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What's going on in Japan?

I've been spending a lot of time trying to understand what exactly is going on in Japan and why things aren't (currently) worse here.

Before our arrival, Japan was forecast to be the "next Wuhan." I was, and continue to be, surprised how little impact there has been on day-to-day life here. Despite closures of museums, festivals, and other major attractions (e.g., Tokyo Disneyland and Universal Studios Japan in Osaka) the shopping streets and malls are still packed. Some trains are empty, but here in Tokyo they seem as packed as ever. And looking at current graphs, the line here in Japan remains relatively flat--though I'm definitely concerned that that will change.

It's been posited that, up to this point, the numbers have been drastically underreported, mostly in an attempt to "save the Olympics." Now that the Olympics have offically been postponed, Japanese authorities (especially in Tokyo) seem to be shifting their position swiftly and radically. Everyone sees how serious this is elsewhere, and they're having to play catch up. Which is a tough position (if this theory is correct) because basically, it means they have to figure out how to spin to their citizens, "yeah, we said it wasn't a big deal here, but actually maybe it kinda is, sorry."

My best take on the situation is that while I don't think the actual risk here is now any greater (or less) than it was a week ago; the official position has shifted so the risk feels more real and present.

All that said, I do think there are some factors here in Japan that help mitigate the risk overall, and which may generally contribute to the control of the curve. Wearing masks was a commonplace occurrence even when I lived here; they're mostly used to help filter pollen and reduce seasonal allergies. Handwashing is similarly widespread, with a hot towel offered every meal (though, interestingly, I often see Japanese people not using them, but that just an personal observation. It's also been mentioned somewhere that there is a general Japanese aversion to touching food, which--again, who knows.) There are public hand sanitation stations literally everywhere, at the entrance to every business, and they're always full.

Another important point to keep in mind--Japan has 13.1 hospital beds per 1000 residents (vs <3 beds per 1000 in the US) and based on what I've read, they're ready to ramp that number up quickly if necessary. This is certainly comforting, but on the other hand, it might contribute to a false sense of security.

Hospital beds per 1000 residents (red is Japan, blue is US)

So, bottom line: Shops and restaurants are still open. People are still thronging parks to view the cherry blossoms. And--despite a noticeably increased presence of security workers holding signs reminding people to wash their hands, wear masks, and cough into their elbows--business seems to be carrying on about as normal.

But I'm very aware that might change quickly. I am also reading reports of "coronahara", a portmanteau of "corona-harassment", people getting hassled for coughing, sent home from work, shamed for having traveled abroad, etc. This is made worse by by the fact that this is currently peak allergy season in Japan, and a lot of people are snuffling, sneezing, and coughing just in general. It's getting to the point there are now buttons you can buy that read, both in English and Japanese, "I have allergies, not Covid 19."

As with everywhere else, I think the potential for panic and xenophobia here is a huge risk. Which is why I'm really glad Nora and I will be in Osaka tomorrow (Saturday) and quietly settled in, our travels done for the moment. We'll lay in a reasonable quantity of rice and tuna and we'll see where this all goes.

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M.K. Hobson
M.K. Hobson
Mar 27, 2020

Yeah, I just can't believe that Japan is going to be immune. I think every country is apt to think of itself as special or unique until the worst happens, so I don't fault Japan for that. But if it turns out that the government did downplay the risks to save the Olympics (which got postponed anyway) that's going to make it doubly sad. 😥


Thank you for the update. I wonder what will happen next. Things changed here quite rapidly; so perhaps they will there as well. I'm glad you will be relaxing in a quieter place soon. Love you!

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