What do the Japanese think of Indonesia?

The Asian corona puzzle

Japan's finance minister, Taro Aso, a 79-year-old die-hard nationalist, answers the question why Japan has relatively few COVID-19 victims with the word "mindo", which translates as "higher level of culture". The TV broadcaster TBS, on the other hand, said that the Japanese language contained fewer plosives and therefore produced a smaller amount of virus-transmitting droplets. Many Japanese are also convinced that their good diet will protect them better against the coronavirus.

The 79-year-old Finance Minister Taro Aso

However, none of these Japanese theories explain why infection and death rates are relatively low not just in Japan but across Asia. China has so far reported three COVID-19 deaths per million inhabitants, Japan seven, Pakistan six, South Korea and Indonesia five. Taiwan, Vietnam, Cambodia and Mongolia had no registered victims. For comparison: Germany recorded 100 corona deaths per million inhabitants, the USA almost 300 and Great Britain, Italy and Spain more than 500.

This large gap cannot be adequately justified with the different test numbers and counting methods alone. For example, South Korea tested its citizens en masse in parking lots to drive through, while Japan for a long time only specifically tested patients with four days of fever and contact persons of infected people. Other customs in many Asian countries of greeting and saying goodbye without shaking hands may not actually be the decisive factor in a virus that is transmitted through the air. Therefore, science is now turning its attention to other differences between West and East in order to better contain the coronavirus globally.

More contagious by mutation?

Researchers at the Japanese Institute for Infectious Diseases found out that the SARS-CoV-2 virus has genetically changed with its regional distribution. The first infections in Japan and on the cruise ship "Diamond Princess" in the port of Yokohama clearly came from the coronavirus from Wuhan in China. But the second wave of infections in Japan from April could be traced back to a virus that came into the country with people traveling from Europe. Studies by the University of Cambridge confirmed this result. A US research team at Los Alamos National Laboratory said a mutation may have made the virus more contagious in Europe and America.

Nobel Prize Laureate Tasuku Honjo: The people in Asia differ greatly from those in the West in terms of their genes

The retired professor Tatsuhiko Kodama, a medical doctor from the leading University of Tokyo, referred to studies by the La Jolla Immunology Institute of the University of California. According to this, many people in East Asia apparently have effective antibodies against the new coronavirus. Many flu and coronaviruses in the past had their origin in southern China and caused virus-related colds in neighboring countries. "Therefore, there are white blood cells in their blood that can fight off related viruses such as SARS-CoV-2," said Kodama. The immune system is not perfect, but their bodies can handle a certain amount of a similar type of virus.

Tasuku Honjo, Nobel Prize Laureate in Medicine, thinks in a similar direction. People in Asia are very different from the West in those genes that control the immune system's response to a virus, said the Japanese immunologist. Still, the people in East Asia are not safe, warned the medical professional Kodama. A mutated virus could be just as deadly for the population in the Far East as it is in Europe.

Doubts about the overweight factor

On the other hand, another explanation popular in Japan for the differences between West and East is less convincing. Allegedly, people in East Asia are better protected due to the mandatory vaccination against tuberculosis there, because this generally strengthens the immune system against viruses, while the so-called BCG vaccination is only voluntary in Western countries. Against this, the fact that BCG vaccination rates in France are just as high as in Japan, but the French death rates for COVID-19 are much higher.

Only four percent of the Japanese are overweight

The claim by Japan's nationalist finance minister, Aso, that Japan is "culturally superior" to the West is likely to refer not only to the widespread voluntary wearing of mouth and nose masks, but also to the generally higher public health. Only four percent of Japanese and five percent of South Koreans are obese; according to WHO data, this rate is over 20 percent in Western Europe and over 36 percent in the USA. But so far there is no scientific evidence for a direct connection between the death rate from Sars-CoV-2 and a high level of obesity.

Martin Fritz is a DW correspondent and has lived in Tokyo for more than 20 years. His latest book "Abc 4 Japan: Ein Kulturguide" was published in 2020 by Stämpfli Verlag.