is slowing down.

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If you’d like to use these graphs and maps on your site or articles, please e-mail us.

What are coronaviruses?

Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that cause infection in humans and various animals, including birds and mammals such as camels, cats and bats. Some animal coronaviruses are zoonotic, meaning they are communicable from animals to humans. To date, it has been confirmed that seven coronaviruses can also cause infection in humans. When animal coronaviruses evolve, infect humans and spread between humans, this can lead to outbreaks such as MERS-CoV and SARS.

What are the symptoms of COVID-19?

The symptoms range from mild to severe respiratory disorders with fever, coughing and breathing difficulties. The elderly and people with existing chronic conditions appear to be more vulnerable to serious symptoms. Certain population groups are considered to be more at risk; they are more vulnerable to developing serious symptoms. These are mainly people over 65 years of age and people suffering from serious chronic diseases.

Coronavirus in Japan News:

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Japan announces state of emergency, gives 100,000 yen ($920) to all citizens for virus relief

Japan’s coronavirus reaction has been somewhat inconsistent, with periods of remarkable action and inexplicable delays. Now, Japan is pushing the pedal on economic support.

Japan’s coronavirus developments have been unusual. At first, the country seemed exposed to the risks of the virus, due to its proximity to China. Fears were confirmed as Japan was one of the first countries outside of China to report COVID-19 cases, but Japan seemed to have things under control — for a while. They tested a lot, traced chains of infections, and the number of cases dropped to a low level.

But then, things started to change.

Unlike South Korea, which continued to focus on mass testing and contact tracing, Japan relaxed. After weeks of keeping things under control, the virus seems to finally get a foothold in Japan, especially in Tokyo’s sprawling metropolis.

At the moment, Japan reports less than 1,000 new cases per day, but this is the critical phase in which the infections can explode in a very short time. The Japanese government delayed action for a while. According to one poll, 75% of people think the government waited too long to declare a state of emergency and measures should have been taken earlier. But now that the state of emergency has been declared, Japan is expected to take serious action.

Among the decisions announced as an economic stimulus, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced plans for a one-time payment to all citizens of 100,000 yen, the rough equivalent of $920

“I will ask the ruling parties to consider giving 100,000 yen each to all people affected by the emergency declaration as they will be asked to refrain from outings and other activities will be restricted” following the expansion of the state of emergency, Abe told a government panel tasked with coronavirus responses.

It’s a similar cash handout to the one in the US, which announced a $1,200 payout to citizens (currently delayed for adding Trump’s name to the checks). However, Japan’s plan comes at an earlier stage than the one in the US, which is currently reporting over new 30,000 coronavirus cases a day.

However, Toshihiro Nagahama, chief economist at the Dai-ichi Life Research Institute, said that the speed of the government’s decision-making is “inferior to that of other countries.” Nevertheless, Nagahama praised the 100,000 yen distribution as it gives a “less unfair feeling as long as people with a relatively high income partially pay back (what they have received) through taxation.”

“If the supplementary budget is reworked, some consideration will be needed for public finance, such as bringing money from other policies to the blanket handout, including that allocated to stimulate consumption after the virus infections are contained, and from the initial budget’s reserve fund,” Nagahama said.

Coronavirus woes: Hokkaido declares state of emergency, Switzerland bans large-scale events

The Japanese island of Hokkaido, home to over 5 million people, has officially declared a state of emergency over the coronavirus outbreak. Two days ago, the mayor of San Francisco took a similar measure.

Meanwhile, Switzerland has taken the extraordinary measure of banning meetings and events involving more than 1,000 people.

At least 66 infections have been confirmed in Hokkaido, while Japan reports over 900 domestic cases (most of them linked to the Diamond Princess, a cruise ship quarantined near Tokyo).

Japan has already undertaken major efforts to contain the outbreak. Schools have been closed down until late March, affecting 13 million students.

“The situation has become more serious. I’d like people to refrain from going outside over the weekend to protect your life and health,” Hokkaido Gov. Naomichi Suzuki said during a local task force meeting.

These decisions, while severe, are in line with what the World Health Organization (WHO) officials are saying. The outbreak has reached a “decisive point”, says WHO head Dr. Tedros Ghebreyesus, who added that the global outbreak has “pandemic potential”.

However, while Japan seems determined to take drastic measures, some local residents and mayors have complained that such measures are unjustified, Kyodo News reports.

“There are many small- and medium-sized businesses in the countryside. Parents taking leave or reducing working hours would have a major impact on such businesses,” said the mayor of Kanazawa, a city in central Japan.

Education minister Koichi Hagiuda has made it so that school principals can keep schools open if they so desire, but emphasized the importance of shutting down activities that can spread the virus — and schools are a prime example.

“We ask for the cooperation of relevant ministries and agencies so that students will stay home in principle and not go outside unless it’s necessary,” said Hagiuda.

“Experts have been saying schools have a high risk of group infection,” he said in defending the government request. 

Meanwhile, Switzerland, who saw its number of COVID-19 cases jump from 2 to 8 yesterday, took another stern measure, banning all large-scale meetings.

“An extraordinary meeting of the Federal Council was held today, 28 February,” a press release read. “In view of the current situation and the spread of the coronavirus, the Federal Council has categorised the situation in Switzerland as ‘special’ in terms of the Epidemics Act. Large-scale events involving more than 1000 people are to be banned. The ban comes into immediate effect and will apply at least until 15 March.”

The announcement added that the Swiss Federal Council is “aware that this measure will have a significant impact on public life in Switzerland”, but it emphasizes effective protection from the virus.

Meanwhile, California’s governor Gavin Newson refused to declare a state-wide emergency, although the city of San Francisco and Orange County have declared local emergencies.

Coronavirus action: Japan closes schools, talks about canceling Olympics

With already 200 cases and three diseases reported, Japan is starting to take serious action to avoid the spread of the coronavirus. The government is considering whether to hold the Olympic games or not, and they’ve already closed schools and canceled football matches.

Credit Wikipedia Commons

Olympic Games cost billions of dollars to host. The 2016 Olympics, in Rio de Janeiro, are estimated to have cost over $13 billion, while four years before in London, the price was estimated at $10.4 billion.

The fact that Tokyo is even considering canceling the games and taking the loss on the chin shows how serious they are about keeping Japan coronavirus-free.

The Olympics are scheduled to start on July 24 in Tokyo, but plans could change depending on the spread of the coronavirus. Dick Pound, a member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), said there is a three-month window to decide what will happen the competition.

Pound said the decision whether to hold the games or not will be made at the end of May, claiming the virus should be under control for the Olympics to happen. “At that time, I would say that people will have to ask: ‘Is this under enough control so we can trust going to Tokyo, or not?” he said in an interview with AP.

If the Olympics are in fact called off, it would be the first time this happens because of a disease. In the past, they were canceled in 1916, 1940 and 1944 because of world wars. The games were supposed to be held in Tokyo in 1940 but were canceled because of Japan’s war with China and World War II.

Pound described the uncertainty as an important problem and said the official position is that the decision will depend on consultations with the World Health Organization. “It’s a big decision and you can’t make it until you have reliable data on which to justify it,” he said.

If changes have to be made, Pound said that each option faces obstacles and that moving is unlikely: “Moving the place is difficult because there are few places in the world that could think about preparing the facilities in that short time to put something.”

In what could be a signal for the future of the Olympics, Japan already suspended until March 15 the games of the J1 League, the country’s first soccer championship. Mitsuru Murai, head of the federation, said he wished to align with the precautionary measures taken in China, the epicenter of the outbreak, and in South Korea.

Students in Japan have also been affected by the spread of the coronavirus. The country’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced today that all schools will remain closed for the next few weeks, affecting 12.8 million students of primary and secondary level.

“The next few weeks are an extremely important period,” Abe explained. “This is to prioritize the health and safety of children and take precautions that allow us to avoid the risk of possible infections in large numbers in many children and teachers who meet and spend hours together every day.”

The announcement came hours after several local governments decided similar measures. On the island of Hokkaido, the local government closed 1600 schools in response to the 15 new confirmed cases. In total, the region has 54 cases of coronaviruses and is Japan’s largest focus.

The Abe government has been criticized by the Japanese who believe that the response to the coronavirus is being too lax. While Japan has 200 cases in its territory, it also has another 705 cases on the U.K.-registered cruise ship Diamond Princess that caused four deaths since it docked in Tokyo in early February.

Most of world is leaving behind coal. But Japan pushes on with new plants

Most of the world is turning its back on burning coal to produce electricity, which is not surprising considering its high level of greenhouse gases and high cost. But Japan is betting that coal is a cheap and reliable source of energy for the future.

Credit Wikipedia Commons

The country has built at least eight new coal plants in the last two years totaling 1.07 GW and has planned 36 more in the next decade, the largest planned coal power expansion in any developed country, not including China and India. But that’s what’s most problematic.

Last month, the government took a key step in a questionable direction by launching a national energy plan that will make coal provide 26% of electricity in 2030 and abandon a previous goal of reducing the share of coal to 10%.

The decision to push further on coal is partly the result of the 2011 disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, which interrupted public support for atomic energy. This also reflects the government’s failure to encourage investment in renewable energy, environmental NGOs have said.

However, this decision has implications for air pollution and Japan’s ability to deliver on its promises to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which represent 4% of the total global coal capacity. If all planned coal plants are built, it will be “difficult for us to reach our emission reduction goals,” said Environment Minister Masaharu Nakagawa earlier this year.

Not long ago, coal was about to disappear in Japan. Coal plants accounted for 25% of Japan’s electricity in 2010 and the government’s plan was to reduce that percentage by more than half in 20 years. Nuclear power was going to take over, with its share going from 29% in 2010 to 50% by 2030.

Nevertheless, the Fukushima nuclear accident in 2011 led to a reassessment. Japan’s 54 reactors were closed pending compliance with the new safety regulations. Only seven have restarted. The power companies have turned to liquefied natural gas and coal, which provided 31% of the country’s electricity in 2014.

The new energy plan would consolidate the central role of coal. It would require the restart of nuclear power plants and increase its participation in the generation of electricity between 20% and 22% by 2030. This means fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas) would provide up to 56% of the country’s energy.

That dependence on coal will make it difficult for Japan to fulfill its commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20% by 2030 and by 80% by 2050, according to the country’s climate pledge. Those cuts will be even harder to achieve if nuclear power plants do not restart.

Countries committed in the Paris Agreement to cut their emissions so to limit the temperature increase to 2ºC or ideally 1.5ºC. Nevertheless, based on the climate pledges presented so far, the world is set to face global warming of at least 3ºC. More ambitious commitments are expected this year ahead of the COP26 climate summit.

Fermented soy products may reduce mortality risk

A new study reports finding a link between higher intake of fermented soy products such as miso and nato and a lower risk of all-cause mortality. However, at this point, the findings aren’t conclusive; further research is needed to establish a cause-and-effect relationship between the two.

A bowl of gochujang miso.
Image credits Jinwoo Lee.

Fermented soy products are quite widely consumed in Asian countries, particularly Japan. These include natto (soybeans fermented with Bacillus subtilis), miso (soybeans fermented with Aspergillus oryzae), and tofu (soybean curd). A new study aimed at studying the potential health benefits associated with these products reports that they may help reduce mortality from any cause, although the link is not yet properly established.

Spilling the beans

“In this study a higher intake of fermented soy was associated with a lower risk of mortality,” the authors write. “A significant association between intake of total soy products and all cause mortality was not, however, observed.”

“The findings should be interpreted with caution because the significant association of fermented soy products might be attenuated by unadjusted residual confounding.”

The team set out to investigate the association between several types of fermented soy products and death from any cause (“all-cause mortality”), from cancer, total cardiovascular disease (heart disease and cerebrovascular disease), respiratory disease, and injury.

The findings were drawn from a pool of 42,750 men and 50,165 women aged 45-74 who were taking part in the Public Health Centre-based Prospective Study, which includes 11 public health center areas in Japan. As part of the study, participants were asked to fill in detailed questionnaires regarding their dietary habits, lifestyle, and personal health. Residential registries and death certificates were used to track the evolution of these participants over a 15-year-period after filling in the questionnaires. Roughly 13,300 deaths were identified during this time.

All in all, the team reports, a higher intake of fermented soy was associated with a 10% lower risk of all-cause mortality. Participants who ate natto also had a “significantly” lower risk of cardiovascular mortality than those who did not eat natto, the team adds. Total (unfermented) soy and soy product intake, however, had no observable link to all-cause mortality, they add, or to cancer-related mortality.

The association stood firm even after the team adjusted for vegetable intake — higher rates of which are associated with better overall health and reduced mortality. Participants who consumed higher portions of natto were, on average, also chowing down on more vegetables than their peers, the team explains. Fermented soy products are higher in fiber, potassium, and other beneficial compounds than non-fermented soy products, the team explains. They believe this might underpin the association observed in this study.

However, they also strongly stress that this is an observational study. The team simply found that people who eat more of these products are less likely to die from certain causes, but that doesn’t mean the products themselves lead to decreased mortality. The authors controlled for several factors, including overall diet, body-mass index (BMI), smoking status, alcohol intake, and engagement in sports among many others. Still, unaccounted for factors (these are the ‘confounders’ they mention) could be causing the observed link.

Further research is needed “to refine our understanding of the health effects of fermented soy,” they add, noting that there is some evidence linking fermented soy products with various health benefits — so it’s a promising line of study.

“These efforts should be collaborative, including not only researchers but also policymakers and the food industry,” they conclude.

The paper “Association of soy and fermented soy product intake with total and cause specific mortality: prospective cohort study” has been published in the journal BMJ.