Tokyo – The Japanese capital registered 47 new cases of coronavirus on Thursday, its biggest one-off increase, as the metropolis 13.9 million people prepare for a weekend indoors. The worrying hope of infections prompted Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike to hold a video conference with his counterparts in neighboring prefectures and asked them to help the greater Tokyo region isolate themselves.
Six prefectures responded quickly and asked citizens to avoid all non-essential trips to the capital or even stay at home completely. The region has about 40 million people – about one-third of Japan’s total population.
Disease experts are not only concerned about Japan’s rising cases, but their inability to trace the pathways of infection. Tokyo, Koike said, “is now at a critical time.”
Compared to Manhattan, Milan or other major cities facing tens of thousands of cases, Japan’s total 2,000-plus infections – about a third of them from the outbreak of the cruise ship Diamond Princess – may seem insignificant. But the spiral statistics are so worrying that an expert government panel released its most serious analysis ever today, saying it is “very likely” that Japan will see “redundant” infections.
This assessment triggered the formation of a central working group to lead the fight against coronavirus. It also paved the way for Prime Minister Abe to declare a state of national emergency, though officials said extreme movement was not justified yet. An emergency would allow officials to order residents to stay inside, expropriate private land for medical care, and take other extreme measures.
Governor Koike’s request that one of the world’s most populous cities spend the weekend indoors released a frantic shopping so panicked the Ministry of Agriculture was forced to ask the public to stop hammering and offer the assurance that food remains plentiful. The country also has several months worth of rice and wheat stored.
While Japanese workplaces are remarkably inflexible, the crisis has driven at least larger companies to become serious about telecommunications work. About 70% of companies belonging to Japan’s Chamber of Commerce, Keidanren, said they have or are planning to introduce work from home because of the coronavirus outbreak.
Japan has so far escaped the huge disruption of daily life seen in the US and other countries. While sumo is now being played in riotous empty arenas, and residents have been asked to forgo their beloved state to picnic during the cherry blossom season, citizens have been free to shop, walk to today’s spa and movies and go out to eat – albeit with more face mask use and hand cleansing than usual.
Theories as to why Japan’s outbreak has slowed down more than anywhere else vary. Some say that a cultural avoidance of physical contact – hugging, kissing and handshakes are rare here – and an obsessive use of face masks year-round, along with a generally high level of personal hygiene, may have helped keep the virus away. The smaller charity theory is that Japan kept its numbers down by not going all-in on tests, as South Korea and other countries have done.
Whatever the reason, one thing is clear: If this weekend’s voluntary measures are ineffective, residents here claim the lockdowns that have become familiar in tougher regions of the world.