Tokyo underwent a very Japanese form of lockdown, but its economy still took a big hit. Photo: AFP

Tokyo has changed.

The fashionable neighborhood of Omotesando was a ghost town by 6pm on Saturday evening; the eerie will-o-the-wisp down the street turned out to be a larger-than-life video ad for Yves Saint Laurent lipstick. In the store window, the models in the video flickered and posed for an audience of nobody, the reddish lighting briefly illuminating the surrounding darkness.

Speaking of red lights, the neon of Kabukicho, Tokyo’s formerly vibrant red-light district, were dimmed or completely out. Police patrolled the streets on foot, wearing top end face-masks, verbally chastening any stragglers or strangers.

The merchants in famed shopping zone Takeshita Dori  were shuttered, the trendy teenagers and gawking tourists nowhere to be seen. And the famous Shibuya crossing was so sparsely populated on Saturday night that almost no one felt safe jay-walking. 

Earlier in the day, things had been a little different. Takeshita Dori, usually thronged with noisy tourists and giggling teenagers buying clothes and drinking bubble tea, was mostly silent.  In Omotesando, the chic area next to Harajuku, almost everything was closed.

Kenichi Mori, a 21-year-old college student showed up at the Apple shop, right near the exit of Omotesando Station, with a barely working iPhone 11. “I know it’s a lockdown or whatever, but I didn’t think the Apple Shop would be closed,” he said. Nothing is open…pretty spooky!” 

He wondered when and where he could get his phone fixed. He looked distraught.

The high-end fashion stores, hair-salons, department stores, bars and super-trendy shopping mall of Omotesando Hills – closed.  The high-end supermarket, Kinokuniya – closed.

Only Picard, the French supermarket, was still open, meaning at least one reporter could eat crepes in the middle of an unprecedentedly barren metropolis. 

Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the world’s politest lockdown — or lockdown lite.

Minimal testing

It officially began after midnight on Friday in Tokyo. On the same day in Geneva, Michael Ryan, Executive Director of the WHO’s Health Emergencies Program, had held a news conference and warned that Japan needed to step up its game as infections spiral.

While, as previously reported in the Asia Times,  there is no penalty for “unnecessary and non-urgent” outings, many people are falling into line. And perhaps they should be: The number of Covid-19 infections is increasing at a dramatic and disturbing pace, doubling every week nationwide. 

In Tokyo, a new record number of 197 coronavirus cases of infection was confirmed on Saturday. Of course, it seems like every day is a new record number of infections, except on Sunday when most medical establishments in Tokyo are closed and testing is minimal. 

Japan’s TBS broadcast an alarming report on Saturday. The Minato Health Center in Minato-ward found that only 6.8% of those tested for Covid-19 were positive at the start of March. In the period from April 1 to April 7, the percentage shot up almost to 67.8% of those tested.

Even when you consider that the Japanese government keeps the numbers of infected low by primarily testing only symptomatic people, that’s a jump. 

Regardless, Japan’s numbers look pretty good compared to virtually anywhere else in the developed world.

As of Sunday afternoon, Japan (population: 126 million) had just 6, 748 infections with 108 dead. Elsewhere, Germany (population: 83 million) had 125,452 infections with 2,871 dead; the UK (population 65 million) had 78,991 cases and 9,875 dead; while neighbor South Korea (population 51 million) had 10,512 cases, with 214 dead.

Will Japan’s numbers catch up with these other nations? That remains to be seen. Meanwhile, just as Japan’s Covid-19 figures look mild compared to most nations, its lockdown looks similarly genteel.

Bizarre concession

Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike requested on Friday, April 10, that people should stay home and also that thousands of businesses should shutter their doors until May 6, in an effort to stem infections.

She specifically requested that pachinko parlors and amusement facilities, universities and cram schools, sports and recreation clubs, theaters, event and exhibition venues and other commercial facilities take a vacation. Entertainment facilities such as night clubs, mahjong parlors and video game halls were also included.  

In a bizarre concession to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party, Japanese-style pubs, or izakaya, were excluded as were hair salons, barber shops, and golf practice ranges. Sorry baseball fans, batting cages didn’t make the cut. 

According to reporting in the Asahi Shimbun and elsewhere, even though Abe declared a state of emergency on April 7, there was a ferocious back and forth over what businesses should close down.

Koike, who has been at daggers drawn with the central government on the issue of locking down the city, wanted to release a wide ranging list of targeted establishments as soon as possible. 

Yasutoshi Nishimura, Abe’s Economic Revitalization Minister who has also been made the Minister of Coronavirus Countermeasures, fought her on many details, placing more importance on the economy than quarantine benefits.

The wrangling was bitter, according to sources in the Tokyo metropolitan government. 

In the end, restaurants, including izakaya were requested to operate only between 5am. and 8pm. And they must stop serving alcohol at 7 pm.

The requests went into effect just after midnight on Saturday.

Coercion and reward

Koike has taken the measures one step further than the central government, and has assured small and mid-size businesses which comply that they will be offered monetary compensation of 500,000 yen ($4,600). Businesses that operate multiple shops will be eligible for more.

On the other side of the coin, it has been announced that businesses that do not comply, will be publicly shamed. Names will be revealed by City Hall under this plan.

After Koike’s “requests” formally kicked in, many businesses voluntarily closed, pinning notices to their shop windows that operations will cease until the state of emergency ends.

It’s a smart and very Japanese use of coercive power. Having the Tokyo Police force patrol — as Asia Times noted they would — should have a profound effect in a very law-abiding society: No one here wants to explain to the police why they are out and about. 

However, police themselves are beginning to show some wear and tear. There are over 250 officers quarantined at home after colleagues tested positive for the coronavirus. Police stations don’t allow for much social distancing, and cops can’t telework.

The same goes for many Tokyo workers. This is why, while the streets may be empty, commuters on Friday poured out of the Yamanote Line, haggard and rumpled, when it arrived in Shibuya Station. 

The trains keep running and during rush hour each train car is a compendium of the three dangers for infection that the Ministry of Health calls the “3Cs” (in English): closed spaces, crowded places, close contact settings.

No compensation 

Abe generated some weekend derision on Twitter after he tweeted footage of himself playing with his dogs, reading a book and watching TV. His tweet was hash tagged “Let’s dance at home.”

But when Monday comes around, a large portion of the population will get back onto jam-packed trains and head to their crowded offices, with poor ventilation, where they will have close contact with customers, supervisors, as well as everyone else making the commute. 

They will do this because the central government is providing little or no financial compensation for about 70-80% of the population that would miss work if they stayed home. With no financial incentive and very few savings – 20% of 20 to 40-year-olds in Japan have no savings at all – not going to work is not much of an option.

With the genteel measures in place right now, it remains to be seen whether Tokyo’s infection curve will flatten anytime soon.