A Personal Journal From January to April 2021

Kalani M. Fujiwara
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

As Japan and the world entered 2021, the COVID-19 pandemic was still relentless in the New Year. However, the eyes of the world including Japan were glued to the political upheaval in the United States with the November 2020 presidential elections and two months of political chaos that culminated with the insurrection of the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021. Aside from the political upheaval, the United States by this time already endured up to 600,000 horrific deaths due to the pandemic. Japan had just a fraction of the deaths and hospitalization of the U.S. and Europe thus far into this world crisis.  

By late January 2021, Japan entered the third wave of COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations. By this time, it was well established that Japanese society’s efforts of near total voluntary efforts of masking, keeping social distance and avoidance of crowds already worked wonders in staving off the horrors of the pandemic experienced by the rest of the world. Even the government’s much-ridiculed “state of emergency” measures of discouraging eating and drinking out were having a positive effect, much to the economic pain of the restaurant and drinking industry. 

An empty Ginza Line Shibuya Station in Tōkyō, July 2021. (Photo taken by Yoshimitsu Kurooka)

However, there was a sense within the public that although Japan was able to avoid the mass COVID-19 infection and deaths, there was always a chance that Japan will experience the mass deaths and hospitalizations of the rest of the world sooner or later. The Japanese medical system had been resilient till this point of the pandemic. There was a rise in COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths, and the Japanese medical system was overwhelmed at some point during the first three waves. However, Japanese medical staff, like all medical professionals around the world, worked hard to save lives and ease suffering among the infected patients the best they could.  

The Japanese medical system as well as the public was beginning to see the COVID-19 pandemic as a crisis with no endgame. In Japan, infections and deaths came in waves followed by a brief lull. The wave usually started a few weeks after a major holiday season like Golden Week, summer vacation and New Year holidays. The pattern became predictable.

Since there were no strict and organized quarantine efforts like Taiwan and New Zealand until the autumn of 2020, the COVID-19 virus easily entered Japan. Although tourists were not able to enter, Japanese nationals, foreign residents and foreign business travelers were able to travel in and out of Japan with a stipulation of a “voluntary” 14-day quarantine that had little or no monitoring by the Japanese government. This laxness in monitoring and quarantining people entering Japan led to the subsequent waves of COVID-19 infections into the spring of 2021. It was not until media outcry, astute investigative reporting and preparation for the Tokyo Olympics, that this situation was finally corrected also due to the fourth wave of infections starting in April 2021.

By this time, the Japanese government led by Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga was in a conundrum on his administration’s priority of economic revitalization. The much-ballyhooed “Go-to” programs, which I mentioned in my previous column, were suspended due to the third wave of COVID-19 infections in November 2020. The delayed Tokyo Olympics was scheduled to be staged in late July 2021. Prime Minister Suga and his administration decided to put all their “political eggs” on the COVID-19 vaccination as a way to break the cycle of infection waves and attempt to stage a “regular” Olympics in July. This started the chaotic and disorganized vaccination efforts marked by mis-prioritization and blatant political favoritism in providing COVID-19 vaccinations to the Japanese public; despite the good intentions of Japanese government officials like the newly appointed vaccine minister Taro Kono.

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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