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What factors have driven belief in anti-vaccine conspiracy theories in Japan?

The smartphone belonging to a woman a Mainichi Shimbun reporter met at a soup kitchen, who opposed coronavirus vaccination, is seen in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo, on July 17, 2021. She was recording information on the coronavirus. (Mainichi/Harumi Kimoto)

TOKYO -- While vaccinations against the coronavirus's fierce spread continue, books by doctors opposing vaccination are filling best-seller sections at bookstores in Japan. Some anti-vaccine theories, as well as conspiracy theories and false information also found on the internet, claim "dark forces" advocate vaccines. When one Mainichi Shimbun reporter interviewed people avoiding vaccination, she found among them a common distrust of politics and mass media.

    Among them was a 50-year-old woman in line at a soup kitchen under the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building in the capital's Shinjuku Ward in mid-July, just before the Tokyo Olympics began.

    She said she had come from within Tokyo to get food to deliver to an acquaintance in need. The woman said she, too, is out of work after being laid off in January when her employer downsized. The pros and cons of an Olympics amid the pandemic were under debate at the time, and she expressed strong dissatisfaction with politics and the media.

    "I was shocked. At (Prime Minister) Suga's news conference (on July 8) explaining Tokyo's fourth state of emergency declaration, a reporter fiddling with his phone whose hand wasn't raised got picked to ask a question. Didn't the other reporters say anything? No wonder they're called 'scum.'"

    She said she supports the opposition Japanese Communist Party (JCP) and the Reiwa Shinsengumi party, and subscribes to JCP newspaper "Shimbun Akahata." But she added she finds Shimbun Akahata "naive" for publishing articles on vaccination and infection prevention measures with the virus threat as a given.

    She gradually began lecturing the reporter, and made statements including that "the government is trying to enslave us," and that "they are trying to reduce the population." Why does she believe these baseless conspiracy theories?

    The woman said it was around spring 2020 when she began feeling skeptical about the COVID-19 threat. Despite initially being attentive to infection control measures, a local restaurant's closure ignited her suspicions of society. While the government asked for "cooperation in self-restraint," more people were struggling financially. She felt something was wrong about the contradictions in reality.

    She also grew suspicious of the press. Her friend living abroad told her there had been a time when they wore masks, but now did not. The woman said, "I heard on the news about arrests overseas for not wearing masks. I think information is being controlled."

    She has no TV at home, and her main information source is the internet, primarily via Google searches, Twitter, and news sites. A search for "novel coronavirus and immunity," brought her posts by doctors touting the benefits of immunity and natural healing. The information her Twitter timeline was showing was the exact opposite to the mass media's.

    Her suspicion turned to certainty. The catalyst was politicians' attitudes. In December 2020, there were a series of reports of group dining among politicians, including meals involving Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai.

    "Even politicians are dining together while saying coronavirus measures are important. Under the guise of countermeasures, vulnerable people like us are at the authorities' mercy and being conveniently controlled," she said.

    Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is seen apologizing for having dinner with about eight people including LDP executives, despite government calls to refrain from eating with "five people or more," at the prime minister's office in Tokyo on Dec. 16, 2020. (Mainichi/Kan Takeuchi)

    Although the vaccine rollout had already started, she said she could no longer shake her distrust of government. When she searched "not getting the vaccine" on Twitter, she found many videos on vaccine side effects and information about the strange substances they contain.

    She lived in Australia when she was in her teens and is fluent in English. She relies on overseas information sources. She is disinclined to trust Japan's Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare because she says they warn against vaccine misinformation and disinformation.

    "Ultimately the coronavirus disturbance was a strategy to get people vaccinated, so that they can control the population and keep only those convenient to them. This is a system where the vaccine will make money for those with vested interests, pharmaceutical companies, and legislators. Some are enriched while others are enslaved," she insisted.

    Some anti-vaccine groups have signed petitions and demonstrated in the street to call for vaccinations to be halted.

    In late June, local lawmakers and doctors calling for a suspension of vaccinations held a news conference at the House of Councillors Members' Office Building in the Nagatacho district in the capital's Chiyoda Ward. In mid-July, they hosted a rally and demonstration. At both events, many contravened mask-wearing rules at venues and participated without masks.

    Among those appearing to argue against vaccination at the July rally were a doctor who authored a best-selling anti-vaccine book and a national university professor emeritus specializing in immunobiology.

    When the Mainichi Shimbun's reporter presented her business card to a woman in her 70s raising her voice at the demonstration with her associates, she looked at her and responded, "The media is 'scum.' The truth is online."

    "The Japanese people will be enslaved. All souls are being stolen by money and power. Why are they holding the Olympics when the coronavirus situation is so critical? It must be for vested interests and money making. The LDP just wants an Olympics success and then to go for the House of Representatives election. Japan will be destroyed if it continues like this," she said angrily.

    What is the psychological state behind conspiracy theory belief and coronavirus misinformation?

    Shoji Tsuchida, a professor of safety psychology at Kansai University in Osaka Prefecture, attributes it to a "desire to deny authority."

    Participants in a demonstration opposing coronavirus vaccination are seen in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, on July 22, 2021. (Mainichi/Harumi Kimoto)

    "Conspiracy theories are constructed on the logic that the central government is hiding something. These theories spread as people grow distrustful of government and politics, whose handling of the coronavirus pandemic continues to be inept."

    Tsuchida added, "The biggest problem is that the group embracing those opposing the vaccine is made up entirely of those stubbornly refusing to take it. To not get manipulated by information, it is important to be exposed to a wide variety of opinions."

    Kazutoshi Sasahara, associate professor of computational social sciences at Tokyo Institute of Technology and author of the book "Fake News wo Kagakusuru," which roughly translates to "scientifically studying fake news," analyzed tweets about the coronavirus and vaccines. He said, "In the anti-vaccine groups' tweets, I caught glimpses of a situation where they are criticizing the health ministry and the administration."

    Sasahara collected about 2 million tweets on the coronavirus that included the word "vaccine," and analyzed the top 20 most retweeted users by classifying them, based on their profiles and past output, into anti-vaccine groups, pro-vaccine groups, and neutral groups neither for nor against vaccines.

    The results showed that "those opposing vaccines tended to distrust politics and the media, and to hold ideas that are against the system. The anti-vaccine camp used memorable and provocative language to appeal to others, such as 'the truth the media won't tell,'" Sasahara said.

    On the other hand, "Vaccine proponents send out correct information in a serious manner, so the content is neither interesting nor new, and struggles to attract neutral people," he added.

    Sasahara stressed, "If we let anti-vaccine claims spread without effective countermeasures, it could have a significant impact on the neutral-minded population. Rather than trying to persuade people who firmly believe conspiracy theories, it's important we continue to deliver accurate information to neutral individuals. If possible, I think it would be better that information were sent out from an objective third party, not the government."

    (Japanese original by Harumi Kimoto, Digital News Center)

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