Vaccination of elected officials prompts public to question priorities in Japan

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Otawara mayor Tomio Tsukui speaks at a press conference in Otawara City Hall in Tochigi Prefecture on May 14.

The vaccination of mayors and other local government officials has become a point of contention in Japan’s inoculation campaign against the novel coronavirus. Multiple cases have come to light in which elected officials have seemingly been able to jump to the front of the vaccination line, which is still only open to medical workers and elderly over the age of 65. As officials increasingly receive priority vaccinations as a prerogative of their office or eagerly offer their arms for doses leftover from no-shows at vaccination sites, many constituents still waiting their turn are unsure how to feel about the absence of clear regulations on how the vaccine is supposed to trickle down the chain of command in their communities.

Yasuo Hiji, 68, mayor of Isesaki, Gunma Prefecture, convened a press conference May 14 and revealed that he had received a vaccine meant for priority medical workers on April 27. “If I were to get infected, the city would grind to a standstill,” he said. “So I wanted my shot.”

Vaccinations began for nursing home residents in the city on May 6, but the rest of Isesaki’s elderly population has only been eligible for their shots since Monday. A 87-year-old man expressed his frustration: “I still haven’t even been able to make an appointment. Why should he be allowed special treatment?” But other locals defended the mayor. As one 61-year-old office worker said, “He’s the head of the city, after all.”

Tomio Tsukui, 71, mayor of Otawara, Tochigi Prefecture, had been given a shot that had been freed up after a member of the public cancelled their appointment at a vaccination site, it was found May 14. Tsukui explained that he was vaccinated in the interest of crisis management and in accordance with guidelines established by the city in advance in order to avoid wasting vaccine. However, later that day, the city received 20 comments on the incident, including requests that rules be put in place to ensure that vaccines leftover after cancellations are diverted for medical personnel.

Toshiichiro Hanawa, 76, mayor of Yorii, Saitama Prefecture, was able to receive his shots in April and May, by being designated as equivalent to a medical professional. He said he needed to be able to safely assist with the town’s vaccine rollout for residents over the age of 90.

In addition to the mayor, about 100 town employees have also received at least one shot.

The cities of Otaru in Hokkaido and Atsugi in Kanagawa Prefecture have also vaccinated their mayors using vaccine leftover from cancellations.

At a press conference May 14, Taro Kono, the minister in charge of the nation’s vaccination program, said that such officials had a responsibility to provide an explanation in the event they had been given surplus vaccine. However, Kono later added, “I would like to ask that action be taken to ensure that vaccines are not wasted.”

“The priority inoculation of mayors is reasonable in terms of crisis management,” said Mitsuru Fukuda, a professor at Nihon University’s College of Risk Management. “But officials need to provide full explanations in advance and ensure transparency.”