Do we want a coronavirus outbreak in Tokyo?

Of course not. I don’t want to join the chorus of unnecessary white noise about the coronavirus pandemic. Civil servants at the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare are already having mental breakdowns since the Diamond Princess debacle. But now that the Tokyo Olympics aren’t happening this year, Ms. Koike can focus her attention on making social distancing a thing in her city.

Even if Tokyo-to (the area under Ms. Koike’s jurisdiction) goes under lockdown, which could be possible (?), according to the graphic, 2.91 million travel in and out of Tokyo-to everyday from the surrounding prefectures. The joke is that the television graphic, which has pictures of all the prefectural governors, looks like something from a NHK period drama, where all the governors are coming to capture Ms. Koike.

So the question of when the coronavirus outbreak will happen is on everyone’s mind—at least everyone who works in mass media.

Why have there been so few cases (so far)? This Reuters article from March 18 thinks it’s because only the most sick patients receive tests:

“Just because you have capacity, it doesn’t mean that we need to use that capacity fully,” health ministry official Yasuyuki Sahara told a news briefing on Tuesday. “It isn’t necessary to carry out tests on these people who are just simply worried.” 

The health ministry’s statement however contrasts with a study by the Japan Medical Association, reported by public broadcaster NHK on Wednesday, that 290 coronavirus tests requested by doctors had been refused by health centers. 

The doctor’s organization cited its nationwide poll showing the refusals happened in 26 prefectures in a 20-day period through March 16, NHK said.

“Strong social norms” despite hanami parties, commutes to work, and kickboxing matches is the reason that this orientalist graph from the Financial Times suggests:

The explanation on the graph mirrors this Bloomberg article from 19 March, which said:

Japan may have some built-in advantages, such as a culture where handshakes and hugs are less common than in other G-7 countries. It also has rates of hand-washing above those in Europe.

Cases of seasonal flu have been declining for seven straight weeks, just as the coronavirus was spreading, indicating Japanese may have taken to heart the need to adopt some basic steps to stem infectious diseases. Tokyo Metropolitan Infectious Disease Surveillance Center data shows that influenza cases this year are well below normal levels, with nationwide cases at the lowest, according to data going back to 2004.

A lawyer who actually bothered to analyze scientific data about the coronavirus’ spread and airflows in commuter trains said (as a joke):


[The reasons why the R0 for the coronavirus is so low in Japan] may be that personal protective measures like hand-washing and masks are entrenched, that social customs that involve bodily contact like handshakes and hugs do not exist, and that there are a lot of otakus who shut themselves inside all day and live in two-dimensional worlds.

It’s stereotypes of otaku like these that give Japanese pop culture a terrible reputation worldwide. But the lawyer isn’t wrong, I think?

So what’s happening in Tokyo right now? Some of my friends are commuting to work as normal, some of them are in Okinawa traveling, and all of them probably want the coronavirus to go away. I do too. Who doesn’t?

It’s frustrating because late March and early April is the season of change in Tokyo.

Okay, I don’t think Keio is one of the best universities in Japan, but their auditorium (gymnasium?) is hella fancy. This really is a school for the rich.

I thought this kicker in Motoko Rich’s article for the New York Times today sums up the mood:

In Shinjuku Gyoen park in western Tokyo, where cherry blossoms were near peak bloom, a sign at the entrance informed visitors that, as part of antivirus efforts, picnic blankets and alcohol were banned. Security guards with megaphones wandered through groups of people who were taking photos with the flowers, warning them to wash their hands.

At a store not far from the park, Kazuhisa Haraguchi, 36, stood in a long line for a chance to buy a limited-edition pair of Nike Air Max sneakers.

Mr. Haraguchi said that he was worried about how the virus was spreading in the United States and Europe, but that he wasn’t too concerned about the situation in Japan.

“It’s scary, but it doesn’t seem like there’s much of it here right now,” he said. “If I die, at least I’ll die with my sneakers.”

Tales from Tabata is not a primary news source. For updates on COVID-19 in Japan, please see the Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare’s site and other primary news sources.