During most of 2020, Japan was able to avoid the worst outcomes from the COVID-19 pandemic despite not enforcing a lockdown and very strong measures.
One of the reasons Japan did not impose the type of strict rules and measures that saw places like Taiwan and Vietnam keep the virus under control is that the Japanese government does not have the power to force citizens to act a certain way. As a result, Japan could not fine individuals and businesses who were not complying. Instead, the most severe thing the government could do was shame the companies that were not following the requests by adding them to a list that was publicly available.
As such, the virus never truly vanished, and as spring’s state of emergency was lifted, business resumed as usual.
Fast forward to November 2020, and Japan’s previously “bad but respectable” numbers had gone out of control. By December, experts warned that numbers in the Japanese capital could reach 1,000 daily cases, which eventually came true by late December. With signs that the healthcare system could collapse, Governor Koike and other governors of prefectures in the Tokyo metropolitan area requested Prime Minister Suga to issue a state of emergency. At first reluctant to issue such a statement, Suga’s state of emergency finally came into effect on January 7, 2021. Nevertheless, the state of emergency has been criticized for doing almost nothing. Since Suga’s cabinet is mostly concerned about the economy, the state of emergency simply requested restaurants and bars to close by 8 pm. Movie theaters, schools, gyms, etc. can operate as usual, and companies that have not embraced teleworking continued to do their thing. As a result, trains and streets were as crowded as usual the following morning.
So what exactly went wrong? As it turns out, a series of poor decisions and factors contributed to The current crisis affecting Japan:
The Japanese government very proudly launched the Go To Travel campaign during the pandemic to help the failing tourism and hospitality industry. As it was the case around the world, hotels and restaurants in Japan faced unprecedented (I promise I won’t use that word again, we are all sick of it) difficulties that forced some establishments to close for good.
Wanting to do something about it, the Japanese government drafted a campaign to encourage tourism during a pandemic (red flag). The Go To Travel campaign offered people a 30% discount on their accommodations, plus regional coupons they could use in the areas they were visiting. If booking plans through a travel agency, transportation expenses would also be subjected to the 30% discount. Naturally, people decided to take advantage of this campaign, particularly since there was no limit as to the number of bookings once could make. Those who wanted to squeeze the juicy lemon dry took time off work and traveled across Japan, visiting the beaches of Okinawa, the temples of Kyoto, the Tokyo Disney Resort, Universal Studios Japan, various onsen towns, and so on; all while bringing the coronavirus with them. To make things worse, the Go To Travel campaign was accompanied by the Go To Eat one, which encouraged people to go to restaurants. This allowed the virus to spread even further since groups of friends would take advantage of the deals to get together and hang out at various restaurants.
The Go To Travel campaign has been blamed as the number one reason COVID-19 spread to multiple prefectures, making the number of cases soar. What’s more, the campaign’s name has resulted in many headaches among English teachers who have to explain to their students that “go to travel” is grammatically incorrect, but I digress.
The campaign and the government’s delayed decision to suspend are among the topics experts, media, and citizens have criticized the most.
The Japanese government has been particularly sluggish in their mishandling of the situation. While it is true that Japan cannot enact the kind of strong measures seen in countries like Taiwan, and Vietnam, the government can still do things.
Instead, the Suga administration has been too concerned about the economy to do anything drastic. The state of emergency declared on January 7 does even less than the one Abe issued in 2020; and even with its pathetic terms that amount to nothing, Suga had been reluctant to declare the state of emergency as multiple governors and politicians pushed for it.
Actions like suspending the Go To Travel campaign and declaring the state of emergency have come too late. Additionally, the government has also left most decisions to individuals. Instead of trying to pressure companies, big and small, to let their employees teleworking, their rhetoric has been asking people to work from home; and since companies are the ones that make these decisions, many people have continued going to their offices as if nothing were happening.
Another point to mark here is that testing in Japan continues to be very limited. When Tokyo reported 1,337 cases on December 31, they had only conducted 4,985 tests, leaving many to wonder just how many other people who had contracted the virus were out there. What’s more, the government has failed miserably at tracking where people have contracted the virus. On January 5, 2020, as 86% of beds reserved for COVID-19 patients in Tokyo had been occupied, the government reported that they did not know the infection route of 70% of the new cases.
Apathy came to be a very important factor in the spread of the novel coronavirus. While there have been many articles about people following the government’s pleas and requests, the truth is that a some people continued not to care or implemented minimal changes to their daily lives. If one were to board a JR or Tokyo Metro train during rush hour, they would very likely see at least four people either not wearing a mask or wearing it improperly. When stores announced a limited edition product, such as Mister Donut’s new collaboration with Pierre Marcolini, people gathered in masses, lining up without maintaining any sort of social distance between them. There have also been reports of people going to parties and other social events, taking off their masks as they talked to people.
That’s why the government’s so-called state of emergency focuses on restaurants. The general consensus is that most new infections are coming from restaurants at night since it’s then when large numbers of people gather and socialize; but then again, let’s not forget that the government has no idea how people are actually contracting the virus.
And as people continued to act as if they were immune to the virus, numbers continued to increase. At first, the speculation was that it was only young people who were getting sick because they were the ones being irresponsible. This erroneous rhetoric ran in Japan for months despite statistics showing that a large number of people in their 30s and 40s were also getting sick. That rhetoric finally came to an end as winter approached and the number of elderly patients catching the virus increased as well, and hospitals became saturated.
In the end it became clear that age was not a factor. If people didn’t care, they simply didn’t care.
It is now anyone’s guess what things will look like in the upcoming months, but experts continue to paint grim pictures since they don’t consider the current state of emergency to be strict enough to turn the tide.