A Personal Journal from November 2019 through April 2020

Kalani M. Fujiwara
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

As I boarded my flight to Narita airport at the beginning of November 2019, never in my wildest imagination did I fathom that I would be living in Japan during a global pandemic three and a half months later. This was my third time living in Japan. I decided to change my career and leave Hawai‘i for a new life in Tökyö. Fifteen years have passed since I last lived in Japan, and the last time it was in rural Japan. This time, I will be living in one of the world’s largest city or urban regions, Tökyö and the Kantö region.  

Once I arrived in Tökyö, there were the usual stresses of finding a place to live, getting used to my new work environment, and the new work that kept me occupied for most of my time since my arrival. But as 2019 changed over to 2020, it was a warm winter in Japan. Very little snow fell even in the usual snow-filled mountainous areas. 

Television news programs showed reports about the suffering commercial ski resorts and slopes due to the dearth of fallen snow. I was grateful for the warm winter since I do not like the cold much, and it was one stress I was able to avoid.  

In late January, news programs in Japan and the U.S. started to report an infectious virus that had spread in China and the possibility of a greater spillover in the other parts of the world. As a news-report junkie due to my previous career as a college instructor teaching political science, I read many news reports about Japan, the U.S., around the world; I even kept up with the news in Hawai‘i as part of my morning ritual. 

Having lived through the SARS epidemic in Japan back in 2002-2003 and remembering how it “disappeared” soon after, I did not think that much about this new coronavirus at first. But as February 2020 rolled around, there were leaked reports and videos from China — by some of the Chinese residents who lived in Japan — of strict quarantine regulations being enforced in Wuhan and other cities. Chinese hospitals were overwhelmed with patients. Mainstream media both in Japan and around the world started reporting on infection cases throughout the globe.  

I didn’t realize how disastrous this pandemic was until one of my clients, a young lady from China living in Japan, told me how harmful this virus was. She heard reports from her family that thousands were infected and suffering in her home city in China. 

By this time, COVID-19 cases started rising, much to the dismay of the Japanese public, yet the Japanese government was not showing any alarm. Even though for most of February 2020, the Japanese government containment failure was covered by the daily coverage of the COVID-19 cases onboard the docked Diamond Princess cruise ship. 

Testing for COVID-19 in Japan was almost non-existent at the onset of the pandemic. By March 2020, Japanese residents were alarmed by all the news reports from Europe and U.S. about high cases and medical systems seriously compromised due to rising hospitalization among the infected.  

The Japanese government continues to muddle its messaging on the seriousness of COVID-19, which led to accusations among the locals that the Japanese government was trying to protect the 2020 Tökyö Olympics from getting canceled by not providing the actual number of COVID-19 cases in Japan. Ultimately, the Tökyö Olympics were postponed in late March till 2021 after the series of high-profile meetings with Prime Minister Abe, Governor Koike, and the IOC officials, which were dramatically televised on Japanese TV.  

I was looking back at those early months of the COVID-19 pandemic in Japan. A lot of anxiety and paranoia among Japan’s locals were due to the Japanese government’s ambiguous messaging regarding how deadly the COVID-19 could be. In the meantime, continuous news reports on the disastrous impact of the pandemic were being reported in Europe and the United States. 

The government finally shut down schools and declared a state of emergency at the beginning of April 2020. A state of emergency in Japan pales compared to lockdowns enforced by the governments in the United States or Europe. It was essentially a “strong recommendation” by the Japanese government (national and local) requesting businesses to shut down temporarily and asking citizens to stay home. 

The enforcement is based on peer pressure and individual cooperation. There was a strong emphasis on avoiding the three Cs in Japan for individuals: Closed spaces with no ventilation, Crowded areas, and Close conversations. The state of emergency in Japan was to last only a month until the beginning of May 2020. Masks ran out, and stores were out of stock for weeks. Luckily, I bought a seven-pack before the pandemic and later overpaid for a box of 100 masks from a dubious Chinese brand on Amazon Japan three weeks into the state of emergency.  

My company directed me to work from home, which was a new experience for me. Thus, most of my time in the eight months of my first year in Japan was spent in my home in Kanagawa. There was a run-on toilet paper and other essential goods in the first three weeks of the state of emergency, just like what happened in other parts of the world during the initial stage of the pandemic.  

All the news reports in Japan predicted the rise of serious cases and deaths by COVID-19, just like what was happening in the United States. However, the tsunami of cases and fatalities never rose in Japan. Yes, there were deaths by COVID-19, and the medical facilities had some difficulties in providing spaces for infected patients. However, it is nowhere as horrible as in the other parts of the world except for Taiwan, South Korea, New Zealand and Australia.

If and when the history of this pandemic is written, it should be noted that Japan was able to avoid the worst of the pandemic during the first weeks due to the cooperative spirit of the Japanese people, who voluntarily closed their businesses, wore their masks, stayed home and tried new initiatives like working from home or online learning for schools. 

On the next dispatch: The end of the first state of emergency in Japan was just the start of the endless cycle of more “states of emergency” declarations with which Japan is still struggling.  

Kalani M. Fujiwara was born in Japan and raised in Hawai‘i. He formerly taught political science at Kapi‘olani Community College and Honolulu Community College for 20 years. He lived in Japan off and on altogether for 12 years. He is currently living in Japan for the third time.  


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