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Is Japan listening? Stay-home request heeded, but not by all

Tokyo's movement restrictions still lax compared with NY and Paris

A street in Tokyo's popular Shibuya district was noticeably less busy on Saturaday than normal, but was far from deserted. (Photo by Kosaku Mimura)

TOKYO -- When Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike called an emergency news conference Monday night, reporters expected her to announce tougher restrictions on people's movements.

She had asked residents last Wednesday to stay home for the weekend as coronavirus cases began to surge, leading the Nikkei Stock Average to drop 4.5% the next day.

At the podium Monday, Koike said the capital stands at a "crossroads" that will determine whether it heads toward explosive growth in infections. But she stopped short of a draconian ban, instead urging residents to avoid bars and other nightspots.

"We want young people to stay away from karaoke parlors and live-music venues, and we want older people to refrain from visiting bars and nightclubs," the governor said.

The permissive announcement reflected Japan's incremental approach and was in line with the relatively relaxed mood here compared with more locked-down cities such as Paris and New York.

Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike speaks at a meeting of the metropolitan government's task force for the coronavirus. (Photo by Takaki Kashiwabara) 

Saturday and Sunday, the first weekend during which Tokyo residents were told to stay inside in an effort to contain the virus, ridership sank 70% on the year for shinkansen bullet trains and the Yamanote Line, which connects Tokyo's major hub stations, operator East Japan Railway reported.

Subway operator Tokyo Metro saw 70% fewer passengers Saturday and 80% fewer Sunday, with ridership declining more steeply than the previous weekend. The company blamed the stay-at-home request as well as Sunday's snowfall.

Retailing took a hit as well. Foot traffic at apparel and household goods stores in the greater Tokyo region tumbled 67% on the year Saturday and 78% Sunday, according to an analysis of in-store cameras and sensors by artificial intelligence company Abeja.

The flip side of these figures is that there are people who still opt not to stay home.

Docomo Insight Marketing estimates that 67% of Tokyo residents did not go out Saturday, and 72% on Sunday -- a relatively small rise from the average since mid-January, which has hovered in the low 60s.

Other countries are taking tougher steps and have experts questioning whether a voluntary stay-at-home request is enough.

New York has required all nonessential workers statewide to telecommute if possible since March 22. The order was extended to April 15 on Sunday.

Italy -- which has logged well over 11,000 deaths, a third of the global total -- locked down individual towns in late February but failed to keep cases from surging. The government banned nonessential travel without permission March 10, then ordered the temporary shutdown of all restaurants and most stores a few days later. On March 24, it sharply hiked fines for going out without legitimate reason.

"Staying home on the weekends is easy," said Mitsuyoshi Urashima, professor of molecular epidemiology at Jikei University School of Medicine in Tokyo. "The real issue is how much we can limit travel out on weekdays and weeknights, when many people commute," Urashima said.

Sunday's death of well-known comedian Ken Shimura, 70, shocked many in Japan, forcing many to finally grasp the seriousness of the situation.

Japan had 1,866 confirmed cases and 54 deaths as of early Tuesday, according to Johns Hopkins University's tracker. It ranked 31st in the world by case count, far below tallies exceeding 150,000 in the U.S., 101,000 in Italy, 85,000 in Spain and 82,000 in China.

But cases are increasing in Tokyo, pushing the central and municipal governments into crisis mode.

Looking at what happened in Europe and the U.S., "once there is an explosive expansion, the number of cases could jump more than 30 times in two weeks," Prime Minister Shinzo Abe warned in a news conference Saturday.

"We are on the brink," Abe stressed.

It is now a shared understanding that such an explosion, or overshoot, could come at any time. Tokyo and the rest of Japan would be forced into a state of emergency, granting municipal governments more authority to keep people in their homes, following the shutdowns of major cities across the globe.

An overshoot could well be already happening, according to Satoshi Hori, professor of infection control science at Juntendo University in Tokyo. Test results are considered to reflect those infected about two weeks earlier.

People's activity everywhere in Japan has picked up since early March, with many tiring of self-restraint. The government's March 20 announcement that it would not request an extension of school closings also may have eased people's minds.

This coming weekend will reveal the impact of the three-day weekend from March 20 to March 22, which saw some still view cherry blossoms and attend a popular K-1 martial arts event. The rise in infections would bring Japan "infinitely close to an overshoot," Hori said.

Observers have speculated about why Japan, despite its proximity to China, is less affected than some Western countries. Such preventive measures as face masks and hand-washing are widely practiced. Masks are worn commonly, especially in the spring to ease hay fever. It has also been suggested that tuberculosis vaccination has made Japanese immune to the new coronavirus.

Some point out that Japan's low number owes to little testing. Toho University medicine professor Kazuhiro Tateda, a member of an expert team advising the government, admits that the number of infected cases could be higher. But "the number of death cases is probably accurate," Tateda said.

"What experts are doing to prevent the spread [of the virus] by identifying cluster infections seems to be successful," suggested Makoto Ujike of Nippon Veterinary and Life Science University. Japan has been fairly successful at tracking down infection pathways for each case and isolating those who have been in a "cluster" of infections.

Even for the surge of infections over the weekend, a considerable number came from one hospital in Tokyo. Total cases at Eiju General Hospital had reached 98 by Monday.

But Japan's cluster strategy will fail once the number of cases spirals out of control.

Japan now looks to be experiencing a "second wave" of infections, coinciding with the surge in nationals returning from abroad after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11. These included young people who may have been without symptoms. "A considerable number of them have not been tested and contributed to the current increase in the unidentified infection paths," Juntendo University's Hori said.

While Tokyo's famous cherry blossom site of Nakameguro was quiet over the weekend, visitors could still be spotted taking pictures and eating out nearby.

"You need to understand that this fight [against the virus] will be for a long time," Abe stressed Saturday.

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