Residents gather at a large-scale vaccination site run by the Japan Self Defense Forces at Kyoto Prefectural Stadium in Kameoka City, Kyoto Prefecture, on June 15. Photo: AFP / Makoto Kondo / The Yomiuri Shimbun

I received my vaccine tickets in the post from Setagaya Ward and immediately went to the Japanese Self Defense Forces website to book an appointment.

“Looking to get vaccinated by the Japanese military?” you ask, skeptically. Yes, this is a thing. Here in Japan, there are now a zillion different tracks for the administration of vaccines: each town, county or city – or in big cities, each ward (the equivalent of a borough) – administers the delivery of vaccines for its residents.

In general, all these localities had been following the national government guidance on priorities for inoculation: over-65s first, those with chronic ailments such as diabetes or heart disease next, then 60-64s (I’m a sprightly 63). 

Concurrent with these efforts, the country managed to vaccinate tranches of several million doctors and nurses of all ages; employees in senior citizen homes, likewise. Most recently some large corporations like Japan Airlines have started jabbing their employees.

There have been exceptions to the age priorities, perhaps because some localities that were designated to receive vaccines did not have enough aged residents for an exclusive over-65s category to make sense.

Then, to speed things up, a few days ago the national government announced that each locality was now totally free to decide its own priorities.

Shinjuku Ward in Tokyo, home to many bars, nightclubs and sex shops, decided to prioritize 20-40s, which makes a lot of sense since there are probably many more of them out carousing in Shinjuku every night than there are septuagenarians.

But back to the Self Defense Forces.

As international coverage of Japan’s tardiness in vaccinating its citizens became a domestic talking point, an increasingly desperate government began piling on more and more solutions to the pre-Olympics vaccination numbers deficit. 

An elderly person gets vaccinated for Covid-19 at a drive-through inoculation site in Mishima, Shizuoka Prefecture, on June 12. The prefectural government has expedited its vaccination roll-out. Photo: AFP / Yasushi Kanno / The Yomiuri Shimbun

Last month, “Large Scale Vaccination Centers” managed by the Self Defense Forces were opened. The centers are large, no-frills, super-efficient and touted as able to dispense 10,000 shots a day. And according to front-page news coverage only last week, they have vacancy ratios of from 70% to 90%.

The Tokyo Large Scale center is in Otemachi, an enclave of glass and steel skyscrapers in the center of Tokyo’s business district. Otemachi and neighboring Marunouchi host the corporate headquarters of the three megabanks, the three largest trading companies and most of the foreign financial, legal and accounting firms in Japan.

For those of us who spent our entire careers there, it is the most convenient and accessible place imaginable, but average Japanese describe it with a phrase that translates as: “The threshold of the door is a bit high for me to step over.”

Was it another Suga administration own goal to choose Otemachi for Tokyo’s large-scale vaccine center?

Anecdotal evidence from a Swiss friend is that the centers are every bit as disciplined and ship-shape as anyone could hope of a military operation. He had gone on the same SDF website that I visited and booked an appointment for 10:30 the next morning.

Being Swiss, he arrived at 8:30, but being the Japanese military, the SDF outdid him. They took him in immediately and he was vaccinated and out the door – with a reservation for his second shot in hand – before nine. 

In fact, he quipped to me that the only thing they didn’t do was give him a lollipop for being a good boy during his injection.

Being a gentleman, my friend proceeded to spend the rest of the day writing emails to all his friends and family, retracting all the excoriating emails he had been sending about the vaccine situation in Japan.

A cabin crew member of Japan Airlines receives the Moderna vaccine on the first day of the company’s workplace vaccination campaign at Haneda Airport in Tokyo on June 14. Photo: AFP / Kazuhiro Nogi

I tried three times to book with the armed forces but, to my dismay, my booking was rejected. I switched gears and returned to the clunkier and more verbose website of Setagaya Ward, a cozy and leafy part (population 950,000) of Tokyo that is known for quaint neighborhoods with good restaurants, good public schools and excellent social services.

I booked my first and second shots with Setagaya: June 28 and July 19 were the soonest available. I then called the information line at the SDF, choosing the English language option even though I am fluent in Japanese, because in Japan the English language information lines are always less crowded.

A young woman with Japanese-accented but grammatically impeccable English told me that I had been rejected because the SDF cannot accept anyone under 65. I could feel the suppressed smile on her face as she told me coyly that while she could not confirm officially, it had been reported on television that the SDF will accept 60-64s from tomorrow: “I can’t make any promises, but why don’t you try again tomorrow?”

Knowing how these things usually work, I will log on at one minute past midnight tonight and see how much sooner I can book with the men and women of the SDF. And of course, I will cancel my Setagaya reservations immediately without fail to re-open my space for some relaxed person.

Educated as a Japan scholar, New York native Peter Jaeger is a writer, translator and veteran of 30 years in Tokyo financial markets.

Peter Jaeger

Educated as a Japan scholar, New York native Peter Jaeger is a writer, translator and veteran of 30 years in Tokyo financial markets.