Coronavirus exposes weaknesses of Japanese capitalism and government

The Diamond Princess cruise ship, containing a coronavirus epidemic, that docked in Yokohama Port (photo: Creative Commons)

On Friday 13 March, the Japanese Upper House approved a bill granting Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, the power to declare a state of emergency to fight coronavirus. Unfortunately, the two major opposition parties, the Constitutional Democratic Party and the Democratic Party for the People, along with the tiny Social Democratic Party, all supported the government measures. It was left to the Japan Communist Party and the leftist, Reiwa Shinsengumi, to oppose the measures, though their opposition was largely limited to complaining about the lack of parliamentary approval for the declaration of a state of emergency.

The legislation – an amendment to a 2012 law on influenza and infectious diseases – includes some powers that socialists would support, such as the power to expropriate land and facilities for medical purposes and the right of Prefectural Governments to order medicine and food suppliers to sell their produce and goods to them, and even to forcibly procure items from companies that refuse. However, the measure also gives the government powers to ban events and meetings and order individuals to stay inside. The bill grants these rights to the government for a period of two years. Given the dubious record of the Abe government on human rights (see articles on on attacks on the Kansai Ready Mixed Concrete workers’ union) socialists should not support granting a capitalist government such powers. We are opposed to any measure that would give Abe the power to restrict the activities of the labour movement. Also, the declaration of a state emergency would give employers a legal excuse to avoid paying 60% of pay to workers laid off, on the basis that the lay-off is beyond their control.

Government failures

The government’s initial lack of preparedness was shown by the mishandling of the epidemic aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship that docked in Yokohama Port on 22 February. The quarantine of the ship, its crew, and passengers was handled by bureaucrats from the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare. There was little involvement of medical experts and those infected by the disease were not properly isolated.

A YouTube video by Kentaro Iwata, an infectious disease control expert at Kobe University, who managed to gain access to the ship, went viral. He was highly critical of the measures implemented on board. The crew complained that they were forced to work long hours attending to passengers and could not be seen by medical professionals. To cap it all, when passengers and crew were finally allowed to disembark, those without symptoms were not told to self-isolate, despite the fact that they had spent weeks in a confined space, in which nearly 700 people had become infected by the virus.

The other issue that has caused discontent with the Abe government and unease, has been the low numbers tested for the virus. Despite Abe’s claim that they had the facility to test at least 4,000 and more recently 8,000 people, a day, for the virus, nowhere near that number have been tested. The health ministry’s figures show that a total of only 19,420 tests were carried out between January 15th and March 6th. These figures included multiple samples for some people. There were reports of people who were showing symptoms being refused tests. To date, the numbers tested in Japan lag a long way behind those tested in South Korea. Without adequate testing it is impossible to make informed decisions about measures to control the spread of the virus.

Abe moves

In a country which has a long tradition of government involvement in the economy, and where the prevailing opinion that the government should intervene to ensure public safety, Abe was stung by the public criticism and moved in order to be seen to be taking “firm measures” to deal with the crisis. Also, a major factor in this was the fear that the spread of the disease could lead to the cancellation of the Olympics, the profit bonanza that business circles had hoped would carry them through and avert recession.

Abe’s first measure was to “request” that schools close for the remainder of the semester and should not reopen until the end of the Spring Holiday, at the beginning of April. Children were expected to stay at home.

This caused two major problems. Firstly, while many of the school teachers are public servants and would be paid regardless, this measure also affected other groups of workers, such as Assistant Language Teachers. These workers are dispatched by private companies to boards of education, language schools with large numbers of school-age students, cramming schools and others working in the private education sector, and the companies and food suppliers responsible for school dinners. Many of these workers were in danger of being laid off. The second is the problem of child-care, with the school closures leaving many having to stay home to look after children.

The response of the government has been a combination of pressure on companies and subsidies. Initially, they suggested employers be more sympathetic to employees taking annual leave. However, many employees simply do not have the amount of annual leave entitlement left to cover the period of the school closures.

The government then announced a subsidy of a maximum of 8,300 yen per day to employers who pay their employees in full, while they are taking time off for child-care. However, the scheme has received a patchy reception from employers.

The now privatised Japan Post has refused to play ball with the government’s scheme, instructing their employees that they could only take special leave under the government scheme after they have used up all of their existing paid leave, claiming they could not maintain the service otherwise. Incredibly they called on workers “not to abuse the subsidy system”. The left-wing Postal Workers’ Industrial Union had called off their Shunto (Spring Labour Offensive) strike planned for 17 March, because of the coronavirus, only to find themselves embroiled in a fresh battle with their employers over childcare leave. The company was eventually forced to retreat in a victory for the union. The public mood is not sympathetic to employers putting profits before public health.

As usual in Japan, it is the irregular, limited-term contract workers, part-time and dispatched workers that suffer the worst effects of the crisis, with workers being sent home with no pay or laid off. Even here, the government has been forced to act, for example, with pressure being applied on dispatch companies (agencies) not to lay off workers. The government also announced a subsidy for “free-lancers” who are unable to work – many of whom are, in reality, workers labelled contractors by the employers to evade labour regulations. These workers will get a subsidy of 4,100 yen, per day.

While the government has moved to take some measures to alleviate the problems caused by the epidemic, their basic strategy is to provide money to businesses in order to alleviate the situation.


Despite the unprecedented health crisis, representatives of the Abe government have repeatedly declared their intention to push ahead with the Olympic Games at the end of July. The government has spent an estimated $28 billion on preparing for them. They hope to recoup that money, and profits galore in tourism and other business arising from the games.

However, at the time of writing, it seems extremely unlikely that the Olympics can go ahead and calls for postponement have grown. Even the maverick finance minister, Aso Taro, surmised that there may be an Olympic curse that hits games held at 40-year intervals! A recent opinion poll by the Kyodo showed that 70% of the Japanese population believe that the Olympic Games should not go ahead as planned, with only 20% supporting the move.

However, given the money involved and the cost to corporations, it cannot be excluded that Abe could push ahead with plans to hold the games. The labour movement should resolutely oppose any move to put profits before public health. Even if the epidemic could be controlled within Japan (and Japanese experts expect the pandemic to last for at least six months if not a year) it is not likely the pandemic on a world scale would be over by July. There is a chance that holding the Olympics could reignite the epidemic. There is also a danger that a premature relaxation of measures that have been taken, such as the school closures, could have the same effect.


Aside from the question of whether the Olympic Games goes ahead, the pandemic is likely to plunge the Japanese economy into a slump. Long before the beginning of the epidemic, an increase in consumption tax to 10% last August had led to a 7% fall in household spending last Autumn. The government was hoping that an Olympic boom, and the accompanying boom in tourism, would see the economy through.

Those hopes are now being dashed. It is this sector that is presently being decimated. There is presently a flood of restaurant and bar closures and small retail outlets are also threatened. All Nippon Airlines (ANA) is proposing that 5,000 employees take “partially paid leave” – in reality, are laid off – in April. Other closures and lay-offs are already being announced. The company should pay 60% under Japanese law, but we believe the ANA unions should fight for full pay. Another example are the 20,000 workers at Tokyo Disneyland, 18,000 of whom are irregular workers, many of whom are low paid who have been laid off since the end of February. There are ongoing attempts to organise these workers with unions demanding 100% pay.

Early on, the government granted subsidies to companies affected by the loss of Chinese markets. They have also offered loans to small businesses affected by the crisis. There are discussions about a major reversal of economic policies, with conservative elements in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party proposing that the consumption tax increase be reversed and even cut to 5%.

Other politicians are proposing a single payment of 12,000 yen to the whole of the population, with 20,000 being paid to the elderly or those with young children to cover extra expenses. This proposal in particular would be a drop in the ocean, in no way compensating for the extra expenses facing many working-class people.

Fighting back

The Japanese labour movement enters this crisis in a weak state, with union membership standing at a mere 12% of the workforce. Most of these workers are in conservative company unions organising the ‘seishain’ (core permanent workforce) of major corporations.

However, if the crisis deepens, this situation could change rapidly. Layoffs and closures, especially amongst the core-workers, have historically led to the radicalisation of even these unions. Although this is now a distant memory, it is not excluded that we could see something like the production control movement that developed post-WWII, where workers facing closures and sabotage of production by management took over and continued production.

At the present time, the crisis is nowhere near as acute nor is the consciousness of workers the same, but this could change very rapidly. Meanwhile, many of the smaller and more radical area-based and industrial unions are throwing themselves into the organisation of irregular workers and others affected by the crisis, such as those at Tokyo Disneyland, to fight for guaranteed payment of wages, childcare and sick leave.


Socialists stand for organising fighting labour unions, independent of management. Building this independence is more important now than ever. Unions should call for full pay for all workers, whether on sick-leave, child-care leave or laid off by employers, and not just accept the 60% they legally have to provide.

Workers forced to self-isolate, should also receive full pay. If they do not, the danger is that people will show up to work even when they have symptoms of the disease to avoid losing income, thus leading to its further spread.

Unions should also be fighting to guarantee the safety of those working throughout the epidemic. Those with existing health conditions that make them vulnerable to the virus should be allowed to work from home with no loss of pay. In many work-places masks have become a contentious issue, especially among those who work with the public. Incredibly, some employers have insisted that workers do not wear masks when dealing with the public. At other workplaces, employers are demanding workers wear masks, but this might not be possible as there is now a shortage of masks in the stores. Employers should provide masks, at their expense, to all employees dealing with the public.

There is no doubt that Japanese capitalism can afford to pay. An article in the British Financial Times, on 17 March, pointed out that the retained cash of Japanese corporations had been increasing for four decades and had reached 130% of GDP at the end of 2019. This is not part of corporate assets but cash-in-hand that the corporations have. It comes from the sweated labour of workers in Japan and elsewhere. If companies refuse to pay up, unions should use existing trade union law to demand that companies open the books and provide detailed financial information about where the profits have gone. Companies shutting down or “restructuring” i.e. firing workers should be taken into public ownership under workers’ control and management.

Fighting the profit system

The activity of the labour movement should not be limited to the workplace. Abe and the Liberal Democratic Party are the political representatives of the major corporations. Where forced to choose between profits and public health, they will choose profits every time. The labour movement must voice its own demands for a fight against the epidemic.

This means fighting for more hospital beds, treatment, respirators, drugs and even masks and other products necessary to minimise deaths caused by the epidemic.

Abe pledged to produce 600 million masks a month but companies have produced only 400 million, despite getting subsidies from the government. They will not increase production, because that means creating extra capacity which they would not need after the epidemic. Where corporate profit is an obstacle, companies should be taken over and run under workers’ control and management.

The same approach should be taken to ensure there are enough respirators. Similar to wartime, production should be shifted away from luxury products, not to arms, but the materials that are needed to fight the epidemic.

There are a number of drugs used to treat other diseases, such as influenza and asthma, that have proved effective in treating the coronavirus in Wuhan and other places. Patents on these drugs should be waived and generic production ramped up to meet possible need in Japan and elsewhere. Pharmaceutical companies should be immediately taken into public ownership.


Governments across the world are introducing emergency measures to prevent public assembly, to control movement and even confine individuals to their homes. If they are allowed to, governments will use these powers to suppress the labour movement and other popular movements. Emergency measures should not be left to the government or even prefectural governors and enforced by the police and self-defence forces.

Many public health specialists have pointed to the importance of popular involvement in fighting the disease and helping poor and older people living in poverty. Popular committees should be formed with delegates from local medical organisations, health workers’ organisations and other unions, as well as from residents’ organisations in local areas. These committees should be the bodies which supervise and enforce any restrictions on movement, cancellation of events and prevention of speculation in essential goods.

As with a major war, the epidemic is showing in sharp relief all of the contradictions and weaknesses of capitalist society. Initially, it may put certain obstacles in the way of the labour movement and socialists. Some unions have cancelled shunto actions and pay strikes and other actions due to the epidemic. Many activists can be isolated at home.

However, even pro-business governments are today adopting policies that yesterday they would have described as ‘socialism’. Wide layers of society are seeing the need for drastic measures. If the crisis deepens then consciousness can change dramatically.

Socialists call for the formation of a party of the working class. Such a party could develop quite rapidly into a mass force, contesting the pro-business politics that have dominated in Japan and other countries for the past period. It would fight for an end to capitalism, for a socialist Japan, linked to the workers’ movement and other countries in the region.

For a fighting programme:

  • Free testing for all those with symptoms or who have been in contact with infected people.
  • Sick leave on full pay for all workers – regular or irregular.
  • Child care leave on full pay for all parents affected by the school closures.
  • Full pay for all those forced to self-isolate
  • Full pay for all laid off due to the epidemic.
  • For fighting unions, independent of management.
  • Employers to provide masks and safety measures for all who are working
  • Workers with pre-existing health conditions and in high-risk groups to be allowed to telecommute.
  • Public ownership of companies threatening closure or firings, under workers’ control and management.
  • For an emergency programme to produce the medical supplies needed to fight the epidemic. Take over the pharmaceutical companies.
  • No to Abe’s emergency regulations. No restrictions on the activities of the labour movement.
  • For popular committees elected from residents’ groups, medical organisations, health workers, trade unions, PTAs and local residents to decide on controls over movement, school closures, cancellations of events etc. in local areas.
  • For a party of the working class armed with a fighting socialist programme.

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March 2020