People wearing masks at Kuromon Ichiba market in Osaka prefecture. Photo: AFP

The dread begins when you get on the train in Tokyo’s morning rush hour. You’ve been bombarded with news about how people all over the world are dying like flies from the coronavirus, and how lockdowns and social distancing are the new normal. 

But you’re on your way to work with hundreds of other folks. Just about all of them are wearing flu masks. As usual, no one speaks, as they gaze at their smartphones or nod off to the metronomic rhythm of the train wheels. 

Then someone coughs. People shoot disapproving glances at the poor sap who has reminded everyone of their unspoken fear.

As one of my friends puts it, you feel like a lamb heading to the slaughter. 

Here in Japan you’d hardly know there’s a global pandemic. People are still commuting to work. Shops, restaurants and bars are open. Social distancing and isolation are things that are happening in other countries. 

Another friend has just returned to Tokyo after spending two weeks in Geneva helping his parents prepare for lockdown. He says Japan is like a parallel universe, which brings to mind the old adage about Japan being “in the world, but not of it.”

My wife, who is Japanese and no fan of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration, said to me the other day that she couldn’t understand why people in the rest of the world are panicking about the pandemic. 

An air of unreality – denial? – hangs over Japan. Sometimes it gets surreal – like when the recent spring sumo tournament was held without spectators. Instead of cheering crowds, all that could be heard was the referee’s admonitions and the sound of fat sweaty flesh being slapped. 

I work as a TV news rewriter at the international service of Japan’s public broadcaster. Wearing flu masks in the newsroom is compulsory. Since Monday, everybody entering the main building has been subject to a body-temperature scan. If it registers above 37.5 degrees Celsius, you cannot enter.

These are sensible precautions. But telework doesn’t seem to be an option – so far. 

The Japanese authorities have made some moves to address the threat posed by the pandemic. Hokkaido, the country’s northernmost prefecture, declared a state of emergency in late February after the rapid spread of the new coronavirus. The declaration was canceled on March 19 after the spread of the virus showed signs of abating. 

Abe asked schools to close from March 2 until the beginning of the annual spring break in late March. Most schools complied. 

Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike said on Monday that the city could be locked down if there were an explosive rise in the number of cases. She urged the public and event organizers to exercise “restraint” to avoid such a drastic step. 

On Wednesday she urged residents of the Japanese capital to stay at home this coming weekend unless they “absolutely” need to go out. This came as the metropolitan government the same day confirmed 41 cases, more than double the previous daily record of 17 on Tuesday. 

It will be interesting to see whether this puts a damper on the hanami cherry-blossom-viewing parties that are a time-honored spring ritual. Despite signs posted in parks advising against large-scale gatherings, popular hanami hangouts like Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park have been filled with bibulous revelers in recent days. This while the British and German governments are telling people not to gather in groups of more than two. It’s jarring and not a little stressful to anyone who looks beyond Japan’s shores. 

In the northern city of Sendai, a display of the Olympic flame attracted a crowd of more than 55,000 on Sunday. Organizers call it the “Flame of Recovery,” to honor the efforts of the people of northeastern Japan to rebuild their communities after the triple disaster of 2011

The torch relay has now been canceled after the postponement of the Olympics until next year. Maybe that will jolt Japan out of its coronavirus complacency.  

That complacency stems from what seems to be the fairly low incidence of infection so far here in Japan. More than 200 people in Tokyo have tested positive, raising the number of domestic cases to over 2,000, including about 700 from the Diamond Princess, a cruise ship quarantined in Yokohama in February. At this writing, Japan’s Covid-19 death toll is 54. 

While the pandemic hasn’t yet turned into a major health crisis in Japan, an infodemic is raging. People hear all sorts of contradictory information about what the true situation is. In the meantime, they get on with life. You can see that as hardy stoicism, or oblivious denial. It’s a fine line between the two. 

The government set up a team of public health and private medical experts to deal immediately with identifying and isolating infection clusters. So far there haven’t been any major outbreaks. But the team admits that “explosive infections” are still possible. 

The fear is that a combination of bureaucratic inertia, a low level of testing compared with other countries (notably neighboring South Korea), and Abe’s lingering Olympic fixation mean the true infection rate is much higher than the authorities admit. 

The general absence of a sense of crisis (which could be charitably interpreted as not overreacting) suggests Japan could be in for a rude shock not too long from now. That could well happen after the “Golden Week” holiday period in late April and early May, when millions of people travel around the country. 

As one commentator says, Japan is either lucky or about to be very unlucky.

Despite Abe’s and Koike’s requests for the public’s cooperation, there’s still nothing like the leadership shown by Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron. In the absence of a shared sense of national purpose, rumor-mongering and bullying flourish. One of my wife’s friends was on the train the other day and was told off by a middle-aged man for having the audacity of speaking to her companion while not wearing a mask.

There’s only one person in Japan with the moral authority to tell people to get their act together and take proactive steps like social distancing: Emperor Naruhito. His grandfather, Hirohito, made the epochal announcement of Japan’s surrender on August 15, 1945. His father, Emperor Emeritus Akihito, rallied the nation during the Fukushima triple disaster of 2011. 

It may now be Naruhito’s turn to step up to the plate and rally the nation. That would send a clear message to the people of Japan: This is serious, folks. 

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Steve McClure

Steve McClure is a Canadian freelance journalist who has lived in Tokyo for 35 years. He is the former Asia bureau chief of Billboard magazine, and has written on business, society, culture, travel and many other topics related to Japan and Asia over the course of his career.