Japan Winning the Battle of Definition, Losing the War of Public Relations

Satoshi Ikeuchi, Professor, Religion and Global Security, University of Tokyo

The interesting tendency of Communist Party of China’s central government is to call the disease caused by the deadly coronavirus domestically as “Wuhan Pneumonia” thus insinuating that the responsibility exists primarily on the local government, whereas globally opposing any use of terms which associate with this disease with specific places in China.

The crisis saga is gradually transitioning to the next phase of preventing social, economic and political contagions, aside from containing the physical contagion of the coronavirus. There is also a latent battle of definition going on under the surface. China prefers to adopt a certain definition for counting the infected person to minimize the nominal number of stricken cases in China.

Japan also takes part in this battle of definition, notably rejecting to incorporate the number of infected persons on the Diamond Princess cruise ship which has been moored in the port of Yokohama since February 3.

Even though owned by American Carnival Corporation, the Princess Cruises is authorized by Japanese authority to operate on a route departing and arriving Yokohama as its homeport and majority of passengers were Japanese, predominantly families with elderly retired members.

Responding to the infection case of a passenger who disembarked from the ship in Hong Kong on January 25, Japanese authority put the entire ship under 14 days quarantine keeping people on the ship starting from February 5. As the number of newly tested infections steadily mounting, reaching as many as 634 people as of February 20 out of around 3700 people originally on board, the public and governments of the home countries of the passengers and crews, most vocally the US, became impatient about Japanese authority’s handling of the situation, some described it as “19-century strategy” or even “14-century approach” in which the authority locked up the entire stricken ship without having an adequate method of control of infection among them. Diamond Princess case has been increasingly the focus of global media as the single most deadly hot zone outside of China.

Even though it has not been known yet how many were already infected before the ship arrived at Yokohama port and how many were the new victim under the compulsory quarantine period, it is obviously a public relations failure for Japan. Sometimes losing in PR war can be more deadly than the epidemic itself, in its debilitating effect on the Japan’s feeble economic recovery, even when Japanese authority has been winning the battle of definition, succeeding in categorizing the cases on the cruise ship moored in the port not in Japan but in somewhere “other” place.