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The Japanese Art of Avoiding Your Relatives (Or Why Covid-19 Flopped in Japan)

127 million people and 668 deaths — Japan's voluntary measures worked infinitely better than Europe's scorched earth lockdowns

Let’s say you do not get along with your mother-in-law and you do not wish to have contact with her like, ever.

Here are two possible methods you might employ.

The first is to burn down your house, fake your own death and move somewhere else under an assumed identity, or failing that to dig up the entire road between your place and hers, blow up her car and steal all her shoes.

This may discourage the urge to visit.

The other is to just not open the door when she knocks.

In many countries as we all well know, in order to avoid coming in contact with the dreaded Covid-19, which is possibly even more inconvenient than your mother-in-law’s unexpected arrival, it’s the first idea, the scorched earth policy, that prevails. And with the results that we now so much enjoy. Rather than treat it like it actually is, a virus, we have instead reacted like we had just come face-to-face with Dracula on a moonlit night, an occasion where naturally enough more sensible approaches are forgotten in place of good old blind panic.

Yet while we have all been watching the carnage in America and Europe, narrated by a breathless media howling at the moon on TV every night, and also maybe wondering whether Sweden was right or wrong to take the path it did, there is another place right next to the heart of the outbreak in China which seems to have dodged the bullet completely.

I’m talking, of course, about Japan.

Now I am not saying that the Japanese have just ignored the issue and got on with their lives. The media and the government have been screaming and bedwetting right from the start. Dire predictions of the end of mankind have graced the news and the ubiquitous ‘wideshows’ on TV, the internet has been ablaze with warnings about what happens if you don’t stay home etc. etc.

A national State of Emergency was declared. The Prime Minister and prefectural governors ‘requested’ (you can’t actually order people to stay home or close their business in Japan because of that old killjoy ‘the constitution’) businesses to close and for others to ensure that at least 80% of their benighted staff work from home and avoid all contact with others (they didn’t). Schools and universities were shuttered and everything educational went online.

There was a big difference between this soft approach though, and the draconian (yes, the aforementioned Count is responsible for the word) ways of Britain, Australian and many other European countries.

So, what was the result in Japan? Mass annihilation?

Well despite all the screaming and gnashing of teeth here, Tokyo saw no increase in overall deaths during the coronavirus outbreak. You read that right.

The capital saw 33,106 deaths in the three months through March, which was 0.4 percent fewer than the average of the previous four years for the same period, according to data from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government. (Data for April, when new daily virus cases peaked in the city, is not yet available, but don’t look for it to be much different.)

There were 1,200 fewer deaths in February this year than in the same month in 2019, while they rose by 428 in March. The country has recorded a paltry (by European standards at least) 16,024 cases and 668 deaths to date, according to the Health ministry. An overwhelming majority of these were the elderly.

Now listen up, here is the good part.

This is despite the fact that Japan has a population of 127 million people (which is twice the population of the UK) and also having the world’s largest city as its capital. And it is also despite the fact that immediately prior to the corona virus outbreak, Chinese and Koreans made up nearly 80% of its tourism figure of 30 million per year.

Wouldn’t you think that would have made Japan one of the worst hit places in the world?

And one more thing to chew on. As of May 11th, only 218,204 people were tested. That’s right, out of a population of 127 million. There was naturally a lot of criticism about this in the international media, but according to one Kazuto Suzuki, professor of public policy at Hokkaido University, Japan’s strategy of tracing clusters and only testing people with acute symptoms had done the job.

“Test, test, test is not the Japanese strategy,” he told reporters.

So, in Japan the only people that got a test were those that registered a fever of over 37.5 degrees and were actually ill. Spending money and resources on testing everyone in sight was seen as a waste. Of course, nobody, not even the government’s own coronavirus expert, Shigeru Omi, knows the true number of coronavirus cases. It could be 10 times or even 50 times more than reported. The point of this being though that as far as the Japanese government was concerned it didn’t matter if they knew the figure or not. All they were really worried about was how many were reported infected and how many people died.

OK, so let’s back up here. What was the actual situation for people?

There was no formal lockdown in Japan, just as in Sweden. Again, like in Sweden, the government just requested that people stay home, wear masks and practice social distancing.

On top of that, they tested almost no one.

And the result?

A phenomenally low death and infection rate, especially as I mentioned above, given the size of the population.

So how did they accomplish all this?

Simple. As far as the virus was concerned, and much like when you want to avoid your relatives or visitors from the Mormon church, they just stayed away from it.

Most of it is to do with culture. Mask-wearing, removing shoes, bowing not shaking hands, not hugging or kissing in public, low obesity levels etc, were all a normal part of life here before the virus hit town. Hand washing and gargling are also widely practiced. And the Japanese are also extremely easily influenced and co-operative souls, so with the media and the government screaming at them to stay home, they tried to do just that.

But not completely. They still went out shopping, they still went to their favourite restaurants (if they were not bankrupt) and they still hit the parks and the mountains in droves on the weekend. Most people still got on crowded trains and went to the office.

No one was arrested. The police went about their business of directing traffic and rescuing cats from trees. Life went on, sort of. The great Golden Week holiday in May came and went, people refrained from visiting their elderly relatives and travelling.

What all this implies should be pretty easy to understand.

If you seriously follow basic sanitary and social distancing rules then that is enough. If you protect the elderly and the sick, then that is enough. You do not need to force the population indoors at gunpoint or take away anyone’s rights. You do not need to spend millions of dollars testing everything that moves on two legs.

You just need to be careful. And practice basic hygiene. And of course, hope for the best. The virus is not a person, it will not go away if you scream at it and panic. It will be here until it isn’t, or until we are able to vaccinate against it. At which point the next one may come along. Learning to live with this virus, like we do with other viruses, is going to be the new normal.

I final word though.

I am not saying the Japanese economy has not been trashed by this. It absolutely has. The domestic economy, which was not great in the first place, has been decimated. 95% of people in the restaurant and tourism industries and many others have lost their jobs. The government (already in debt to a level that would make Greece look like something from Good Housekeeping) has thrown trillions of yen at people and businesses to support them during the crisis.

Yet, if we are speaking here of simply how to limit the loss of life, this shows that simple co-operation, practicing clear rules, focusing on the problem and not the result, is enough to do the job. Lockdowns were not necessary here, nor would they have been in other countries if the governments there had simply been able to enlist the co-operation of their own citizens, something in many cases they probably would have been able to do if they had not chosen the path of hysteria and burning down the shop to ‘save’ the business.

The state of emergency has been lifted now for most of Japan and the country is heading back to work over the next few weeks. The population will still practice good sanitary methods, they will still wear their masks and they will still try and avoid crowded places to a degree. The virus may indeed come back, but they will live with it.

And that’s what we all need to do. Not panic and deprive people of their rights. Just talk to them.

Even if you don’t answer the door to your mother-in-law.

Ash Warren is a writer, translator and a lecturer at Japan’s #1 medical university. He has lived in Japan for 28 years.

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