TOKYO – Somewhere in this crowded, sprawling city of 37 million people, the coronavirus is still lurking. But life must go on.
On Monday, Japan lifted the state of emergency over the greater Tokyo area, effectively ending the country’s soft lockdown. New infections have slowed to a trickle and hospital beds have been freed up. There is, finally, light at the end of the tunnel.
Now Japan’s getting ready for what it’s calling a “new lifestyle,” an idiosyncratic attempt to restart daily life without provoking another jump in infections.
It is a uniquely Japanese approach to containing the virus based on request, consensus, and social pressure rather than government edicts and legal sanctions, but it’s one that has had some success so far despite some initial blunders and botched communication from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
“The Japanese way of dealing with the epidemic has been quite superior,” Abe said on Monday. “Now, we are going to venture into a new arena. Therefore, we need to create a new lifestyle from now on. We need to change our way of thinking.”
For reasons that still aren’t entirely clearly, Japan has officially recorded more than 16,000 infections and 800 deaths. Although low rates of testing means many cases were missed, the country has had a fraction of the numbers seen in the West.
In the past week, the nation of 126 million people added only around 200 fresh covid-19 cases, and the number of people in hospital fell below 2,000.
Now, more than 100 industries have already drawn up guidelines on how they intend to reopen while minimizing the risks of spreading the virus.
The rules vary from the eminently sensible – ensuring adequate ventilation, providing hand sanitizer, wearing face masks, spacing customers out – to the slightly unusual.
Customers in restaurants, for example, are encouraged to sit side-by-side rather than face-to-face, to refrain from talking as much as possible, and consider listening to the background music a little more. A society never inclined to shouting, overt displays of emotion or constant physical contact might just become a little quieter and more distant. But also safer.
“Everyone wants to avoid being blamed – that you are the one who became a hotbed of covid-19,” said Kazuto Suzuki, a political science professor at Hokkaido University. “This is social pressure among Japanese society, that if you don’t follow the guidelines, and you are spreading the virus, then you will get sanctions from society.”
First to reopen in Tokyo will schools, museums and libraries. Bars and restaurants, which had been asked to close by 8 p.m., will now be allowed to stay open until 10. Movie theaters will open at a later date, followed eventually by amusement parks, pachinko gambling parlors and manga comic cafes, provided all goes well.
Professional baseball will restart next month, initially without spectators, Abe announced.
“Obviously we can’t eradicate this virus,” Hitoshi Oshitani, head of the government’s infection control team said in an interview. “We have to live together with this virus for a certain period of time, probably for some years. So then, we can’t stop all social activities.”
There is currently no plan to reopen gyms and karaoke bars in Tokyo, identified as high-risk venues, although the karaoke industry has already drawn up its own set of guidelines, which involve singing with face masks on, disinfecting microphones between users, and keeping listeners at least six feet away from the singers.
Oshitani, a virology professor at Tohoku University School of Medicine, says reopening shops and extending restaurant opening hours will mean more infections, and he predicts controls will have to be tightened again at some point in time in certain regions.
But he says the medical system and the testing and tracing infrastructure is much better prepared than it was a few months ago, to detect and counter any new surge in cases.
Japan’s initial response to the virus was widely criticized, and Abe’s popularity has plunged.
The country has one of the highest death tolls per capita in Asia, outside the Middle East, and a business rescue package was seen as poorly targeted and overly bureaucratic.
The government was widely seen as having mishandled infections on board the Diamond Princess cruise ship, and criticized for failing to expand testing with any sense of urgency. It allowed thousands of people to return to the country from Europe and the United States without being tested in February and March, seeding a massive outbreak in infections.
Confused messaging also contributed to a fateful long weekend in March, when crowds turned out to view cherry blossoms and infections surged.
But there were unheralded successes too. Universal health care allowed Japan to detect cases early, even in remote rural areas, at a time when the virus appears to have been spreading undetected in Europe and the United States.
An early realization that the virus usually spreads through clusters, often in closed, crowded spaces, where people come into close contact and engage in conversation, led to an emphasis on avoiding what the government called the 3 C’s – crowded, closed spaces and close contact.
Rather than confining everyone to the home constantly, it meant understanding and avoiding high-risk situations – a policy that now forms the basis of Japan’s “new lifestyle.”
The messaging began to improve, drilled home by regional governors who have played a leading role in the virus response, while the deaths of popular comedian Ken Shimura and actress Kumiko Okae woke the public up to the dangers of the virus.
“The high-profile deaths created a shock wave among Japanese people, and everyone blamed themselves – that we went out,” Suzuki said. “There was a lesson to learn.”
Gradually, and reluctantly, Japan’s slow-moving corporate sector began to accept the revolutionary idea of working from home, and the crowds on commuter trains thinned out. On sunny days, parks were still fairly busy, but people generally kept a distance from each other.
The question now is whether everyone reacts to the end of the state of emergency calmly and cautiously, or if they are so sick of being stuck indoors they rush out to have as much fun as possible.
“It’s dangerous to have a feeling of complacency after Japan appeared to have prevented an outbreak on the scale seen in many Western countries,” said Kenji Shibuya, director of the Institute for Population Health at King’s College, London. “Japan’s medical and testing systems are insufficient to tackle the next large wave.”