Apr 16, 2020

Life in Japan during the Coronavirus

Japan was one of the first few countries to be infected by the coronavirus thanks to a regular influx of people from China. Inspite of that, Japan remained largely unaffected till March. The first case was detected as early as January but the rise in number of cases remained extremely slow.
While the world locked down and frantically prepared to battle the virus, life for those of us in Japan went on as usual. The only major impact was on the tourism industry. Although it was cherry blossom time and peak tourist season, a lot of people had started cancelling their international trips and there was a drastic drop in tourists. This had an unexpected effect. The Japanese suddenly realized that perhaps for the first time in their memory, their country was not inundated with foreigners at this peak tourist season and they all came out with a vengeance to enjoy the good weather. Popular destinations like Kyoto recorded almost no foreign tourists but a marked increase in local tourism. I visited Kamakura, the temple town near Tokyo, sure that I would have the place to myself but was surprised to find the shrines choc a block with the Japanese. It was as if the virus did not exist at all.  
 By March, Japan started taking the virus a little more seriously and a lot of tourist spots as well as schools were closed. But there was no stopping nature! Cherry blossoms were blooming and like every year popular cherry blossom spots were crowded with people. In true polite Japanese fashion, the government kept requesting the people to avoid crowds. The Japanese however, were not the ones to let a mere virus dampen their pleasure of enjoying the cherry blossom season that lasts for a mere two weeks but is something that they wait for the entire year. A few did stay home, but they were the minority.
Meanwhile the world continued to speculate on how Japan continued to defy the virus. The majority of Japan's population is aging (like Italy) and that along with its proximity to China should have posed a great risk. However, Japan had clamped down on visitors from China right from the beginning and had promptly isolated the infected cases. The population though aging is in great health with a strong immunity. Another reason is that social distancing has always been a part of Japanese culture. This is a country that shies away from handshakes and casual touching. Bowing is the acceptable form of greeting. Another factor was the widespread usage of masks in Japan. Even before the world discovered masks through the coronavirus, they had always been a common sight in Japan. With their fetish for hygiene and health, the Japanese use the masks as protection against germs and allergies. Hay fever season begins around January here and a lot of people were already wearing masks to avoid inhaling any pollen as well as any cold germs that might be floating about.
Having said that, it was still baffling how Japan with its densely populated areas and crowded trains managed to keep the numbers so low.
A very strong opinion was also that the government was hiding the true figures or testing less because Prime Minister Abe had his eyes set on the Olympics and had no intention of letting go of his Olympic dream.
 Things started going downhill by the end of March when suddenly a lot of cases with no travel history popped up. While it took Japan around 70 days – from January to mid-march to reach 1000 cases, it took a mere 10 more days for the figure to reach 2000. The identified clusters were mainly entertainment areas with restaurants, karaoke and pachinko parlors. Governors in the most affected areas of Tokyo and Hyogo started asking people to stay indoors on weekends and evenings. Perhaps the Japanese felt that the virus here worked only nights and weekends !
After intense pressure from the medical community, on 7th April Prime Minister Abe finally declared a state of emergency in Tokyo, Osaka and a few more areas. Unlike India where lockdown was clamped almost overnight, the Japanese government took its time. The leaders huddled in meetings day after day while we kept hearing reports on how 'discussions to prepare for the announcement of an emergency' were being held. There is a lot of emphasis in Japan on following the proper procedure and protocol and reaching a mutual consensus before making a decision. There was no reason why things should be expedited now.
The emergency when it finally came was very different from other countries. As per Japanese law, the government cannot force people to stay indoors or ask the businesses to close or work from home. All it could do was strongly request people to avoid the three Cs – crowds, closed spaces and conversations at short distances. There can be no fines or punishments if people don’t comply. Public transport is still running, the roads remain open. The emergency is just to make the citizens aware of the gravity of the situation and allow the government to take economic measures.
So how successful this emergency is, depends entirely on the people of Japan. They are a highly disciplined society, known to follow their leader, view all requests from the government as orders and always put society and Nation first.
But at the other end of the spectrum is the hard-working Japanese who considers his work as the highest duty. There are still people who would consider working from home as shying away from responsibilities and not being a good employee. Unlike the west, work from home is still a very alien concept in Japan. With their emphasis on face to face contact a lot of traditional companies just cannot comprehend remote working. Also, there is still a lot of paperwork here and digital signatures have not yet replaced the company seal.

With the current figure of around 8000 cases, the numbers still remain comparatively low as compared to other countries like US, UK and Italy.
Let’s see what the coming weeks bring !


  1. Almost similar numbers. We will cross 12 k today.
    Hope it all gets better from here.

  2. I just hope things get better. Take care and stay safe.



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