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Number 1 Shimbun

The virus outside Tokyo

04

Taking care
Face masks being worn in Nishinari ward, Osaka on April 15

 

The frenzy of news stories about the coronavirus spread in Tokyo has obscured the fact that much of Japan has—so far, at least—managed to dodge the worst of the first wave.;

 

By Eric Johnston

 

“You’re so lucky you don’t live in Tokyo!”

Over the years, I’ve heard that remark from any number of friends, colleagues, and total strangers overseas and throughout Japan who live in or visit Tokyo (though rarely in Tokyo itself). Usually, it comes from those who had a bad day at their office somewhere in the capital and are just blowing off steam. 

Sometimes, it’s uttered in weary frustration by Tokyo residents who say are fed up after years of living with the obstinate, bureaucratic “Tokyo Way” of doing things, are burned out by the city’s stressful lifestyle, or feel that their fellow Tokyoites are cold, boring, and superficial. 

What I had never heard, until this year, was that I was lucky not to be living in Tokyo because of its vulnerability to a pandemic.

In early February, three weeks before Hokkaido declared a state of emergency over the new coronavirus, I found myself in Sapporo. The annual Snow Festival was underway. But there was concern the raging coronavirus in China would keep attendance way down. Foreign tourists in town for the event appeared to be mostly from Southeast Asia or Japan-based Western residents on holiday. There was a noticeable absence of Chinese-speaking tourists. A few scattered groups of younger Chinese standing around the snow sculptures could be spotted, all of whom were wearing face masks. As were most other visitors, including myself. 

In Sapporo’s Odori Koen, those of us standing in line at the food stalls for the lamb kebabs or local sake tensed up when somebody in our vicinity broke into a fit of prolonged coughing. But there was no panic or anger. Except for the lower-than-usual number of tourists, all appeared normal. In conversations with friends at the Hokkaido Shimbun, it was clear the coronavirus was a big story but not yet the dominant one. 

That changed on February 28, after Hokkaido Gov. Naomichi Suzuki told people to stay at home and not go out unnecessarily. Suzuki took matters into his own hands and made the announcement following much confusion at the prefectural level after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe issued a sudden request that schools be temporarily closed as a measure to control the spread of the virus. At that time, Hokkaido led the nation in infections, with 66. 

Well before universities in the rest of the country were forced to teach online, I heard grumbling from those teaching at colleges in and around Sapporo that their administrators were running around like headless chickens, holding meetings about coronavirus safety measures for the upcoming spring term. This meant groups of people sitting for hours without facemasks in a small room with the windows shut. It was a scene that would be repeated a couple weeks later in Tokyo and the Kansai region, until Japan discovered Zoom could be used to hold that three-hour meeting to decide when to the hold the four-hour meeting to decide.


AN OSAKA REBELLION?

Back in Osaka, we watched, along with the rest of the country, the saga of the Diamond Princess. There was a growing sense of disbelief and anger over Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s response. Osakans, not exactly strong believers in the wisdom of Tokyo bureaucrats and politicians, began to worry government officials were even more incompetent than they’d been after the March 11, 2011 Tohoku quake and Fukushima disaster. It grew harder to find anyone who believed either Prime Minister Shinzo Abe or Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike had the ability to take bold action or could speak plainly and openly about the crisis. It was time to take what local action you could for yourself and your family. 

In early April, Abe finally ordered a nationwide state of emergency. But it was the local governors’ leadership or lack of it that would ultimately determine whether people agreed to stay off the streets in large enough numbers to flatten the infection curve. And here, an odd thing happened.

I would have bet any of my Tokyo friends a can of their favorite brand of lime chu-hai that Osakans would be the last to fall in line with a Tokyo “request” to self-isolate. The central government hoped for a 70 to 80 percent reduction in pedestrian and vehicular traffic, especially in the cities, in order to reduce infection numbers. I would have—and did—say that, in Osaka, we’d be lucky to see a 50 percent reduction.

But parts of Osaka actually saw more than a 90 percent reduction, a higher rate than the parts of Tokyo making the nightly news. Why? Because of the man-of-the-hour, Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura, who urged everyone to stay home in a local media blitz. Through appeals passionately delivered and free of bureaucratic jargon and the too-clever-by-half English phrases that Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike (over)uses, Yoshimura convinced Osakans to do the impossible: to listen to Tokyo, whatever doubts they had about the competency of its politicians and bureaucrats. 


A KANSAI HERO

Yoshimura is now the talk of the nation’s media for his bold leadership. Quick decision-making, independent of what Abe and Koike were doing in Tokyo, was an important reason he drew a lot of admiration. But Hashimoto also pointed out that Abe uses a teleprompter in his speeches while Yoshimura speaks to the media and public off the cuff. Just as Hashimoto did when he was in office. 

Will Yoshimura’s political acumen lead to bigger things? Maybe. But as I write this in mid-May, it remains unclear if his independent “Osaka model” of standards for reopening businesses will lead to a second wave of infections. If it does, Yoshimura could go from media hero to media goat very quickly.

In Nara prefecture, where I live, the coronavirus seemed far away. Less than 100 people have been infected, only a dozen or so seriously, and only two have died in a prefecture with a population of 1.35 million. Not once between February and May did any of the park areas in my neighborhood close down. No busybody old men or rent-a-cop types standing at park entrances, putting up barriers or shooing children and adults away from enjoying a day outdoors. 

There were no picnics allowed in the park. But people were strolling around—without facemasks—taking in the cherry blossoms, playing with their children, relaxed, and enjoying the excellent spring weather. It was made all the more excellent by the cleanest air in decades with everything shut down and with no appearances of Chinese yellow sand, which can hit western Japan particularly hard in the late winter and early spring months. 

There was plenty of food at local supermarkets. But I also noticed several neighbors tending newly-dug vegetable gardens. Planting small, vegetable gardens in your back yard to get through a second wave of the coronavirus crisis might well be the next social “boom” that Tokyo media “discover.” 


KYOTO: WHERE TOURISM RULES

If Osaka—and even before that neighboring Wakayama—showed political courage by taking their own actions quickly, Kyoto finished, if not last, then close to it. Kyoto is not known for being quick and flexible. But the prefectural and city leadership seemed exceptionally slow by comparison. 

Kyoto’s tourism industry heavily relies on cherry blossom season to bring in revenue for its (way too many) chain hotels in particular, as well as local merchants. For a while in March, Kyoto politicians said little about the coronavirus, and were far more reactive than proactive. Worse, some Kyoto businesses didn’t appear to take the coronavirus seriously or want to admit that the cherry blossom season would not be a profitable one this year. The Arashiyama district of Kyoto even briefly launched an “empty tourism” campaign in February, an ill-conceived plan to lure people to Kyoto precisely because the coronavirus was scaring tourists away and Kyoto was quieter than it had been in years. 

On May 18, there were only three newly confirmed coronavirus cases outside of Hokkaido and the Kanto area and things were reopening. Thoughts have turned to responding to the economic damage and ensuring area hospitals will have enough beds if (when) the second coronavirus wave hits. In addition, prefectures throughout the country were nervously looking ahead to the summer months. Heavy flooding during the rainy season or massive typhoon damage in August and September could mean lots of people, especially elderly, in evacuation centers, where the risk would be high of a coronavirus outbreak at a time when local emergency medical facilities were already overwhelmed. 

In such a case, those living in a more rural area outside of a major city and its highly developed medical infrastructure may then tell their Tokyo friends and family: “You’re so lucky to live in Tokyo.” ❶


Eric Johnston is Senior Kansai Correspondent for The Japan Times. The views above are his own and not those of The Japan Times.

Published in: June 2020

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