Is Tokyo heading a heading for a lockdown? That’s the question that many Tokyoites are struggling with this week. However, for many weeks, Tokyoites had been living their lives as if the coronavirs pandemic were not affecting many countries and overwhelming their health care systems; and while cases skyrocketed in countries like South Korea, Iran, Italy, Spain, and the United States, confirmed cases in Japan had remained low.
News outlets continuously reported that Japan was not conducting as many tests as it should, and that the number of infected people could be vastly greater than what the official reports were saying; and still, people across the country seemed not to take precautions.
When Prime Minister Abe Shinzo shockingly announced that all public elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools were to close in March, kids and teenagers took the opportunity to inundate parks and shopping malls, completely defeating the purpose behind the school closures. It was as if the government had granted students a much needed vacation instead of having announced a measure to stop the spread of the virus.
Then spring came, and right after news channels reported the latest information about COVID-19, they would talk about the best places for hanami, the Japanese tradition of having a picnic below the cherry blossoms to enjoy and appreciate the flowers’ beauty.
During weekends, people indeed headed out to their local parks in masses to see cherry blossoms, and when the Olympic Torch arrived in Sendai, 50,000 people lined up to take its picture.
It didn’t matter that the general recommendation has been to avoid crowds and close proximity with other people, residents have simply continued acting as if COVID-19 did not exist in every single way except their shopping habits: supermarkets and convenience stores quickly run out of toilet paper and tissues, and there are masks shortages across the nation.
The way people in Japan were reacting to the virus left so much to be desired. How was it possible that citizens could still go to parties and head to very crowded places amidst a global pandemic?
Naturally, Tokyo Governor Koike Yuriko was left in a state of disbelief as she saw just how little precautions people were taking, and in a press conference hinted that Tokyo could implement stronger measures if people were not more cautious.
Unfortunately, the government’s response coincided with two major events: the announcement that the 2020 Tokyo Olympics would be postponed until summer 2021 at the latest, and that new coronavirus cases in Tokyo were nearly tripling.
This ended up raising eyebrows, the announcement of the sudden spike in coronavirus cases coming right after the postponement of the Olympic Games seemed too much of a coincidence to not rule out that the government was not releasing real numbers since they did not need to try to pretend that everything was fine in order to protect their precious 2020 Olympics.
To make things worse, the government’s response to the virus has been met with criticism: the travel restrictions and bans came in too late, schools were closed but companies were not required to allow employees to telework, and train services have been reduced as a response to the coronavirus, which has resulted in trains being even more crowded than before. That’s a complete failure on the part of the government to try to mitigate the spread of the virus.
What followed was Koike’s announcement that residents should not go out during the weekend of March 28 and 29 unless it was absolutely necessary. Notably, the announcement was not an order but rather a recommendation. Koike is simply politely asking residents not to head out. One of the reasons this is not a very strict measure is that Japan does not tend to interfere with people’s civil liberties.
That’s in fact one of the reasons the coronavirus cases in Japan have worsened. When people were tested and told to stay in self-isolation while waiting for the results, Japan could not actually force those people to quarantine. As a result, there have been people who selfishly decided not to follow the government’s directions, and the government cannot punish them for their actions.
A notable example occurred in Yamanashi, where a man who tested positive for the coronavirus lied to authorities, telling them that he had not been in contact with people when in fact he worked at a 7-Eleven and had been in proximity to at least eight people. The government found out about this thanks to 7-Eleven after the branch contacted them. However, authorities could not do as much as reminding people that cooperating with authorities was very important despite the individual having lied and endangered many others.
Another case occurred when some Japanese nationals returning from Europe tested positive for the coronavirus. One of these people was a woman from Okinawa, who was told by quarantine officials at Narita Airport to wait until her results came out. The woman did not follow the instructions, left, boarded a plane to Okinawa, and after landing there took a bus home. Had the woman done that in Italy or Spain, she would have faced severe repercussions due to her selfishness, but no such thing could be done in Japan.
Koike’s request to residents not to go out had immediate effects, though, and people rushed to their local supermarkets to stock up on food and household supplies that they could need. The reaction was similar to the panic buying that occurred after Abe shut down schools and which resulted in stores running out of tissues and toilet paper.
Rushing to supermarkets could be considered an overreaction since Koike’s request is only for one weekend and on Monday things are supposed to be back to normal.
However, the implications behind Koike’s request are far greater. The governor’s announcement was interpreted as the possibility of an actual lockdown in the near future; particularly when considering that she is asking for people’s cooperation despite people having failed to cooperate over the past weeks.
What’s more, the government launched a national headquarters, which is the first step in enabling Abe to declare a state of emergency. Therefore, while the Japanese government has been very slow in their response to the pandemic, the general is that a lockdown is coming. That’s what people smell in the air, and they are now preparing for it. The draft states what conditions would result in Abe declaring a state of emergency. Under the draft, prefectures with very numerous infections would be lockdowned for 21 days.
In the end, it seems that Japan is about to see its number of coronavirus cases increase exponentially, the government fearing that cases are rampant and Abe declaring the situation a national crisis; and while much of the blame will fall on the government and their inaction, all individuals who purposely took the pandemic as something that was not serious while continuing to travel, go to parties, and hang out in crowded places should know that they were also part of the problem.
If a lockdown does end up happening and Japan sees coronavirus cases skyrocket, the saddest reality will be that it was an avoidable situation that failed because of a combination of factors that include the government’s response and residents’ lack of cooperation during a time of crisis.