Japanese woman in yaukuta during the Obon festival celebrating the return of the spirits of the dead, Kyushu region, Fukuoka, Japan. Photo: AFP

TOKYO – Ghost watchers, stand by, it’s Obon season in Japan. 

Every August, across the nation, urbanites return to home towns and families gather to pay respects to dead family members, as part of the Obon, or remembrance of the dead, festivities.

But this year, amid surging coronavirus infections, some worry that a long trip to visit the graves of deceased loved ones could end up with the digging of fresh graves.

Japan largely contained the virus earlier this year but suffered a resurgence last month with the capital especially hard hit. Tokyo suffered 6,466 cases in July, the highest number for any month.

To be sure, Japan’s curve remains flat. Hospitals in major urban areas are not at risk of overflowing. But they are beginning to fill, according to the Ministry of Health. In Osaka, 42.5% of the beds reserved for Covid-19 patients are occupied, Saitama is at 40.4%, Aichi at 39% and Tokyo at 37.9%.

Even with Japan’s extremely low test rate, these numbers are raising concerns about whether the country can handle the pandemic.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration is reluctant to sound the alarm. It is especially conflicted since Obon falls in the midst of the government’s ill-fated but heavily promoted domestic tourism campaign, Go To Travel, which was launched in July.

Now, his leadership looks shaky. Abe is virtually AWOL while his ministers are offering advice that pushes the decision-making from government to citizenry.

Ghosts among us

Obon is celebrated at different times and in different ways depending on where you live in Japan, but it was originally a three-day festival held to welcome the spirits of departed ancestors back to this world.

It is celebrated with a number of rituals, that include preparing a welcome altar for ghosts at home and making a “sending-off fire” (okuribi) in front of the home or at a nearby crossroads.

In rural Japan, bon dances (bon-odori) are still performed to entertain the visiting spirits, usually to the beat of traditional drums, and to encourage them to return to the netherworld.

A dancer disguised as an imaginary monster in Japanese folklore during ‘obon,’ an annual Buddhist period in August to welcome ancestors’ souls which are believed to return to this world and visit their families. Photo: AFP/Yasuyoshi Chiba

In some Soto Buddhist temples, the ritual osegaki is held, in which the spirits of the dead are fed fruit, rice and sake — and then informed that they are actually dead and really need to move on.

While traditional Obon dances have been canceled all over the nation this year, travel has not.

Families commonly take vacations and see elderly relatives in the countryside. In Tokyo this year, Obon holiday travel is expected to peak from August 13 to 16.

Should we stay or go?

Mixed and weak messages are coming from top authorities.

On August 2, Yasutoshi Nishimura, Economic Revitalization Minister who also doubles as Coronavirus Countermeasures Minister, issued some guidance.

Obon is particularly problematic given the risk of Covid-19 to the aged. Nishimura acknowledged that visiting urbanites might bring the virus to the elderly in home towns. “This is something which people will have to think about seriously and carefully,” he said. 

The next day, Cabinet spokesman Yoshihide Suga, one of the people responsible for the Go To Travel campaign, was far more florid. 

“We are not asking people to refrain from summer travel across the board,” Suga snapped during a press conference on August 3. “We are just asking them to be very cautious.”

Akira Koike, of the opposition Japan Communist Party, responded to the apparent contradictions angrily the same day, at another press conference.

“What the hell?” he exclaimed. “How are we supposed to understand the government’s position on travel during Obon? Every day what they say changes and depending on the minister speaking, they say different things.” 

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe arrives at Prime Minister’s Office in Tokyo on July 27, 2020. Photo: AFP/The Yomiuri Shimbun

The government is struggling on two fronts. One, it seeks to shore up the economy. Two it seeks to shore up Abe’s sagging support which has dropped to 27% in some polls. Complicating both is the need to keep the virus in check.

The Go To Travel campaign, on the surface, looked like sound strategy to spur domestic travel within Japan, alleviating some of the economic damage from the pandemic, particularly given that the sector this year is not going to receive its expected Olympic bonanza.

A lavish feel-good project with a 1.3 trillion yen budget, it offers the average Japanese a mid-pandemic morale boost by offering up to 50% discounts on summer holiday expenses, such as 10,000 yen ($95) for a day trip.

However it works only if citizens purchase trips through designated travel agencies, or reserve at designated hotels. Many in the press have noticed that the scheme disproportionately benefits hotels, airlines and travel agencies that donate lavishly to Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

The project was slated to start in August, but the Abe administration bumped it up to July 22, dreadful timing as it coincided with the viral resurgence.  

Still, it made one concession. Under pressure from rising infection rates in the capital, the government decided to exclude Tokyoites from the plan.

That did not do much for Abe’s popularity. It generated loud grumblings from inside and outside the metropolis.

And the public is less bold on the virus situation that their government. Before the official launch of the campaign on July 20, 69% of the Japanese public said it should be canceled, according to an opinion poll by the Mainichi Newspaper. 

But the campaign was not halted. Some reports suggest that travelers using the scheme have already spread outbreaks to the holiday isle of Okinawa and other prefectures where there had been no reported cases. 

Pandemic state of play

The original premise of the campaign was that it would take place after Japan had seen an end to the coronavirus outbreak. That looked reasonable in June but looks far less of a sure thing in July. Currently Japan has 41,352 cases, roughly a third of them active.

On the bright side, there is only a small number of people in critical care and the death toll has remained relatively low at 2% of all cases, with a total of 1,023 dead as of the morning of August 3.

These are tiny numbers given Japan’s 126 million-strong population, are far below the rates in other G7 nations, and are especially low given that Japan’s population is the world’s oldest.

On the dark side, infections are rising nationwide, at roughly a thousand new cases per day. If an annual mass exodus out of infected urban centers into rural Japan is hurled into the mix, risks shoot up. 

Dancers performing on a street at the Ikeda Awa Odori Festival in the city of Miyoshi, Tokushima prefecture, on Japan’s Shikoku island. Photo: Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP

There is a growing unease among the public. It appears infections are out of control, and this is driving down support for the government. Almost everyone is wearing a mask on the trains, which are carrying fewer passengers than ever. If anyone coughs, all angry eyes are on them.

In Tokyo, the city government has asked bars and nightclubs to close by 10pm and offers 200,000 yen ($2,000) to those that comply each month. There is anger. A pub owner in Shibuya complained, “The compensation doesn’t even cover rent and closing early seems meaningless. What was the first lockdown for in the first place?” 

The earlier “lockdown lite” appears to have generated a backlash. Youths are tired of staying indoors and seem exasperated at failed measures. Young people can be seeing gathering smoking and chatting with masks dangling from their ears.

Leadership? What leadership?

Abe could be praised for keeping a level head, and not rushing to declare another state of emergency. He has reportedly expressed misgivings on passing draconian new legislation that would allow the government to punish businesses that do not shutter their doors when ordered to do so. Instead of taking the helm, he has passed the burden of decision-making down the chain.

He told the Liberal Democratic Party Executive Committee, “Take your Obon vacations but be careful not to get infected.”  

For Abe, urging people to curtail travel during Obon would beg the question of whether the entire Go To Travel campaign was in error. If so, it would be a double whammy. Abe has championed the scheme as an emergency measure, but has also in recent years heavily prioritized the domestic tourism industry. 

This could explain why he has been avoiding press conferences since mid-June. That is not reassuring. It’s not even clear who really is in charge. 

Women in yukatas, or casual summer kimonos, look at paper lanterns during the Mitama Festival at the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo in a file photo. Image: AFP

The prime minister’s shilly-shallying guidance as he seeks to walk a tightrope between virus containment and economic boost is setting the lead for his ministers,

Nishimura, offered a slight counterpunch to Suga’s statement, in his daily press conference on August 3. “If you and your family are going to meet your grandpa and grandma and spend time together in a tourist area, there’s a risk of infection,” he warned. “You really must be cautious.”

He may be on to something. It’s feasible to postpone travel, tourism and revitalization of the economy. It’s not possible to revitalize a dead grandparent.