A Personal Journal from July to December 2020

Kalani M. Fujiwara
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

As Japan entered the first summer of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a period after the first wave (March 2020 to May 2020), when the Japanese government and residents felt the worst had passed and society was spared the horrors of the deaths and hospitalizations sustained by the U.S. and Europe. Although the Japanese economy suffered from the shutdown of businesses and the loss of international tourists. To revitalize Japan’s economy, the government started a few nationwide programs to promote economic activity.

Thus far, Japanese society has depended on docho atsuryoku, (social peer pressure) to keep the rate of infections, hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 low. The pressure to refrain from taking trips, eating out and spending time with extended family members has been effective in keeping any explosion of infections as seen in the United States and Europe. Much like near-universal mask-wearing, social distancing and avoiding crowded places, docho atsuryoku has kept Japanese society relatively safe. However, it worked too well, and resulted in a big hit to Japan’s economic activity. 

One of the first acts by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe besides the much-derided Abe-no-masku (free masks distributed to the people of Japan) was to provide every resident in Japan, adult and children a sum of 100,000 yen (around $1,000) for living expenses. In June 2020, I received a notice from my city government to file paperwork to receive the sum of 100,000 yen. It was either done online or via mail. I received my sum a month later in my bank account. The difficulty to receive this sum varied from prefecture to prefecture and city to city. Some families complained about not receiving relief money from the government.

Out of the upheaval of a possible second wave of infections, economic instability and damage to his political legacy, Prime Minister Abe bowed out from his post with the excuse of health problems. The media highlighted his health for over a week. I suspect that Prime Minister Abe used the same convenient excuse of sickness or possible sickness to leave a difficult political and economic situation. The Olympics, which was supposed to be the highlight of his political legacy was now being postponed or maybe even canceled; he decided to bail out. 

Monument of Olympic rings for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, 2021. (Photo by Dick Thomas Johnson/flickr.com)

However, things took a turn when the second wave of infections erupted in Japan starting in July 2020 and reaching into early October. There was a rise in COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations. The new Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga was selected by the majority of the ruling political party (Liberal Democrats, never mind the name, it’s the conservative party) to run the Japanese government and was a capable right-hand man of the previous Prime Minister Abe.

There was no urgency to address the second wave of COVID-19 infections by the new prime minister and his cabinet. That would be the legacy of the new prime minister and his government in which economic activity and the Olympics would be the priority over dealing with the infections, hospitalization and deaths by the pandemic in a term of office that would last exactly one year. 

In dealing with the pandemic, the new Japanese cabinet decided to limit business hours, the number of people served and enforce strict COVID-19 rules such as mask-wearing; the use of disinfectants at restaurants, eateries, bars and shops; limiting the time and amount of alcohol served.  

The media and public, in general, dismissed these measures as ridiculous and punishing to only a certain segment of the economy such as the restaurant and drinking industry. Abiding restaurants and drinking establishments received funds from the government if they cooperated with what will be known as the “quasi-emergency” acts to deal with the pandemic. However, the second wave of COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations only lasted for a couple of months and Prime Minister Suga pushed out an ambitious economic revitalization program, which would backfire on him and the Japanese society as it will lead to the third and fourth waves of COVID-19 spread starting from winter of 2020 into the spring of 2021.  

The government programs were the “Go-to-travel” and “Go-to-eat” programs. Basically, these programs were government-funded programs to encourage domestic tourism and dining out. “Go-to-travel” programs allow you to receive steep discounts on transportation and lodging costs if you reserved from the approved travel agency or received money coupons from your place of lodging (hotels or inns), which you could use for dining, attractions, and omiyage while you are on your trip.  

“Go-to-eat” programs basically required you to buy a certain amount of money coupons and you would receive additional extra money coupons, which you can use at any participating dining establishments. For example, I purchased 10,000-yen ($100) worth of the “Go-to-eat” money coupons and I received extra 2,500-yen ($25.00) worth of coupons. These programs were a great success. Many Japanese and I took advantage of these travel and dining programs. However, the increased movement of people and economic activity will lead to an increase in infections and hospitalizations.  Both programs were suspended immediately with the third wave of infections and hospitalizations. The third wave to the fifth wave (summer 2021) was the deadliest that Japan had experienced.

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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