• John Rennie

Living in Japan during the coronavirus pandemic

During this time of worry and uncertainty caused by the outbreak of a novel coronavirus, I've received messages from friends and family in the UK asking about my welfare and how COVID-19 is being dealt with in Japan. The good news is I`m fine. In fact, I`m really fine. Except having the occasional sniffle from a tree pollen allergy at this time of year, life is good in Tokyo. Too good, perhaps?

This weekend I went to exercise in the wide open spaces of Yoyogi Park, but I wasn't alone. Gorgeous weather combined with sakura season in full bloom meant the park was packed. It's at this time of year people of all ages do hanami, the annual custom of admiring cherry blossom trees while guzzling beers, sharing snacks and socially interacting in large groups. Despite the coronavirus, this year was no different from any other. You would never guess that the planet was in the grip of a global pandemic.

Now contrast this scene with the UK where today (March 23rd) strict lock down measures were imposed stopping gatherings of more than two people in public, closing non-essential shops and requiring people to stay at home except for limited purposes. So as the UK and other western nations are shutting down their economies and staying indoors, it appears Japan is carrying on like nothing is happening. So then, you may understand when I say I feel quite grateful to be in Japan at this time, well for now at least.

You would never guess that the planet was in the grip of a global pandemic.

The Japanese public's apparent carefree attitude toward the virus hasn't gone unnoticed by certain voices in the foreign community who have criticized Japanese people for 'ignoring warnings' about public gatherings. I would argue that people can't be blamed for their actions when there are mixed messages about the seriousness of the outbreak from the government.

So far, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare has advised companies to allow employees to work remotely if they are able to do so, closed some schools and recommended that people avoid large gatherings in closed spaces. All the while bars, cafes, restaurants gyms and parks have remained open. Business as usual.

On government advice, I myself have been working from home since the end of February. On my first day of remote work, I ventured outside on my lunch break to get some supplies from the local supermarket to prepare for impending self-isolation. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. Restaurants full and pavements packed. It appears that working from home means sitting in a crowded cafe with your laptop. But who can blame people? The Japanese work some of the longest hours in the developed world and get given very little holiday time, so it's no surprise that remote working is providing a little respite to some.

It appears that working from home means sitting in a crowded cafe with your laptop.

Until the government closes the parks and other public spaces, people will continue to use them. But it begs the question: why are government measures in Japan so soft in comparison to other developed nations? Why no state of emergency? As reported in

The Japan Times, a panel appointed by the government found that “Many infection clusters have been identified at a comparatively early stage,” and "about 80 percent of the cases identified in Japan didn’t pass on the infection". It's not clear why this is but this assessment is reflected in the official statistics.

Despite being one of the first countries outside of China to report a case of the virus, Japan hasn't seen the explosion of cases and deaths that are being reported in Europe. At the time of writing, Japan has had 1,128 cases resulting in 42 deaths. Japan`s first reported case was on January 16th, a full two weeks before first cases were reported in Italy where the current total of cases is 63,927 and a staggering 6,077 deaths.

Until the government closes the parks and other public spaces, people will continue to use them.

The Japanese numbers exclude cases from the Diamond Princess which spent several weeks docked in Yokohama. 3,700 people were quarantined on the cruise liner after some passengers tested positive for the virus. Extended time in the closed spaces of the ship helped the virus spread rapidly on-board resulting in 712 cases and 10 deaths to date. The Japanese government received criticism for the way they dealt with situation. On release, 500 passengers who tested negative for the virus at the time of disembarkation were simply allowed to get in a taxi and leave. With the virus' 14 day incubation period, it seems likely that some of those released would later develop symptoms and spread the infection around Japan.

Again, we come back to the question of why Japan has such a low number of reported infections and deaths compared to European countries in spite of the first cases being reported here two weeks before the continent? There are two possible sides to this explanation depending on whether or not you believe the official figures are true.

Japan hasn't seen the explosion of cases and deaths that are being reported in Europe.

Could Japan's unique culture be the reason why infections have been slow to spread here?

It's a well known fact that physical contact in public is not a feature of Japanese culture. People greet with a bow, they don`t shake hands. Hugging and kissing are almost never seen in public; it's rare even between couples. This could explain why the virus has not spread the same way as in a country like Italy where people greet with a kiss on both cheeks. In terms of physical contact, the Japan and Italy are poles apart. Could that explain the disparity of infections between the two countries?

Hello, hand sanitizer

Another reason for the low infection rate in Japan could be hygiene standards which are like no other country in the world. People are incredibly conscious of their health. When you go to a gym in Japan, there are almost always alcohol wet tissues on hand for wiping down equipment after use. You see people spending as much time sanitizing equipment as using it. In restaurants customers receive a wet towel for wiping hands before ordering and it's not uncommon to see a bottle of hand sanitizer for customers on entering a supermarkets and banks. Japanese hands are probably the cleanest in the world.

09:49am, Sunday. A civilized queue for toilet paper.

Before bog roll disappeared from shelves, the first thing that sold out in Japan was masks. Japanese people wear masks at the best of times - virus or no virus. They wear them mainly to protect themselves and others from cold and flu, but also reasons such as hiding spots, not wearing makeup, wishing to keep a low profile or escaping captivity in the case of ex-Nissan boss, Carlos Ghosn.

There is no doubt that masks can help prevent infections spreading and hide faces that don't want to be seen, but could there be a mask on the face Japan's coronavirus statistics hiding the ugly truth of grossly under reported numbers?

As seen in Europe, huge numbers of infections result in public demand for social distancing and self-isolation which has a massive impact on the economy. People stop working, everything shuts down. It's a disaster for employers and employees alike. The Japanese government are not only concerned about keeping the country running but also the preserving the upcoming Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike said that cancelling the games would be 'unthinkable'. With a price tag of $12.6 billion already, it's understandable that the quadrennial sporting event won't be cancelled, but postponed perhaps. (Update: Tokyo 2020 has been postponed 12 months, taking place in 2021 instead.)

With fears of a devastating impact to the economy and the Olympics, it is not such a wild conspiracy theory to suggest the Japanese government are purposely under reporting the numbers of cases. Japan Today cites government data showing the Japan is using just a sixth of its capacity to test for COVID-19. This is reflected in the comments sections of various Japan Times where users are recalling anecdotes of getting very sick, only to be turned away from the hospitals without being tested. The lack of testing means the numbers of those infected and unknowingly spreading the virus around Japan could be enormous.

Just as in the UK, it is unclear why enough tests aren't being done. The BBC reported that a private clinics are offering tests for between £120 - £375 each. Testing is expensive, but what will be the price of not testing?

On the one hand, infected countries around the world have a lot to learn from Japan. The omni-presence of hygiene products in public places and high standards of cleanliness are almost certainly factors in stopping the virus from spreading. On the other hand, Japan would do well to look at other countries' responses to the virus and take note. A lack of transparency from the Chinese government let the virus get out of control in its early stages. Conversely, rapid and extensive testing by the South Korean government made sure that one of the fastest outbreaks in the city of Daegu became one of the fastest to become under control. Now I believe the Japanese government should start testing to its capacity so Japan doesn't become to the new epicentre of the virus. Protecting the economy in the short term could do lasting damage in the long term.

So there you have my take on things. I hope that answers any questions about what it's like in Japan at the moment and just to say once again, I'm absolutely fine. I'm lucky enough to have a job that pays me for working at home. There's plenty of food in the shops and after a brief shortage, even the bog roll is back. My thoughts are with everyone in the UK at the moment who are going through this tough time. Japan may find itself in lockdown in a few weeks, who knows? Things move so fast these days. If it does, then I will keep in mind the words of Winston Churchill, "When you're going through hell, keep going."

John Rennie

Culture Curiosity








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