Tokyo lifted its state of emergency early, after new daily cases dropped into the low double digits for several days running. Despite the fact that there was no lockdown, and only 18% of people switched to working from home (so commuter trains were still packed), and testing was almost laughably rationed, in a country with over 126 million people, there have been only 825 deaths from the virus.
A piece circulating in the Japanese media (in Japanese) listed 43 reasons the Japanese themselves believe they dodged the bullet. I thought you might be interested in seeing the whole list in English, so here it is. (Keep in mind that these are the answers of typical citizens in response to the question, “Why do you think there are so few COVID deaths in Japan?”)
Summary of reasons there are so few COVID deaths in Japan
1. Asians (especially East Asians) were originally resistant to coronaviruses
2. Asians have already been immunized by another coronavirus
3. We wear masks
4. Each household already had a mask stockpile, because hay fever season was starting
5. I use my hands to gargle (i.e. they are clean and my throat is regularly flushed)
6. There is plenty of clean water and soap in the city
7. We take off our shoes indoors
8. We take a bath every day
9. People of all ages don’t regularly gather for religious services in Japan
10. People of all ages don’t regularly gather for large-scale demonstrations in Japan
11. We don’t usually hug or kiss anyone
12. Japanese speakers are less likely to disperse droplets that could be the source of infection during conversation, compared to other languages
13. The BCG vaccine that was used as a group vaccination (i.e. routinely given to infants) has the effect of increasing immunity.
14. Many elderly people and young people do not live together
15. We use chopsticks when eating with people outside our families, except for breakfast (i.e. don’t usually eat with the hands or share utensils)
16. Food is not served on a platter (and passed from person to person) but is divided up in advance and served in individual dishes (i.e. no “family style” serving of food to a group)
17. The hot pot season was already over (i.e. the one kind of Japanese food people traditionally eat from a shared dish is a winter food, and not popular in the spring)
18. Schools were closed relatively early
19. Large-scale event cancellation was requested relatively early
20. The heads of local governments issued warnings to citizens relatively early
21. Government policymakers consulted experts and did not do anything extra (i.e. they followed the experts’ advice, but didn’t impose unnecessary restrictions)
22. The heads of large local governments in Tokyo, Osaka, Aichi, etc. took appropriate pre- and post-measures.
23. The timing of self-restraint (i.e. requests that businesses voluntarily close, people work from home and avoid crowded places unless necessary) was appropriate
[Medical institutions and pandemic experts]
24. From the beginning, each medical institution had a high response capacity
25. We had a lot of contact tracing
26. The expert team [pandemic advisors] was excellent
27. The cluster [tracing] team was excellent
28. The experts called on citizens to thoroughly wash their hands and avoid the three Cs (Closed spaces, Crowded places, Close-contact settings)
29. The experts created guidelines for refraining from going out and requested citizens to comply
30. Hospitals were prevented from becoming a source of infection by limiting PCR tests (to those who were pre-screened and identified as contagious)
31. The health center’s ability to track patients was high, and “cluster crushing” was successful.
[Diamond Princess cruise ship outbreak]
32. Japan successfully survived the (early and unexpected) outbreak on the Diamond Princess cruise ship
33. Thanks to the Diamond Princess cruise ship experience, knowledge on the new coronavirus deepened relatively early.
34. Hokkaido successfully survived the first wave of infection
35. According to the knowledge obtained from the first wave in Hokkaido, it was widely known to the public that the cluster crushing and the request to refrain from going out were effective as countermeasures before the second wave (i.e. outbreaks in the rest of Japan) occurred.
36. Citizens followed the advice of the experts
37. Citizens obeyed non-compulsory self-restraint requests from the government
38. Mutual monitoring among citizens transformed mere self-restraint requests into forceful ones
39. Everyone wore a mask
40. Everyone washed their hands
41. Everyone refrained from going out
42. The world news fueled constant fear
42. Ken Shimura died and everyone was scared
So, which of these are most likely to be the REAL explanations?
If we filter for what Japan did differently from parts of the world that experienced more catastrophic outbreaks (especially countries in other parts of Asia), and aspects of “being Japanese” they don’t share with other cultures:
#4: People had stockpiles of masks in anticipation of hay fever season, so when the shortages arrived, most still had masks they could wear until the supply chain caught up
#11: Japanese people greet each other by bowing (from several feet away), and seldom touch people outside their immediate family
#13: The BCG vaccine given to Japanese infants to prevent tuberculosis is a common link between the countries with the least catastrophic outbreaks.
#38, #39, #40, #41: EVERYONE wore masks, washed their hands, and refrained from going out when asked to do so, and scofflaws were shamed into compliance by their neighbors and co-workers.
And which things on this list are absolutely NOT reasons they escaped the worst of the pandemic?
The truth is, a few of these are total howlers, if you’ve been following Japanese news at all closely. If you’d like to hear the things they did uniquely wrong because they’re Japanese, scroll down and click on the Get Japanagram button to join me for the next issue.
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“A wonderful blend of history and mystery.” —Laura Joh Rowland, author of The Iris Fan.
Writing mystery books set in Tokyo is mostly what I do, but I also blog about the odd stuff I see every day in Japan. I'm a graduate of Stanford University and the Sendagaya Japanese Institute in Tokyo, and a member of the International Thriller Writers, the Mystery Writers of America, and Sisters In Crime. When I'm not in Tokyo, I live in San Francisco. I also host a travel site called The Tokyo Guide I Wish I'd Had, so if you're headed to Japan and want to check out the places I take my friends when they're in town, take a look!