As I write these lines, Japan has reported 628,000 coronavirus cases and just over 10,000 deaths for a population of 126 million people. Compared to most countries, the numbers are nothing short of astonishing — especially considering it was all achieved without a proper lockdown.
I’ve been in Tokyo since the beginning of the pandemic. For most of last year, I felt lucky to have been here rather than back home in Europe. Only a couple people I personally know have actually contracted the virus in Japan. Most stores have stayed open most of the time. Indoor dining never really stopped. I was even able to do some domestic travel — subsidized by the government’s Go To Travel campaign — which I’ll selfishly admit was lovely now that there are no foreign tourists.
Yet a lot of residents, especially us non-Japanese, are increasingly voicing discontent at the government’s pandemic response.
To understand why, I’d like to dive into Japan’s coronavirus prevention measures, starting with the positive.
A model of self-discipline
In my view, where the Japanese response surpassed that of most other countries is in the discipline and collective action of Japanese citizens and businesses.
Masks were never a big deal for Japanese people, as wearing them was common practice since well before the pandemic. To those who may be wondering, I asked my friends why masks were so common back then and got a wide variety of answers, from preventing hay fever, to not spreading their cold, to not wanting to wear makeup.
As soon as the pandemic started, masks went from common to ubiquitous in a heartbeat. They became mandatory in most indoor establishments, but out of an abundance of caution people would wear them everywhere — even alone in their cars! The advantage of living in a highly conformist society that celebrates self-discipline is that the social pressure to comply with the norm makes mass action very effective.
A couple of times, I’ve seen conspiracy theorists driving around town with a bright sign on their car, yelling through a megaphone about how masks are useless, but their campaign is clearly not working. Compared to most countries, in Japan, people wear masks, and they wear them well.
In addition, almost every store you go to has a free disinfectant dispenser at the entrance. Restaurants, bars, grocery stores, department stores, karaoke rooms; they’re everywhere. With all the disinfectant I’ve been using, I feel like my hands have aged a dozen years since last February, but it seems to be working. Combined with mask-wearing, it does wonders to limit the virus’s means of transmission.
You can even tell how well a store is doing financially based on the quality of their dispenser. Your local supermarket will usually just have a bottle chained to a table. McDonald’s went high tech, with a motion sensor that will spray your hands without you even touching the dispenser! That way you don’t risk getting germs on your hands in the split second before you disinfect them.
Finally, like disinfectant, temperature checks are everywhere. Stores won’t allow you in if your body temperature is above 37.5 degrees Celsius. You also won’t be allowed on airplanes, into karaoke, or into some of Tokyo’s finer eateries — although McDonald’s doesn’t seem to care.
Everyone and their Japanese grandma now owns an infrared thermometer. Most of the time the check will be done on the forehead, although to avoid the awkwardness of having to shove a plastic rod into a stranger’s face, some stores will check your wrist. Many highly frequented places— like airports, train stations, and Uniqlo — also employ long-range thermometers that can scan lots of people quickly at a distance.
That’s it for the most effective prevention measures. There are a few others, like advanced ventilation systems and more companies pushing for remote work, but those are still far from widespread and are left entirely to the discretion of individual businesses.
Next, let’s look at some more questionable measures.
A not-so-urgent state of emergency
Right now and until the end of May, Tokyo is under a state of emergency. What that means is travel is discouraged, businesses are advised to close at 20:00, and certain high-risk activities — like my beloved karaoke — are asked to halt operations entirely.
Note that I didn’t say obligated. All of these measures are voluntary, but for cultural reasons — and perhaps to receive subsidies — most businesses comply. Or at least most large businesses do.
The results are somewhat mixed. There’s reason to believe that the guidelines help reduce infections, although the government has faced criticism for not implementing more consequential measures. Commuting trains are still densely crowded, as only about 20 percent of the population is working from home. It’s also hard to see why setting a 20:00 closing recommendation for restaurants would be all that effective — especially since bars and clubs that are dependent on nighttime revenue can stay open, people still work well into the night and go home on packed trains, and it’s not like the virus is napping during the day.
It’s important to note that between 30,000 and 70,000 coronavirus tests are administered in Japan each day. The government hasn’t set up mass testing or tracking sites, so there is a dire lack of the statistical evidence necessary to provide a feedback loop to policy makers. Rather than root their measures in science, authorities engage in a negotiation between business owners and other interest groups to find an acceptable compromise between shutting down and keeping the economy going. With such a policy implementation process, it’s easy to understand why the government has been repeatedly criticized for being reactive rather than proactive.
The only area in which Japanese policy has been extremely proactive has been regarding travel restrictions. Arguably too proactive, so much so that for many non-Japanese residents, our place on the Japanese government’s list of concerns has been made painfully clear.
Living as an afterthought
In April 2020, Japan closed its borders. As an island nation, a huge reason the pandemic didn’t take hold in the early days was the breadth of those travel restrictions. Japanese residents returning home were required to undergo a 14-day quarantine, and nobody else was allowed in the country.
Not even non-Japanese residents: people with a valid resident visa but without a Japanese passport. Spouses, parents, people who had called Japan their home for decades were not allowed back into the country if they happened to be traveling in the wrong place at the wrong time. Families were separated. Long-term employees couldn’t get back to their companies. What would have been a human rights violation under European law was shrugged off in Japan. Evidently, when only 2% of your population consists of foreign residents, you can get away with it.
Adding insult to injury, communication around the policy was confusing and contradictory. The government failed to provide a clear timeline for when expatriated residents could return to the place they called home: A recurring theme in Japanese politics and evidence that the welfare of non-Japanese residents remains an afterthought.
In addition to foreign residents, international students have been hit particularly hard by pandemic travel restrictions. Even students with scholarships and a visa to come study in Japan were not allowed into the country. Japan counted over 80,000 fewer international students in 2020 than in 2019; another deeply concerning trend for Japan’s long-term standing in the global economy.
It wasn’t until September that Japan fully lifted its ban on resident returns, and by then the damage was done. Foreign companies in particular no longer trust that Japan can be a reliable Asia hub for their international workers.
As for those like me who stayed in Japan the whole time, we’re still worried that leaving could mean we’re unable to return to our jobs and loved ones. Even though the ban has been relaxed, who’s to say that soaring infection rates or new strains of the virus may not push the government to revert to draconian measures?
We simply don’t know. And given the botched vaccine rollout, it’s unlikely we’ll know anytime soon.
Has anyone seen the vaccine?
Back in April, Japan imported 28 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine — more than any other Asian country. Yet they’ve only used 15% of those doses and inoculated just 2.2% of their population. In comparison, by the time Japan’s vaccination program got off the ground, the US was already vaccinating millions of people every single day.
Given the low infection rate, it’s somewhat understandable that Japan wasn’t all that preoccupied with investing tremendous resources into a US-style rollout. Nevertheless, their government is now caught in a PR nightmare, where the state of emergency is getting prolonged while most of its vaccine doses are still sitting in freezers. Authorities don’t really have a leg to stand on, given the numerous reports of logistical and cultural incidents exacerbating the slow rollout.
The situation is particularly stressful for international residents like myself, who rely on foreign travel to see our families. My parents are already vaccinated, but will I be able to visit them this Christmas? Who knows. With Japan’s sizable aging population, I’m nowhere near the top of the vaccination priority list.
Will they be allowed to come visit me? Again, no idea. Tourism to Japan is still banned, with no clear timeline regarding when visits will be allowed again. At the moment, the government is more preoccupied with getting Olympic athletes over to Tokyo to compete in empty stadiums than it is with allowing its residents’ lives to return to normal.
It’s hard to evaluate Japan’s coronavirus response in just a few words. On the one hand, citizens seem to have done a good job in exercising their individual responsibility, and many businesses have taken medical guidelines and prevention measures seriously. On the other hand, the government’s lackluster planning, lack of consideration for non-Japanese residents, and tendency to react rather than act are making the recovery longer than it needs to be, and will have lasting negative consequences for the country’s economic future.
With its advantageous geographic features and cultural particularities, there’s reason to believe Japan could have been a shining success story in pandemic prevention. Instead, we got a mixed bag that has left many residents like me feeling pessimistic and jaded.
Perhaps things will change. Maybe in a matter of months, vaccinations will ramp up beyond expectations and we can return to life as normal. Only time will tell. Right now, all I’m really hoping for is to get my vaccine shot by Christmas.