Japan Fact-checks: You can never be too prepared? The nature of recent hoaxes

(Issued on May 29, 2020)

Welcome to FIJ’s second English FactChecks Report. This is a weekly report that comes in five parts consisting of Trend Analysis, Notable Case, Fact-checks at glance, Monitoring Information, and Announcements & News.

Trend Analysis

Does national character contribute to the nature of recent misinformation in Japan?

There are two main types of hoaxes that are prevalent during the COVID-19 pandemic, which still continue to spread around the world. One type exaggerates reality in an optimistic direction and the other exaggerates it in a pessimistic direction. The former are disinformation such as “vaccines and therapeutic drugs have been discovered” or “the spread of infection is under control,”  While the latter are misinformation that exaggerate the number of infected people or hospital beds used, or hoaxes such as “toilet paper will be in short supply because supply problem (even though dependence on China for toilet papers is about only 2.3%).”

A state of emergency was declared in Japan on April 7 but was lifted nationwide this week on May 25. The first wave of the infection appears to have been contained. However, in contrast to other countries where both sorts of hoaxes are prevalent, the hoaxes that are prevalent in Japan, especially since the beginning of May, are mostly pessimistic. The misinforming report like  “Tokyo’s hospital beds are in short supply, with a utilization rate exceeding 80%,” has exaggerated the reality of the situation in a more pessimistic way.

According to the Poynter Institute’s database which has more than 5,000 corona-related fact-check articles from around the world, hoaxes such as “there is a cure” and “the corona has already eradicated” are still prevalent around the world, and in the two weeks between May 15 and today, overly optimistic claims were fact-checked at least 13 times, mainly in Latin America and Southeast Asia countries.

Meanwhile, the last time an optimistic hoax in Japan was fact-checked was in mid-April, regarding unproven preventive measures like “green tea is effective.” In February of this year, when the spread of the infection was slow yet, inaccurate information such as “vitamin D is effective” or “hot water between 26 to 27 degrees Celsius can kill the coronavirus” was prevalent, which led to a more optimistic direction. To date, hoaxes like “a cure has already been found” have never circulated on a large scale in Japan.

The hoaxes spread in May, in contrast, are one that lead people in a more pessimistic direction such as “Tokyo’s hospital beds are overwhelmed, usage rate exceeds 80%.” On May 11, the NHK news reported on hospital bed utilization rate in Tokyo, which in fact was below 50%, like 91% or more than 80%. Foreign media outlets, including Reuters, reported similar numbers using old data. In mid-May, a hoax claiming that “Osaka doctors are using raincoats to treat patients” also went viral.

In the COVID-19 pandemic, an optimistic hoax is expected to catch people off guard and a pessimistic hoax can make them excessively wary. Despite the fact that the spread of the coronavirus is now comparatively under control in Japan, negative hoaxes continue to prevail in Japan, and this is maybe due to the social consensus that “you can never be too prepared.”

(Eddy Duan)
Notable Case

False: “Tokyo’s hospitals overwhelmed with bed utilization at 91% on May 11” though the numbers actually ended being under 50% (fact-checked by INFACT on May 20, 2020)

NHK reported on May 11 that hospitals in Tokyo were still overwhelmed with Covid-19 patients with hospital utilization rate at 91%. Reuters and other news agencies ran a similar story based on the same announcement by the Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare (MHLW). 

However, the initial numbers were not correct and based on those of April 28. On May 12, the day after the news report, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government revised downward its number of hospitalized patients significantly, announcing there were 1,413 patients to 3,300 available beds, which calculates to a 42.8% bed utilization rate. 

In other words, as of May 11, the hospital bed utilization rate was well below 50% and a significant improvement. 

Officials from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and from MHLW who responded to our interviews admitted that the Tokyo Metropolitan Government had reported inaccurate information to MHLW,  NHK has not yet corrected their report. 

The inaccurate report has also been used by China Central Television (CCTV), Taiwan’s Central News Agency, and Hong Kong media. English media outlets like Reuters, the Guardian, and BBC reported that the data was from April 28, but did not follow up with the corrected and more positive numbers later when the Tokyo Government revised them, misleading audiences into believing Tokyo hospitals were still overwhelmed. . 

The original fact-checking report in Japanese is here.

(Hitofumi Yanai)

Fact-checks at a glance

We picked up the following fact-checks relating to Japan from the IFCN’s #CoronaVirusFacts Alliance database.

  1. Fact-checked by: FactCrescendo | India (May 25, 2020) 

False: “Video shows a Japanese doctor claiming that If you can hold your breath for 10 sec without discomfort, you don’t have Coronavirus.”

Explanation: This hoax was prevalent in Japan during Feb-March as well. Medical Experts have clarified that being able to hold your breath for 10 seconds doesn’t mean someone doesn’t have coronavirus. Read the full article here (in Marathi).

Monitoring Information 

In this section, we present the results of monitoring of Japan-related misinformation that has spread in overseas.

  1. Bloomberg corrects its report on the Avigan clinical study after rebuttal 

On May 20, Bloomberg published an article titled “Japan’s backing of coronavirus drug premature, says trial’s lead researcher.” It reported that the trial’s lead researcher of “Avigan”, a drug that is hoped will be a treatment against COVID-19, had said that the approval of the drug was premature. In response, interviewed research team leader, president of Fujita Medical University Hospital, held an emergency press conference to counter that claim, saying that the news reports were misleading and that the study had been allowed to continue. In response to this news conference, Bloomberg removed “premature” from the title and corrected it to read “Japan’s Virus Drug Trial To Continue, Researcher, Says.”

The first report, which had dashed Japanese Prime minister Shinzo Abe’s statement that he was “aiming for regulatory approval of Avigan by the end of May”, had caused the shares of the parent company of the Avigan’s developer to fall.

What has been confirmed at this point is that Abigan’s efficacy has not been denied nor has the approval process been delayed, but instead that the clinical studies are proceeding as planned and the final results are still to come.

Announcements & News

・We continues to welcome offers of factcheck collaboration.

・Please follow our English twitter account for the latest information! 

・For useful Japan-related information resources in English, check us out here.

Hope you stay well,

FIJ researchers team.