Kalani M. Fujiwara
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

July 2021 was the month of extreme contrast in Japan with the start of the long-delayed Tōkyō Olympics and the fifth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was the Delta variant wave that led to more deaths and hospitalizations in Japan during the hot month of July 2021. The prioritization by Prime Minister Suga and his administration on economic recovery activities and the Olympic games rightfully led to most of the Japanese people blaming the Delta variant (fifth wave) of COVID-19 infections and corresponding death rates directly at the administration and the Olympic games. 

The fifth COVID-19 wave started in late June 2021 and peaked during the two weeks of the Olympic games. State of emergency was declared from June 2021, which once again lead to early closing of stores, restaurants and bars as well as limiting capacity of those establishments. Large amount of serious COVID-19 infection cases led to large number of hospital beds being filled. Hospital capacity around the country surpassed safe limits. The Japanese media meticulously reported daily infection and hospitalization in alarming rates. There were reports of COVID-19 patients with severe symptoms, who were unable to find a hospital that will take them in. Many of those patients rode all over Tōkyō and other cities for hours on ambulances looking for a hospital that would take them in. Many of the COVID-19 patients would end up in hotels, which the Tōkyō city government and other local prefectural governments set up as COVID-19 patient rest spots for those with less severe symptoms. However, those designated hotels filled up quickly and could not take in anymore COVID-19 patients. This led to Prime Minister Suga to publicly urge the Japanese people to stay in their homes if they are inflicted by COVID-19, which lead to the media and the public to view the Prime Minister’s statement as “Shut up and die at your homes.” 

Yurakucho, Japan, July 2021. (Photo by titanium22, flickr.com)

Yes, many people died at their homes and apartments alone due to COVID-19 in Tōkyō and other locales in Japan. These people could not be hospitalized since there were no hospitals that could admit them, nor could they find a designated hotel space. These people died alone and were only later discovered by their family, friends or co-workers. These unfortunate souls were young and old alike with various backgrounds such as a company worker, college student and küpuna living on a pension. 

The Japanese media reported all these horrifying results of the Delta wave in full detail on daily news and special report programs. The Japanese media focused on the hospitals and the beleaguered staff trying to save lives and find space to fit just one more COVID-19 patient as well as the difficulties those COVID-19 patients had trying to find any space. Most importantly, the Japanese media reported the deaths of COVID-19 victims who died alone in their residence. They also reported on small businesses that had to curtail their business hours and capacity for months due to the COVID-19 infection waves. If the establishment was a restaurant or an eatery, serving alcohol was prohibited or limited to certain hours. I remember eating at my usual casual steakhouse during this time and, by mistake, ordering a glass of wine, only to be reminded by kind restaurant staff that the sale of alcohol was not allowed due to the current state of emergency.

However, the Japanese media and the Japanese people started questioning and severely criticizing Prime Minister Suga and his administration for the lack of any coherent COVID-19 infection and mitigation policies. Prime Minister and his administration only emphasized vaccination and the state of emergency policies. The COVID-19 vaccination, as mentioned in the previous dispatches, was going slowly due to bureaucratic bottlenecks with the central and local governments and availability of vaccines and inability to reach out to people who wanted to be vaccinated. State of emergency policies just kept punishing small businesses despite the economic assistance programs, which were nowhere enough to keep these businesses afloat. Japanese media were especially critical against the government since the start of the pandemic in spring of 2020. Why wasn’t a COVID-19-only hospital or treatment centers created in Japan in preparation for the coming infections waves much like the U.S. and other western nations did during their worst COVID-19 waves? Why was it so hard and costly to get a PCR test in Japan? These were legitimate questions that Prime Minister Suga and his administration refused to answer and led the Japanese people to believe that despite their best individual efforts like masking and social distancing to protect themselves, their government could care less for their well-being during this most deadly COVID-19 pandemic wave. 

These were the conditions that Japan was in during the Tōkyō Olympic games of July 2021. For most Japanese people and media, the prevailing view was that the Prime Minister and his administration and the Tōkyō city government were too focused on catering to the international business elites and Olympic officials in the lead up and preparations to the delayed Tōkyō Olympic games. Thus, the COVID-19 pandemic wave and its deadly consequences were not concern to them. In the next dispatch, what is the legacy of the Tōkyō Olympic games during the COVID-19 pandemic? 

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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