Vaccine Misinformation Fueling Anxiety across Japan
Rumors about the safety of the approved vaccines have been running rampant, just as Japan achieves the milestone of fully vaccinating 20% of its population.
Japan is about to achieve the milestone of fully vaccinating 20% of its population against the coronavirus, but to date many under the age of 65 has yet to receive their personal vaccine ticket, which is a prerequisite for getting your first shot. While the vaccine drive has been ramping up, both supply chain issues and misinformation about the safety of vaccines are proving to be potential roadblocks.
Misinformation about the coronavirus vaccines is rampant, but, unlike in the West it is difficult to pinpoint the source of the false rumors common on the web.
National, regional, and local governments should not shy away from taking hints from the playbook of the U.S. government to deploy unconventional tactics to combat “vaccine ‘dema,’” the Japanese word for misinformation.
Similar to how stories about misinformation concerning global vaccine efforts have been trending in mainstream media throughout the world, “vaccine ‘dema’” or wakushin dema (ワクチンデマ) in Japanese has recently become a new buzz word in Japan. “Dema” is an abbreviation of the German word “demagogie” (or “demagogy” in English) which has been adopted into Japanese. It simply means misinformation in this context.
While there are many rumors, earlier this week Japan’s national broadcasting service (NHK) highlighted the top 6 fabrications flying around the internet.
Top 6 “Vaccination ‘Dema’”
Hoax 1: The coronavirus vaccine causes infertility.
The roots of this fraudulent belief seem to lie with similar false impressions in Japan about the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine which is intended to help prevent most cases of cervical cancer. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, to this day a significant portion of the population still believes that the HPV vaccine may cause infertility. Similar misguided thinking has infected the Japanese Twittersphere and other SNS sites.
It is claimed that the antibodies produced by the vaccine will have an adverse effect on the placenta, but experts familiar with the coronavirus vaccines say that this is false information. It is proven fact that antibodies do not attack proteins related to the placenta.
“There is a false rumor that the vaccine may lead to infertility in women. We would like to say that there is no such thing (infertility). I'm amazed that he (Dr. Omi) said that on terrestrial TV. Let's eradicate this hoax!!”
Japan’s “Dr. Fauci,” Shigeru Omi, who is currently the president of the Japan Community Health Care Organization and previously a regional director of the World Health Organization, recently appeared on Japanese television to refute this fallacy.
Hoax 2: The coronavirus vaccine causes miscarriages when given during pregnancy.
Expectant mothers and their concerned family members are obtaining from dubious on-line sources “fake news” about the potential for having a miscarriage after getting a jab of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine. The same misconception is common around the world.
As a result, a group at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) studied approximately 35,000 pregnant women who received the vaccine. They subsequently clarified that the percentage of miscarriages and stillbirths, as well as the percentage of babies born prematurely or with low birth weight, were not different from the percentage reported in births before the spread of the new coronavirus.
The Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare (MHLW) or Koseisho (厚生労働省) states on its website that there has been no increase in miscarriages among those who have received the vaccine in Japan, as well.
Hoax 3: The coronavirus vaccine will re-write genetic information.
Perhaps taking their cues from a science fiction movie, another common rumor among a significant portion of the population is that simply by taking one of the coronavirus vaccines, one’s DNA will somehow be re-written.
The MHLW also refutes that the messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna, which are currently the only two types of coronavirus vaccines available in Japan, rewrite genetic information. They stated,
“The mRNA injected is broken down in a short period of time and is not incorporated into a person's genetic information.”
Hoax 4: The coronavirus vaccine will cause a COVID infection.
The origin of this rumor was, apparently, due to early reports of deaths in elderly care facilities where some patients had received their shots. There was, however, no link between those deaths and the vaccinations.
MHLW has, once again, made it perfectly clear that there is no evidence that vaccination causes an increase in deaths from any disease.
One reason why this myth has been difficult to dispel is probably because Japanese media seem to be ultra-alert for reports of break-through cases and anaphylaxis, despite the extraordinarily low numbers of such incidents.
The remaining two hoaxes are much less believable but still have plenty of adherents on the web.
Hoax 5: The coronavirus vaccine contains microchips.
There is a conspiracy theory on social media that the vaccines contain a microchip that can somehow be used by nefarious forces in “the government” to control people.
The ingredients of the vaccines are available on the websites of health authorities and the manufacturers of the vaccines. There is no reference to any microchips somehow embedded in those little vials.
Hoax 6: The coronavirus vaccines cause magnets to stick to people.
Another conspiracy theory circulating on the internet maintains that there are magnetic ingredients in the vaccines that generate a magnetic attraction. Once again there is no such evidence of such a preposterous allegation.
Given how quickly the coronavirus vaccines were developed, it is not surprising that a significant number of people would subscribe to these theories, but where are they getting the misinformation?
Unlike in the U.S. where the most prominent critics of government-led vaccine drives include the easily identifiable faces of Fox News anchors Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham, the sources of misinformation and anti-vax campaigns in Japan remain clouded in mystery.
Most of the bogus sources of what has turned out to be like an urban legend feed on themselves as they become propagated throughout the internet.
The Minister for Administrative Reform and Regulatory Reform who is in charge of the vaccine roll-out in Japan, Taro Kono, publishes a blog in Japanese that he has been using to refute misinformation about the vaccine (https://www.taro.org/).
At the end of June, Kono wrote,
“…according to a group that monitors disinformation and falsehoods about vaccines, 65% of such vaccine-related misinformation on Twitter and Facebook is attributed to just 12 individuals and organizations…Some of them are licensed physicians, but still spread false information.”
It is unclear whether these 12 groups have, in fact, been identified.
Kono also alluded to international corporate espionage by writing,
“According to a report released in April by the EU's External Action Service (which corresponds to the EU's Ministry of Foreign Affairs), China and Russia are using social media and other means to disseminate information in multiple languages that undermines the credibility of Pfizer and Moderna's mRNA vaccines.”
These allegations have, naturally, been denied by the targets of the investigation.
What Should Be Done?
As with all “your money, your life (YMYL)” issues, every adult certainly has a responsibility to be self-reliant enough to gather facts from trusted authorities that can be counted on to provide accurate information about the coronavirus vaccines and make their own educated decision about whether to get inoculated. In Japan MHLW is at the top of this list, although other credible sources of information include Unicef, established medical associations and publications, as well as the manufacturers of the vaccines.
It is, moreover, perfectly okay to ask any questions about the vaccines at the vaccine centers or at your doctor’s office.
The overwhelming consensus seems to be that, yes, there is a potential for adverse reactions from the coronavirus vaccines, but the likelihood of a complication is so remote that it is far outweighed by the benefits.
Let’s be honest. Not everyone will rely upon fact-based arguments—especially from what seems like the exclusive domain of an old boy’s club that comprises Prime Minister Suga’s cabinet. As the vaccine roll-out is expanded to cover younger generations, Japan needs to receive positive messaging from some young blood.
Just as U.S. President Biden recently deployed the unconventional tactic of having the up-and-coming pop singer Olivia Rodrigo, age 18, upload a 15 second clip from the White House to influence Gen Z to get vaccinated, MHLW should use Japanese personalities to do the same.
Such a move could be used as a positive form of peer pressure. This approach could be used to harness Japan’s long history of having a culture of shame.
Just as Dr. Vivek Murthy, the Surgeon General of the U.S., called for more policing of misinformation by SNS providers earlier this week, MHLW and other government bodies in Japan should call on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LINE, and Yahoo, in particular, to help combat this problem.
It has been exactly one week since I got my first jab of the coronavirus made by Pfizer, and I am eagerly looking forward to receiving the second dose in a couple of weeks.
In the age of “fake news” it is understandable how some people become susceptible to the most common “vaccine ‘dema’” circulating on the internet. For me, though, the clinical data supporting both the safety and efficacy of the vaccines were certainly enough to convince me to sign up to get vaccinated as soon as possible. As a long-term resident of my adopted home, Japan, I would encourage all eligible residents to do the same and shun the misinformation about the coronavirus vaccines.
Links to Japanese Sources: https://www3.nhk.or.jp/news/html/20210715/k10013140371000.html and https://www.fnn.jp/articles/-/209000