Hoping to get back to Tokyo in time for a study session at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, I left the countryside early and drove straight into the biggest traffic jam in months.
As I approached the city, signs above the expressway noted the distance and time likely to be spent going less than 10km per hour and coming to a complete stop now and again. The usual “Takaido 25 Minutes” read “Takaido 120 Minutes.”
The electronic map on the Bayshore Expressway showed all the city’s expressways lit up orange and red. The view confirmed the map: cars and trucks bumper to bumper on every road in both directions.
Creeping along, I saw license plates from all around the city: Shinagawa, Adachi, Nerima, Tsuchiura, Yokohama, Kawagoe. Many had custom-ordered numbers: 8888, 0808, 5555, 0505, 1010, 001. But no 007 and no 666. What does it mean?
It means you should have known better than to get stuck in traffic at the beginning of a three-day weekend.
But it did turn out to be a study session of sorts.
November 23 is Labor Thanksgiving Day in Japan, a modern version of the harvest festival day called Niiname-sai that has been celebrated since the era of Emperor Jimmu 2,600 years ago.
Labor Thanksgiving Day was established as a public holiday in honor of working people in 1948. Niiname-sai is celebrated privately by the Imperial Family.
The trains were as crowded as the roads, with hordes of people jamming the stations and lining up on the platforms.
Interviewed by the national broadcaster NHK, masked passengers said things like “Coronavirus infections are way up, but we made reservations a month ago and are going anyway, taking all possible precautions,” and “We are of two minds about this.”
In an effort to support the economy, the Japanese government has been encouraging people to get out and about with a “Go To” travel subsidy campaign offering 35% discounts on hotels plus shop and restaurant coupons amounting to another 15% of the original price.
There are also 50% discounts on many railway routes including regional Shinkansen bullet trains, and regional “Go To Eat” campaigns offering discounts at restaurants.
Not surprisingly, these are seen as reasons for the surge in nationwide COVID-19 over the past week.
Anti-government types like to blame Prime Minister Suga for the new wave of infections while contrasting his caution-on-the-one-hand, economic-recovery-on-the-other approach with the supposedly dynamic leadership of Tokyo Governor Koike.
But despite her warnings, infections in Tokyo have also hit a new high.
Part of the problem is people’s love of bars, restaurants and conversation. Walking around town, it is hard not to notice that the same Japanese who almost always wear masks on the street, on the trains and in shops often chatter away freely without masks in bars and restaurants.
To put things in perspective, more than 500 new infections were reported in Tokyo on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, while nationwide infections exceeded 2,400 on Friday.
With daily infections close to 200,000 in the U.S., these numbers might not look like much of a problem. But they are up from fewer than 100 in Tokyo and 300 nationwide on the best days in September.
The authorities and ordinary people alike are worried about the kind of exponential growth in infections seen in America and Europe.
And with infection spreading on bus tours, among construction and food service workers, within families, at night spots, in hospitals, clinics and nursing homes, and in places unknown, there is no reason for complacency.
Prime Minister Suga has declared that the nation is now on “maximum alert,” but practical policy measures have so far been limited to plans to scale back the Go To campaign and calls for everyone to wear masks, mind their social distance and avoid cramped and poorly ventilated spaces.
Restrictions on economic and other activities may follow if the situation gets worse, but for the time being it is up to ordinary people to restrain themselves. Fortunately, the Japanese – unlike some other nationalities – are good at this.
Some noisy freedom-loving foreigners don’t want to wear masks, but as one put it on social media, “I’m outnumbered several million to one. What can I do?”
When in Rome … have they forgotten that?
Private business is taking a fairly strict approach, ordering employees to work more days at home, forbidding employees at the office from going out for lunch, and asking all employees to report any travel on weekends and holidays so that potential new infections can be traced.
It is too late to ask people to stay home this weekend, but the government suggests not meeting people on your travels unless it is absolutely necessary. With autumn leaves attracting the most attention, this is not onerous.
Private cars are the best form of self-isolation for travelers, so we should be prepared for more traffic jams.
Scott Foster is an analyst with Lightstream Research, Tokyo.