I genuinely didn’t know what to expect when I arrived back in Japan (Tokyo specifically). We have all heard about the Diamond Princess. The ship that was quarantined at Yokohama Port. Seven people lost their lives as a result of catching the coronavirus. The news in the UK was that Japan had been hit hard! Apparently Hokkaido, the northernmost island was locked down, schools had been closed, and rumors of toilet paper being made in China sparked a toilet paper buying frenzy. It all gave the impression that Japan was burning, I mean, it is Asia after all. It wasn’t too hard to believe that Japan could be one of the hardest-hit countries. Was there going to be chaos? Were the streets going to be empty? Were the shops going to be barren? WAS THERE GOING TO BE TOILET PAPER?! Well, let’s just say I thought it was going to be worse than it is.
In fact, nothing had really changed. Streets were just as full as when I left. Bars, cafes, and coffee shops are still open with a small number of exceptions. The trains are still running, and the supermarket is full of food (although definitely lacking in the toilet paper department). Kids were back at school and the lockdown of Hokkaido was being lifted. There is one tell-tail sign that something’s not quite right, though . The sheer amount of people wearing face masks!
EVERYONE is wearing them, and if someone isn’t wearing one its probably because they can’t buy them as they have all sold out everywhere! Japanese people use face masks predominantly as an act of courtesy to not spread viruses when a person is sick and still has to go to work (because Japanese people don’t. Not. Work, EVER) Or to block allergens as many people in Japan suffer from allergies of some kind or another (sugi pollen is a severe hindrance to the Japanese). It even has a role in fashion and in some cases, people use them alongside headphones to not be bothered by over-friendly people that might want to talk to you. However, when an entire country wears them at the same time, it would appear that the public consensus is that they are seemingly effective at stopping the spread of the Coronavirus. Being ill on a train and coughing or sneezing without a mask is one of Japan’s biggest taboos. I invite anyone to come to Japan and sneeze on a train without a mask. You will be shot a look by a Japanese elder that can only be described as devastation. It can make even middle-aged, self-made, self-assured millionaires question their life choices. Recently, with the knowledge that there is a runaway virus on the loose, a man had the police called on him for coughing on the train without a mask on.
I have noticed that there is a bottle of hand sanitizer at the entrance of most shops, supermarkets, and restaurants. You are urged to use it, both entering and exiting the facility. It’s an amazing idea! I know that there is a big debate online about the effectiveness of hand sanitizer and that soap and water are and will always be better, (and I totally agree!) but hey, a country full of people using hand sanitizer every 20 mins couldn’t hurt the cause.
I have lived in Japan for about a year and a half now and I will say this. It was very rare for me to see a man use the public bathroom, and then immediately sprint for the door without washing his hands like I have seen in the UK all too often. Now it seems that the men of Japan have gone into clean hands overdrive. The queue for the bathroom is no longer to use the stalls, it’s to use the sinks! Japan has also turned off all of the hand dryers because evidence suggests that it increases the risk of spreading the virus. In addition, enclosed spaces like most smoking booths have been closed as well.
When it comes to social distancing, (compared to the rest of the world) we cannot ignore the fact that this is something that is naturally ingrained within Japanese society. First of all, the Japanese people are not a “touchy-feely” kind of people. They do not shake hands, they do not kiss on the cheek once, twice or even three times (like some other heavily affected countries I could mention). The Japanese bow and they have been doing this since approximately 1603. Samurais would do it to one another as a sign of respect and that bled into popular culture. Social distancing has always been and is currently present. They are not space invaders. They typically don’t stand too close to one another and something I have seen plenty of times is when there is a perfectly good open seat on the train between two people, usually, most people would opt not to sit in that seat and stand instead (rush hour is a completely different story).
Japanese people have always practiced cleanliness. When you enter a house you take off your shoes (immediately)! The UK government had to issue a public service announcement reminding people to, and how to, wash their hands properly.
Japan is doing a great “passive” job at keeping the Coronavirus at bay. However, I am under no illusion that Japan is Corona-proof.
There is still a lot that has to prevent the spread further. Tokyo is a VERY crowded place. Shinjuku Station during rush hour, for example, is less like a commute and more like a polite, silent, sodomy party. No amount of hand sanitizer and face masks in the world is going to stop the spread on crowded trains. The trains aren’t sanitized with an industrial-sized, antibacterial shooting, two-handed, cannons at the end of the line either. Meaning that thousands of people that ride the train on one whole line have made it well and truly contaminated through holding the metal handrails/ handles, touching the windows, and everything else that one could do to spread a virus.
Hanami (the act of getting absolutely shitfaced and picnicking under blossoming cherry trees with all of your friends) is in full swing, and this year, so far, is no exception. Yoyogi Park this Sunday was packed to the proverbial rafters of pink tree and alcohol enthusiasts. Thing is, cancelling Hanami to the Japanese would be like canceling Christmas to a seven-year-old or a FOX news viewer. Everyone would remember where they were during the great Hanami cancelation of 2020. Two of the major Hanami areas have been “sort of” cancelled. They are the Meguro river & Ueno park. You can go take pictures, admire the blossoming cherry trees, and drink under them with friends and family for as long as you want, but there will be no Hanami themed food. So it’s like, 20% cancelled. It is a serious issue! Seriously it’s insane! The Coronavirus has an R0 score of 3 meaning that, provided no one has been vaccinated, previously had the virus, and has no way to control the spread of the virus, it can potentially spread on average to three other people. Meaning that it is incredibly infectious. Regular, good old 2009 Influenza by comparison, has an R0 of between 1.4 and 1.6. If I was a betting man I’d say at least a few hundred people walked away from that park with more than they came with. And I don’t mean a hangover.
I get the impression that the general public isn’t really that worried because they haven’t been given anything to worry about. Shinzo Abe, the prime minister of Japan hasn’t really stressed the importance of what this virus is capable of. Especially what it can do to an aging population such as Japan. All he has done so far is given suggestions that people should take more precautions. I, as someone coming from Europe (England specifically), am fully aware of what happens to a community when the person in charge doesn’t take charge, and so far he hasn’t done that.
Testing is apparently still extremely restricted and I don’t think the Japanese authorities are giving the correct number of new cases or deaths. I feel like Shinzo Abe was desperately trying to make sure the Olympics will happen on time. I’m sure with the amount of money it cost, I would also want to make sure it happened for the tourism windfall that would re-enrich my dwindling coffers. However, at the end of the day, needs must. Shinzo Abe finally made the right decision. I predict now that the Olympics have been postponed until 2021, Japan will no longer has to save face in order to keep the Olympics on track. Shinzo Abe will start upping the threat level and announcing stricter testing and quarantining measures. Hopefully, he does it gradually and in a calm manner…
…Unlike the UK. Who couldn’t have caused more panic if Boris Johnson had announced that the purge is commencing, activated an air raid siren, and started firing a shotgun into the crowd.