Country comparison: Daily new cases per million
This first graph really puts into perspective the spike in the above daily cases in Japan graph (on this graph, it is currently the second 'spike' in purple). We can see that when compared to other countries that daily confirmed cases per million in Japan has fared significantly lower than the US and UK throughout the pandemic. With the rollout of vaccinations speeding ahead in the UK and US, the numbers are edging closer. We need to bear in mind here that these are confirmed cases only, and actual cases are likely to be higher – this is due to limited testing. As we discuss in the commentary section, Japan has differed from other countries by focussing testing on clusters rather than making it more widely available.
Country comparison: Daily new deaths per million
Daily confirmed deaths in Japan from COVID-19 remain low compared to many other countries around the world when measuring per million people. Again, we need to remember that due to limited testing and decisions on attribution of cause of death, the actual death toll is likely much higher. Countries may also record deaths differently and at different times.
Did Japan have a lockdown?
Japan is an anomaly in how they handled the initial outbreak. Instead of enforcing a country-wide or city-wide lockdowns, the government declared a state of emergency in stages across the country. After a worrying rise in cases at the end of March 2020 and beginning of April 2020, the government initially announced the state of emergency for seven prefectures (including Tokyo and Osaka) on 7th April 2020, and later expanded this to the entire country on 16th April 2020.
The Japanese government also declared a state of emergency in eleven prefectures (Tokyo, Kanagawa, Chiba, Saitama, Tochigi, Aichi, Gifu, Osaka, Kyoto, Hyogo, and Fukuoka) in early 2021 in response to another surge in confirmed infections and the reduced capacity to treat people in hospitals.
The state of emergency encouraged "non-essential" businesses to shutter their doors, companies to promote more "tele-working", and sports and other live entertainment events to be cancelled. Restaurants and bars were asked to reduce working hours and nightlife venues have received a lot of attention after a number of outbreaks in places such as karaoke bars.
Similar countemeasures are now being implemented by local governments should their represented area see an increase in the number of positive cases.
The InsideJapan Tours' Nagoya office team has been working remotely since mid-April and our team reported that during the first state of emergency when they used public transport, passenger volumes were down considerably.
Japan saw strong encouragment to follow guidelines rather than any punitive laws
So how has all this affected people in Japan? While this is obviously a very individual question, there are some obvious differences determined by region and how close residents are to large city centres.
Tokyo has seen by far the highest numbers, (over 95,000 confirmed cases on January 29th), and has experienced some of the strictest rules under the longest emergency declaration. As such, the percentage of teleworkers has been higher than the national average (Japan Times), and it has taken longer for many businesses to be allowed to re-open.
In other parts of the country it has been a completely different story. Iwate prefecture in the north-east of Japan had zero confirmed cases until 29th July (The Mainichi) and as of 1st August only had only 3 confirmed cases (Iwate prefectural government). Most of the 47 prefectures in Japan have confirmed a fraction of the cases in Tokyo. The measures implemented by many of these prefectures, aside from the closures of schools and promoting telework, has often been focussed on trying to deter visitors from areas of higher infection rates, including the many Tokyoites looking to move to more rural areas during the pandemic (The Mainichi).
As cross-prefectural travel is now again permitted, many areas are trying to find a balance between reigniting their local tourism industries and maintaining their low infection rates.
Many areas of Japan with smaller populations have had few coronavirus cases so far
Shrines have remained open throughout the pandemic
What's open in Japan now?
Reflecting this regional variance in case numbers, prefectures with low numbers and are not currently under a state of emergency have largely continued life as normal.
Prefectures experiencing the current state of emergency have the following restrictions in place:
Schools are not requested to close by the government, though local prefectural governors may request for them to close at their discretion.
University entrance exams have been allowed to continue.
Other educational facilities such as driving schools, sport facilities and gyms, facilities where people gather such cinemas and museums, clubs, bars, restaurants, and karaoke parlours are asked to comply with restrictions on opening hours with trading to cease by 8pm.
The controversial Go To Travel Campaign which aimed to reboot domestic tourism has also been blamed for the recent increase in confirmed infections and have been temporarily suspended.
Even during the state of emergency, there were no restrictions on visiting shrines and temples and these places remained open for people to enjoy.
While many wedding venues closed, an interesting cultural point is that there has been no need to delay getting married as all official marriages in Japan are just a formal signing of papers at City Hall. Very different to the west!
What safety measures are in place?
Business during the day by and large continue as normal, though the majority of places have taken extra safety measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
Some of the measures include:
- Hand sanitisers at the entrance of buildings where members of public enter (e.g. shops).
- Some restaurants and shops are checking temperatures of all patrons before entering, not allowing those with a temperature of over 37.5°C to enter.
- Some restaurants, bars, and cafes aim to socially distance customers by spreading them out and installing plastic sheets or boards to separate people.
- Most places where members of public go are also requiring (or at least heavily encouraging) the use of face masks, including on public transport.
For a more in-depth look at what it's like to eat out, travel around and visit museums and attractions, see our page on What is travelling to Japan like now?
The government continues to advise people to:
- Wash hands regularly
- Socially distance 2m from other people
- Wear facemasks in public
- Avoid the 3 C's (mitsu no mitsu in Japanese) of closed spaces, crowded places, and close-contact settings wherever possible.
Get more of an idea of what it's like to be in Tokyo right now by watching this short video taken by our Tokyo Department Manager, Tyler, on a recent local trip to Shibuya and the recently-opened Pokémon Store!
Establishments are coming up with innovative ways to keep customers safe
While mask-wearing has become a controversial and almost political issue in some parts of the world, it is already culturally-engrained in Japan. During flu-season, but also year-round, people often wear masks to try to prevent one's own germs or sickness from spreading in public places. This is seen as particularly important in Japan's densely-populated cities. Aside from health reasons, people also regularly wear masks as a defence against dust and pollen, to cover up blemishes or the fact they are not wearing make-up, and even to make the wearer's face appear smaller! Therefore, while mask-wearing has become a hot topic in other parts of the world, they have undoubtedly become the societal norm since the spread of coronavirus, and many commentators have argued this has helped keep Japan's infection rate low. From our own observations on the ground, it seems at least 90% of people are wearing masks whenever they are outside. They are required for entering most private shops and businesses, and taxi drivers can now refuse customers not wearing masks.
We loved reading this article by Nikkei Style (Japanese only) that describes the widespread use of masks from as early as the Meiji period (1868-1912), and as a fashion accessory in later years. The spread of coronavirus has given masks an even greater role in Japanese society and there have been all kinds of iterations, from breathable summer masks by popular fashion brand Uniqlo, to masks designed by kimono makers and famous artists such as Takashi Murakami. Even shinkansen (bullet train) masks have been created!
A shop sign reads "we are smiling under our masks"