It recently emerged that 23 health ministry officials had a farewell party until around midnight at an izakaya pub in Tokyo's upscale Ginza district. Their actions show a gross lack of self-awareness as members of an organization in charge of measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
The party was exposed in a scoop by news website Toyo Keizai Online. It was held soon after the state of emergency in the greater Tokyo area was lifted, and amid a request by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government for restaurants to shorten business hours and close by 9 p.m.
The group allegedly even made sure that the eatery was open until 11 p.m. before making a reservation. By the time they had all left the venue, it was almost midnight.
The Japanese government had called the public to refrain from farewell and welcome parties, which are common in the spring in Japan, and from dining in large groups even after the emergency declaration was lifted. It also urged people to avoid dining and drinking for long hours, and to choose locations where acrylic panels are installed. The farewell party contravened the measures requested by the government to prevent infections in every way possible.
The 23 officials belong to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare's Health and Welfare Bureau for the Elderly, which has jurisdiction over facilities for senior citizens -- places that particularly require thorough infection prevention measures. About half of the division, including the division chief, reportedly participated in the event. They must have known that it would be inappropriate, but why was there no objection to going ahead with the party?
The Japanese government has tried to curb the spread of infections not by lockdown tactics seen overseas but by asking people to refrain from going out and by calling on businesses to shorten their hours. The people of Japan have been forced to endure these requests for a long time now. If those asking the public to live under restrictions fail to discipline themselves, there is a risk that people will become unwilling to take their requests sincerely.
Amid concerns over a possible "fourth wave" of infections, this kind of situation could disrupt efforts toward thorough preventive measures.
In December last year, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga came under fire for going out to a dinner party with ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai and six other people. This was followed by a series of revelations that Diet members belonging to the LDP and its junior coalition partner Komeito visited luxurious hostess clubs in the Ginza area and other nightlife venues in Tokyo. The public backlash over their outings was fierce, and yet it appears the health ministry employees did not learn a lesson to apply to themselves.
Health minister Norihisa Tamura told a news conference, "I will enforce strict discipline (among ministry workers) so that the people, appalled by their actions, won't think they can also act like that 'because the health ministry is doing it.'" It is only natural for the ministry to discipline those who were involved. The need for meticulous measures to prevent recurrences goes without saying.
The health ministry has made a series of mistakes in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. It needs to rebuild itself to gain understating from the public.