A Personal Journal from November 2019 through April 2020
Kalani M. Fujiwara
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
At the start of April 2020, Prime Minister Abe declared a nationwide month-long State of Emergency to mitigate the spread of the COVID-19 virus in Japan that had the world in a grip of fear. During those initial months of the pandemic, people in Japan and around the world were in a state of anxiety and fear due to the many unknowns of what the virus would bring. The media was predicting an explosion of positive COVID-19 cases in Tōkyō similar to New York, London and Rome. Masks were scarce and many stores had run out of toilet paper.
When the Japanese government declares a State of Emergency, it is nowhere as strict and punitive like the emergency laws, proclamations and mandates imposed in Hawai‘i, the U.S. mainland or in Europe. Basically, the Japanese central government, with the cooperation of the local governments within Japan, requested people to stay at home from work and schools, requested businesses to curb their business hours or close for a month, requested nonessential outings during the weekends, requested workplaces to allow telework, requested use of masks and disinfectants, etc.
I first laughed at the requested part of the State of Emergency. I was deeply skeptical in that you are basically giving people the option to change their socio-economic behavior for the good of society. While other Asia-Pacific societies like South Korea, Taiwan and New Zealand successfully used strict contact tracing methods, mandatory testing and use of technology to control the rate of infection.
Japan’s government was requesting its people to behave responsibly to stop the spread of a virus that was killing thousands of people all over the world. Japan was behind in all the proven methodologies used by those Asia-Pacific societies to identify and control the rate of infection at the beginning of the pandemic.
I thought we were doomed to become like the United States and Europe with the explosion of hospitalizations and deaths that played out daily on the Japanese news programs. Although, there is a good reason why the Japanese government both central and local could not initiate the strict lockdowns and mandates like everyplace else in the world: the post-World War II Japanese constitution forbids any government actions or laws that violates individual rights and choices. Therefore, the government cannot force individuals or even businesses to do anything or behave anyway that the individuals or businesses choses not to. Thus, the reason for the “requested” nature of the State of Emergency in Japan during the pandemic.
There are emergency power laws in the books, however those laws were meant for one-time disaster event like a major earthquake. The American drafters of the postwar Japanese constitution never imagined a global pandemic, which forced the national governments of the world to lockdown and restrict people’s behavior. The State of Emergency went into effect and major political leaders were beseeching people to follow the requested guidance from the government.
Overnight, the Japanese society went on an all-out voluntary shutdown of society. Major events like concerts, festivals and sporting events were cancelled or rescheduled. Stores, shopping center, bars, izakaya and restaurants voluntarily closed for a month or shortened their operating hours. My neighborhood supermarket started closing 30 minutes earlier than before the pandemic. Schools closed voluntarily, with teachers scrambling to learn how online teaching works. Telework (remote work) was adopted widely to keep people off the legendary crowded trains of Tōkyō. There was huge buyout for nonperishable goods from the remaining open stores and from online services. Food delivery services like Uber Eats became an essential service for people of urban Japan. Famed streets of Shibuya and Shinjuku were devoid of the famous crowds and had a dystopian feel of a zombie movie like “28 Days Later.”
During that time, the rate of infection was growing in Japan in the hundreds and that put fear in society that it will soon be like the United States and Europe overwhelmed with hospitalizations and rows of graves of people lost to COVID-19, already in the hundreds of thousands. I personally was expecting the explosion of deaths to happen. I received the infamous Abe-no-masku (Abe Masks) in the mail. The Japanese government and importantly the Abe administration feebly tried assuaging the fears of the pandemic by addressing the shortage of masks in Japan.
The government sent out two reusable masks to all residents in Japan. However, the masks were low quality, ill-fitting and in some cases filthy when they arrived in mail. I did not even bother to open it and donated it to a nearby school. Millions of the Abe-no-masku were purchased by the Japanese government and has remained unused till this day. This policy has led to the criticism of corruption and misuse of public funds from the Japanese public. This is just one of the foolish and laughable policy decisions by the Japanese government in trying to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic that continues to this day.
Before the State of Emergency, the Abe administration already restricted overseas arrivals into Japan and thereby shutting down international tourism to zero. Thus, Haneda airport (close to where I live and often walk to during my exercise walks) was a ghost town. Terminal 3 (international), which is normally overflowing with departing and arriving international tourists was empty with airport shops and dining establishments closed indefinitely. My Japanese friends lamented on not being able to go to Hawai‘i, which continues to this day due to the strict quarantine policy after re-entering Japan after going abroad for any reason. Although there was no effective quarantine policy for Japanese coming back from abroad during these early months of the pandemic. Since everything was voluntary, Japanese coming back from abroad was asked to voluntarily quarantine for 14 days, which probably lead to a second COVID-19 surge later in the summer of 2020. No international tourism into Japan during this pandemic has led to a wholesale collapse or near collapse of businesses that depend on international tourism much like Hawai‘i.
In my opinion, there were benefits for people living in Japan when the uncontrolled international tourism was unilaterally halted by the pandemic. I will cover this topic of no international tourism in my upcoming dispatches. However, if you were working in tourism industry in Japan, the pandemic probably caused you to question your career choice.
The first State of Emergency lasted about six weeks, with the Kantō region (Tōkyō, Kanagawa, Chiba, Saitama) enduring the measures the longest. What amazed me was how these optional measures were followed by the Japanese people. People wore masks everywhere you went. Since the businesses were closed, people just stayed and teleworked out of their homes. Netflix Japan and Amazon Prime videos became huge. The most sold product on Amazon Japan during this pandemic was Nintendo Switch and the game Animal Crossing. The Japanese society in a collective way try to deal with a once in a century pandemic as a society that valued self-sacrifice and the ideals of: We will all get through these dark days together. It was something to behold and still is ongoing.
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.