The first tourists have started returning to Japan, with a few tour groups arriving this week as part of a small experiment designed to get locals used to the idea of foreign visitors. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida promises to allow more package tours from next month as the country begins to reopen.
Tourists and the Japanese Art of Pandemic Envy
Foreigners have actually been visible for several weeks in Tokyo as citizens and permanent residents are allowed to invite family members for visits. The sight of the stereotypical Western tourist – tattooed, clad in backpacks and cargo shorts, his neck craned to gaze at Tokyo’s glass-encased skyscrapers – isn’t exactly off-putting. What is alarming to some here is that visitors are frequently unmasked.
Although it never mandated it, Japan embraced masks early in the pandemic and never let up. Masking is almost universal, even outdoors. But with the return of tourists and the acceptance that foreigners don’t always follow local customs, the Japanese are having their first real discussion about when is the right time to drop the mask themselves.
Tokyo Medical Association chief Haruo Ozaki (1) helped spark the national discussion, calling for a review of outdoor masking guidelines earlier this month, as TV news showed footage of passengers without mask on public transport in the United States and Europe. Critics have bristled at Kishida’s initial refusal to change course even as he conducted maskless photoshoots in countries with more relaxed requirements.
In response, the Japanese government began to change a bit. The government now says masks aren’t always necessary outside, assuming social distancing can be maintained and no one is talking. Recommendations for children exercising outside or on the way to school have also been relaxed, as officials weigh the risks of infection against those of heat stroke as the season approaches. Japan’s punitive summer.
But the reaction is divided even at this small adjustment. A poll by the Asahi newspaper found that 55% of respondents said masks are not necessary outdoors, but 42% always favored them. Curiously, a separate poll found that the over-70s were the age group most in favor of easing, with the under-20s the most likely to favor the status quo. Another survey noted that teenagers had embraced masks so much that half said they would continue to wear them as much as possible even after Covid.
On the streets of Tokyo, the number of residents without masks has increased, but the overwhelming majority do not seem to have budged. Apart from the fringe elements, the mask has never become a symbol of division here, and the country itself is a bit perplexed. One theory is that it depends on the lightness of Covid curbs in the country: the government has simply sought the public’s cooperation with suggested restrictions, not imposed lockdowns. Another op-ed this week speculated that it could be ‘despite behavior’ – the idea that everyone is happy while no one else is.
It’s the latest example of what might be called pandemic envy – in which Japan jealously compares itself to other countries, rather than the other way around. Nowhere was this clearer than calls for Japan to implement a full lockdown – a step that would be constitutionally questionable at best, let alone its economic impact – which came to a head last August, just when the delta wave peaked with over 85% of seniors vaccinated.
Japan has the fewest Covid deaths per capita among the most densely populated countries in the OECD. And this, despite the absence of confinement and its global percentage of elderly people. These factors mean that Japan’s caution about easing its voluntary measures is warranted. In almost a year since ‘Freedom Day’, the UK has recorded 50,000 Covid deaths – around 20,000 more than Japan has suffered throughout the pandemic, despite a doubling the population and the UK’s early vaccination campaign.
While some countries have decided to “let it go”, Hitoshi Oshitani, one of the main architects of Japan’s response, continued to urge caution this week. “Scientists and government advisers have to come to terms with the fact that we don’t yet know the right long-term balance,” he wrote in a Nature article. “We are far from returning to normal.”
There’s a lot we don’t know about why Japan was so successful, or how masking contributed – but we know success didn’t come from blindly following other countries. It’s not about defending masks forever, just that when you’re going down a mountain, it’s hard to turn around if you start going too fast. Consistency in Japan’s guidelines has been one of its strengths, avoiding divisive steps such as vaccine passports and mandatory injections that other countries demanded only to later revoke.
Caution certainly has its drawbacks. Japan should abandon unnecessary parts of its pandemic theater. For example, it should allow baseball fans to sing and rejoice again in outdoor stadiums. An overabundance of mistrust is potentially taking root. Bank of Japan Governor Haruhiko Kuroda recently reported that spending on restaurants and travel remained at just 70% of pre-pandemic levels.
The lack of a resurgence of Covid after the recent Golden Week holiday shows that the time has come for Kishida to cautiously revive the popular ‘Go To’ tourism subsidy campaign of its predecessors. And despite what is sure to be intense media focus on foreign tourists’ tendency not to mask themselves, Japan is set to accelerate the entry of foreign visitors in substantial numbers – not just tour groups – as it begins to deploy fourth shots for the elderly.
But these steps should be done in a logical way – not just because everyone does them. Other countries have largely not learned from Japan’s response to the pandemic. Japan need not make its mistake.
More from this writer and others on Bloomberg Opinion:
With borders still closed, Japan risks becoming a ‘pure invention’: Gearoid Reidy
Why Japan and Germany are ready to fight again: Ian Buruma
China wins the battle for the South Pacific: James Stavridis
(1) Ozaki is also known for his strong promotion of the use of ivermectin, the antiparasitic drug that has since been shown not to help keep Covid patients out of hospital.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Gearoid Reidy is a Bloomberg News editor covering Japan. He previously led the breaking news team in North Asia and was the deputy chief of the Tokyo bureau.
More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion