Not much urgency seen in Japan’s COVID-19 state of emergency — despite some success


(Saša Petricic)

Like the iconic blossoms that fill Tokyo every spring — the pale pink Sakura — much of Japan is currently out of bounds. Roped off, closed or otherwise deemed unacceptable to visit. But unlike authorities in other places in the world, those in Japan have resorted to suggestions instead of commands. Violating them could get individuals a stern look, businesses a public shaming, but rarely a fine. The declaration of a national state of emergency was meant to send a signal, but the change has been incremental.

(Saša Petricic)

Routine behaviour

Physical distancing is a goal, not a national obsession — partly because it runs up against Japan’s rigid work culture, which usually requires long hours in the office. Tokyo’s morning rush hour is lighter now, about 30 to 50 per cent of normal on the trains into downtown. But commuters still rub elbows on benches, escalators and platforms.

(Saša Petricic)

What’s behind the relaxed attitude on Japan’s streets? Infection numbers that are still relatively low by world standards, if growing steadily. There are just over 13,500 cases nationally, less than a third of Canada’s. This even though Japan’s population is more than three times the Canadian population. Total deaths are around 375, fewer than New York is experiencing daily now. Testing is also lower here, as Japan has put more emphasis on its own system of targeted contact tracing.

Business ventures

(Saša Petricic)

Faced with that low sense of risk, businesses like Daisuke Shimazaki’s Tokyo sushi bar choose to remain open. “Of course, I’m afraid,” he said, “but I have to eat. I have to pay my bills and my staff.” Many stores, restaurants and bars have closed for a few weeks, but it’s unclear whether they will stay closed if the government extends its emergency decree, even with an economic support package worth more than $1.6 trillion Cdn.

(Saša Petricic)

Fishing has been hit hard, with much lower demand at Tokyo’s normally bustling fish markets. The value of bluefin tuna — a Japanese staple — has tumbled 30 to 40 per cent. That’s prompted some fishermen to stay ashore while others — such as those in Onjuku harbour — keep catching other varieties, including yellowtail, everyone waiting for life to get back to normal and demand to increase to normal levels.

Rural life

(Saša Petricic)

“It’s hard work, but I don’t mind,” said the woman stooped to plant rice near the village of Kamifuse. Except for the masks people wear, life in the countryside doesn’t look much different amid the coronavirus. Infection levels are much lower than in major centres such as Yokyo or Osaka — so much so that people who live in the cities have been asked to stay away from rural Japan to keep the virus from spreading.

Age differences

(Saša Petricic)

Throughout Japan, the most vulnerable — and the most afraid — are seniors. You don’t see many on the streets of Tokyo even though the country has the oldest population on earth, with more than one in four people older than 65. At least 220 of the total 375 deaths are in this demographic, so many older people stay at home.

(Saša Petricic)

Many young people, on the other hand, are still out doing what they usually do. Still out on the surf in Chiba prefecture, east of Tokyo, on a Sunday afternoon. “Just look,” said Akira Sato as he came out of the water with a friend, “the danger is very little for us.” Maybe out on the water, but numbers nationally show those in their 20s to be one of the groups with the highest level of infection.

(Saša Petricic)

Slowly, people in Japan are drifting away from each other, doing more to isolate on beaches in Chiba, as in downtown Tokyo. But the sense of crisis seen elsewhere around the world just isn’t on display here.

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