As Covid-19 rages in Tokyo’s streets- is a ‘State of Emergency’ enough?

On Tokyo’s streets, colorful banners which anticipated the 2020 Olympics still hang on neighborhood street lamps. The quadrennial games have been set back until summer 2021, and Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga expressed, at his conference on January 7th, that preparations are still underway. However, with public skepticism and the potential for cancellation, the banners meant to signal a year of economic and cultural prosperity now serve as ironic reminders of the pandemic’s pressure on Japan’s economic and medical infrastructure.

The number of Covid-19 infections in Tokyo rose to 2,447 on January 7th 2021, a record-high figure since the pandemic reached Japan’s shores in early 2020. The national tally of active cases, which currently stands at 51,125, viewed alongside 3,981 deaths, appear low in comparison to the figures announced by Japan’s fellow G7 members abroad. However, these case numbers may not accurately indicate the severity of the situation at hand. 

On January 6th, the number of hospitalized cases nationwide rose to 3090 out of 4000 beds available– 77% of the country’s capacity. A day later, 81440 tests were administered nationally with 7537 tests returning positive. In comparison to the UK, which administered 619,941 tests that day, the rate of testing is considerably low– especially considering how Japan has nearly double the population of the UK. Consequently, many are questioning if the limited testing reflects the actual reality of cases in Japan.

This steep rise in cases was accompanied by citizens’ use of the government’s national GoTo Travel and GoTo Eat Campaigns. They were implemented to encourage domestic travel and restaurant business in order to boost the economy and were finally suspended on December 28th.

This rapid rise in cases, in the weeks leading up to the New Year, prompted pressure from prefectural governors on the national government to take decisive action and curb the spread of infection. PM Suga then declared a 緊急事態宣言 (kinkyuu-jitai sengen, “State of Emergency” in Japanese) on January 7th. Tokyo, Kanagawa, Saitama, and Chiba Prefectures, which produce over a third of Japan’s GDP, are included in this list. Economist Yuki Masujima predicts that such measures, although necessary, will lead to no growth of and/or damage to the national economy, according to the Japan Times

However, this “State of Emergency” is unlike the lockdowns imposed in the UK and parts of mainland Europe. It merely grants prefectural governors to impose restrictions of their own. From January 11th, restaurants, bars, and other food-and-drink serving venues in the affected areas were asked to close at 8 pm, and stop serving alcohol by 7 pm. 

Other businesses (such as gyms, malls, and theme parks) are requested to shorten hours. Following the State of Emergency declaration, Tokyo Disneyland accelerated its usual 9 pm closure time to 7 pm and is limiting the number of guests, effective from January 12th. In order to combat Tokyo’s notoriously packed transport systems during rush hour, companies are asked to conduct 70% of their business through telework. Citizens are requested to avoid 不要不急 (fuyoo-fukyuu, “unnecessary and non-emergency”) outings, especially at night. 

Yet, levels of necessity and emergency are left vague for individuals to determine themselves. The midday mood on Friday in Shinjuku station– one of Tokyo’s most central and crowded metro stations– holds little sign of increased anxiety. Although all passengers are masked and the windows are open for ventilation, many passengers stand close together. 

The increase of severity in Covid-19 cases suggest that Japan, like many countries around the globe, is facing a difficult year ahead. The redemption of the “Tokyo 2020” by “Tokyo 2021” still remains uncertain.

Article and photos by Yoshimi Kato