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Japan's coronavirus axiom: the fewer the merrier

Latest round of self-restraint puts safety first and shuns big crowds

The Spring Grand Sumo Tournament in Osaka is being held without spectators for the first time ever. (Photo by Toshiki Sasazu)

TOKYO -- Japanese consumers have come together to act on a shared feeling of self-restraint at least three times since 1988. When Prime Minister Shinzo Abe late last month requested that big sports and cultural events be canceled or postponed as a precaution against the new coronavirus, the mood descended upon the nation once again.

Japan's previous journeys into introspection came either when the emperor's health declined or after a devastating earthquake. And each time, Japanese acted out their self-restraint in a different manner.

So what kind of lifestyle will the corona-brought self-restraint give birth to?

While the crisis plays out, it is possible to look ahead at what kind of landscape will be left behind.

The picture is coming into focus along the icy northeastern shoreline of Hokkaido, where parents are struggling with the closure of schools.

The prefecture has the highest number of clustered infections in Japan, and on Feb. 28 -- two days after Abe called for sports events to be canceled -- the governor declared a state of emergency.

Satoshi Tanaka, 46, an outdoor guide from the coastal city of Abashiri, is helping parents deal with the situation. Rather than suggest families subscribe to Netflix and buy projection TVs, Tanaka started what he calls the "Beat the Corona Project."

When he coaxes children -- "C'mon, everyone, let's make a snowman!" -- he is not instigating a team-building exercise.

In fact, the kids are not even gathered together; they're scattered around the prefecture. Tanaka finishes his instructions by telling kids to upload pictures of their snowmen to an internet site. In exchange they receive five points that can go toward online purchases.

"I thought that I needed to come up with a reason to get kids to play outside, after the governor requested people refrain from going out," he said. He talked to parents and realized that seeing other people's pictures could help ease children's anxiety. "Both for kids and adults," he said, "the mental stress of being shut up in your home, away from friends, is big."

Outdoor activities are being encouraged elsewhere as well. At a company in Ibaraki Prefecture that supplies barbecue ingredients and equipment, employees advise customers to take precautions, such as having only one person handle the tongs. "You'll be outdoors," they advise. "The air circulation is good, and you can hold events in private areas that other people won't enter."

This Tokyo Dome notice says a concert by the J-pop girls group Perfume has been canceled due to the coronavirus epidemic.

Solo camping and other trends also show people's sudden aversion to others.

It's a big pivot, considering that Japan has been in something of an events boom for several years now. Halloween parties attract mobs. Movie screenings that allow people to sing along and cheer are big. Concerts that encourage attendees to dance have caught on. People even like going to events that promise to let them shake the hand of a celebrity.

Most of these gatherings take place in big cities. Or at least they used to, before the coronavirus scare and cancellation request persuaded people to have fun by themselves or with a few close friends. Not with crowds of strangers.

At some point, though, perhaps Halloween, people will want to be part of a bigger community again.

Another trend is taking shape online, where consumers are browbeating leading retail site operators for allowing resellers to aggressively mark up prices on masks, toilet paper and other necessities.

On the other hand, brick-and-mortar retailer Aeon has won high praise for providing shelves full of toilet paper in a campaign to "put an end to high-priced reselling."

Japan is not unique when it comes to price gouging. After natural disasters, major online retailers in the U.S. have been criticized for selling bottled water at inflated prices; the retailers blame artificial intelligence.

"With the outlook for society unclear, consumers now support companies and brands that get close to them and support them back," said a consumer survey specialist at U.S. marketing giant Young & Rubicam. The phenomenon is similar across developed countries.

Japan first wrapped itself in "self-restraint" in 1988, when Emperor Hirohito's health declined. As the phrase gained currency, many Japanese began to re-examine the heady atmosphere of the bubble economy. This resulted in a shift, from valuing goods to valuing experiences.

After the earthquake that leveled parts of Kobe 25 years ago, news of people who lost condos they still had to pay off led many to rethink the wisdom of homeownership.

After a historic 9.0 temblor devastated much of the Tohoku region nine years ago, more women and elderly consumers began frequenting convenience stores. And many Japanese began purchasing goods either made in Tohoku or using materials from there not necessarily out of necessity but out of sympathy for the survivors.

What kind of impact will today's crowd-avoiding self-restraint have?

For those who are encouraging city folks to move to Japan's depopulated countryside, circumstances could draw attention to the benefits of living around fewer people.

For companies that provide consumers with the peace of mind they seek, the trust they are earning now will likely carry over into the "post self-restraint" world.

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