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Japan demonstrates what happens when you go home for the holidays during a pandemic

Go To Travel promotion ad
Look at all those uncrowded beauty spots, just waiting to be visited!

Back in July, the Japanese government had a great idea: replace those banned virus-ridden foreign tourists with nice Japanese ones. Japan was feeling pretty smug at the time—compared to other countries around the world, they were a major success story—and with the borders closed, felt safe from other countries’ catastrophic pandemic fate.

So the government launched the Go To Travel Campaign, which offered to foot half of domestic travel costs (transportation, hotels and shopping) up to ¥20,000 (about $200 USD) per person.

Wow! Unsurprisingly, people flocked to the participating travel agencies to take advantage.

But wait.

Tokyo didn’t have many cases compared to other places in the world, but it still had tons more cases than anywhere else in Japan. It was quickly pointed out that encouraging people from Tokyo to rush home for the annual O-bon family visit (one of the busiest travel times of year anyway, sort of like Thanksgiving in the US) risked transporting COVID to areas mostly untouched by the virus, and—even worse—spreading it to the vulnerable elders they were there to visit.

Go To Travel promotion ad
Look at all those bucolic areas just waiting to be infected!

Travel to and from Tokyo was quickly exempted from the promotion (causing a justifiable uproar, because lots of people had already snapped up the cheap tickets from Tokyo, and refunds were not so quickly forthcoming).

Go To Travel promotion ad warning against traveling from Tokyo to other parts of Japan during a pandemic
LikeJapan published details of the government offer, in English, but warned against traveling between Tokyo and other parts of the country during the pandemic

The virus was still in its first surge in Tokyo, and throughout July and August, a belatedly alarmed government warned people not to travel to their hometowns for O-bon. People grudgingly complied. Trains remained empty, family graves went unvisited.

The spike in Tokyo died down because so much of the populace wore masks and practiced other precautions. Heading into fall, Tokyo continued to be a huge success story compared to other world cities, so in October, the government lifted the ban on Tokyo travel for their Go To campaign.

And here’s what happened.

This was posted by Twitter user Isseki Nagae on November 18, 2020.

His comment reads:

“According to the Medical Association Chairman, the current round of infections isn’t due to nightlife and retaurants—it’s because of the Go To travel program. Household-based infections have increased dramatically! I hate to say it, but nightclubs, restaurants and bars have got it under control. Is he mistaken?”

Let’s look at the chart which compares mid-July infection percentages with current infection percentages. These figures represent positive test results from all over Japan (not just Tokyo)…

• Nightlife district-based infections (the early favorite in the blame game) dropped from 18.1% to 2.7% of the total.

• Restaurant-based infections (meeting your besties for lunch, drinking with your pals and going on that hot date) dropped from 13.2% to 8% of the total.

Infections caught at home (from someone in your family/household) increased from 24.7% to 40.6% of the total.

And infections in care homes for the elderly/infirm and hospitals increased from 5.3% to 18.8%.

Sort of a counterintuitive and puzzling pattern, right? But the head of the medical association figured out that once the Go To travel promotion was extended to Tokyo dwellers, savvy travelers made up for lost time and took full advantage. With cheap travel once again on the table, everybody took those delayed O-bon visits and returned to their hometowns all over Japan to see their relatives.

And suddenly, the main way people caught COVID shifted dramatically from eating and drinking and partying, to family gatherings and visits to elderly relatives in care homes.

As the big year-end family holidays speedily approach all over Europe, Scandinavia and the Americas, I hope Japan’s experience teaches us something about how to handle them. And how not to.

If you found this interesting, please feel free to share it. And if you’re curious about other insights into how Japan ticks, I write about them every month in my free newsletter, Japanagram

Every month, there’s also a Beyond Tokyo destination, a Japanese home cooking recipe, a book review and giveaway, and more…

Jonelle Patrick writes novels set in Japan, produces the monthly newsletter Japanagram, and blogs at Only In Japan and The Tokyo Guide I Wish I’d Had

Jonelle Patrick View All

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!

3 thoughts on “Japan demonstrates what happens when you go home for the holidays during a pandemic Leave a comment

  1. That’s a tragedy, what a way to screw up the covid response, it seems very irresponsible for the government, and I guess it must have been frustrating for people living there, who were trying to do the right thing, but it was not in their interest to follow along with government warnings or listen to anything. I feel for the Japanese people!

  2. Yes, Japan is moving from clusters (which are easier to contain and trace) to community transmission and this is concerning. I don’t think GoTo is necessarily directly responsible for this – GoTo is one aspect of general relaxation once cases went down – if you’re staying at your parents’ home then you won’t get any discounts through GoTo and I know people who have been doing more of that in recent months, irrespective of GoTo, but visiting elderly relatives is still risky (the virus hasn’t gone away) and I have made a point of not doing that. The ‘second wave’ hit Europe before this ‘third wave’ in Japan (with Hokkaido first) once temperatures dropped and people stayed inside more, so it was, perhaps, inevitable cases would rise in Japan. Look at the daily case rate from Sept through Nov (before it started to get cold but while GoTo was in full swing) at https://covid19japan.com/ and mobility trends for Japan at https://covid19.apple.com/mobility – cases are flat yet mobility is above pre-pandemic levels. One pattern I’ve noticed with this pandemic is that you can find data and ‘evidence’ to support just about any claim you’d like to make. But in the end, why should this increase in cases matter? Japan still has the lowest case rate in the G7 and one of the lowest death rates in the world. The third-largest economy in the world should be able to cope with 100s or low thousands of daily cases – it should have been able to cope earlier in the year without having to ask people to stay at home and business to close in the first place and then we might not have needed GoTo at all.

    • Thanks for this excellent perspective, David. And yes, compared to the rest of the world, Japan is in extremely good shape—partly because of mask wearing and social customs that don’t involve touching other people, and partly because it’s an island nation with easily closable borders and a general belief that trouble comes from foreign sources (which, in this case, turned out to be absolutely correct). But that attitude is less useful when dealing with internal spreading—I see that now the government is asking “high risk” people (i.e. 65+) not to take advantage of the Go To program. Which only means that the young people will come to them and give them the virus, instead of the elders going elsewhere and catching it. ><;;

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