Rob Domloge, Secretary General, IMechE Japan Cluster
Overview and cultural factors
Even without enforced lockdowns and other draconian measures, people did stay home, borders were closed, and the economy was impacted: the hospitality and travel industries in particular suffered significantly, much the same as in other countries. To help, the government made a one-off payment to every citizen of JPY100,000 (approx. £730), and introduced schemes to encourage domestic travel, giving large discounts in restaurants, hotels, trains etc.
Japan’s death rate from COVID-19 is by far the lowest of any major country (with the exception of China, where the situation and measures taken are not comparable) at total of 1,697 deaths (representing 1.34/100,000 population. UK’s figure is 66.8/100,000 – these are today’s figures from Johns Hopkins).
Some cultural pointers which might be part of the explanation for the anomalous low death rate in Japan:
- The use of face masks is habitual in Japan in many situations, like having a cold, avoiding dust, allergies, etc., so wearing masks universally is only a small step for most people. The level of conformance in this respect must be very close to 100%: you just never see anybody anywhere without a mask now, even in the provinces and small cities, where prevalence of COVID-19 is very low.
- People in Japan do not shake hands, ever!. They also do not habitually hug or kiss, even among friends and family.
- People are generally conforming and disciplined: when the advice is to use disinfectant for your hands when you enter/exit shops etc. people do just that, and every single shop, office and restaurant now provides an alcohol disinfectant spray at the entrance. This may explain why shops are packed, as usual, with no imposed distancing measures.
No lockdown or any other ‘enforceable’ measures were taken: constitution and current laws do not allow this. The corollary is that there were no furlough schemes or other direct employment support.
Government issued ‘requests’ to public and organisations during emergency period of about three weeks in April. Public and organisations largely complied on basis of ‘cooperation’ and to avoid ‘shaming’ by media; conformity is an important cultural trait in Japan). Government requests were to stay home if possible, avoid travel and public transport if possible, etc.
During that period many businesses closed, functions were cancelled.
After the emergency conditions were lifted, it was a matter of guidance/advice to the public in the form of three Cs:
- Avoid Closed places
- Crowded places
- Close contact.
Most businesses are now operating.
Japan did not carry out extensive testing, nor deployed special trace & track apps/software. But Japan nevertheless relied on ‘tracking of clusters’ in a somewhat different fashion to most countries.
As you can understand from this, there are no current restrictions on travel or public transport, even if many people remain reluctant to travel compared to pre-COVID-19. This means, for instance, that the lower frequency of flights currently is purely the result of lack of travellers!
Many sports events are still off the calendar; baseball matches are being held in empty stadia. Biggest concern is about the Olympics, which was postponed from this year to next. Most forms of entertainment are operating again, except where special restrictions apply to control a ‘cluster’, mostly in big cities/urban centres.
- This Overlooked variable Is the key to the pandemic. The Atlantic. Sep 2020.
Long article - search for references to Japan.
- UK Government travel advice for Japan www.gov.uk
“ The majority of businesses are now open, with some restrictions on mass gatherings over 5000 people. Measures encouraging social distancing, wearing masks in public, avoiding closed spaces, and exercising other basic precautions remain in place. Controls may also be strengthened in the event of renewed outbreaks. You should follow the instructions of your local authority.”