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Japanese Diligence


The sober approach that Japan took toward the Coronavirus limited its severity

I came to the United States a week ago on business. I should have expected the obsessive focus on the Coronavirus in the country but I did not. Although I was surprised, the reason that I should have expected it is because there were striking indications of the seriousness of the situation all along the way as I made the trip to America.

First, the train to Narita International Airport from Tokyo was half empty. It is usually packed with travelers. Narita itself looked like a ghost town. It was sparsely occupied with people, and on the electronic airline schedule board there were dozens of cancelled flights. Ironically, the listing at the top of the board was that of Buhan Airlines’ cancelled flight. (Since Narita is an international airport, English is used on this board. And there is no "wu" sound in the Japanese language, so Wuhan is referred to as Buhan in Japan.)

Incidentally, I had bought my ticket three months earlier. I had been happy to get a flight out of Haneda International Airport because it is much closer to downtown Tokyo and therefore easier to get to. Of course, I have been to Narita many times, so I know what to expect, but I was still eager to book the flight out of Haneda since the train ride is half as long to get there from my apartment.

However, getting back to the situation in regards to the Coronavirus, this past April 28 Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York expressed sadness at his failure to take the matter as seriously as he should have in the beginning. As a result there were more than 288,000 cases of the disease in the state.

In comparison, on the Japanese television news on April 28 it was reported that there were just over 4,000 cases in Tokyo. (The population of Tokyo is greater than that of New York City, and the top official of the city is not referred to as mayor [市長 = shicho], but as governor [知事 = chiji], which is one indication of just how large Tokyo really is.) So for the number of cases of the Coronavirus in Tokyo to be just a fraction of the numbers in New York can only be due to quick, intelligent action being taken by the government, along with widespread cooperation on the part of the Japanese public.

Consequently, the entire country was shut down. That included most of the government buildings, public schools, libraries, sports stadiums and other public spaces. Including Haneda International Airport. The inconvenience was annoying, but the Japanese bore it patiently, even when the 2020 Olympics were cancelled for similar reasons.

On a personal note, during the flight from Tokyo, I was seated in the middle section comprised of three seats. I was in the middle seat with empty seats to my right and left. The three seats in the row in front of me were all empty, as were three empty seats in the row behind me. Therefore, no other passenger on the flight was less than six feet away from me. I do not know if that was deliberately done by the airline, but I felt secure and enjoyed a feeling of freedom which is rare when flying on an airline flight.

So what are the prospects of the Coronavirus pandemic being brought under control in Japan? Well, it is hard to even call it a pandemic there when most of the country has just a small number of cases to deal with. In fact, as recently as last week Iwate Prefecture did not even have a single case of the disease that it was treating. In the report alluded to above, besides having just a small number of Coronavirus cases, Tokyo only had 120 new cases diagnosed the previous day. New York City had hundreds more the same day.

But over and above those facts, all of Japan was dismayed when the 2020 Summer Olympic Games were cancelled. They will certainly do everything possible to ensure they will take place next year without any problems. So it is certain that the Japanese will make every effort to eliminate the Coronavirus as a threat as quickly as possible. Japanese doctors, researchers and drug companies are no doubt already working together to tackle this challenge.

At the same time, all over the world professional healthcare workers are doing the same. And they will be sharing what they learn with their international colleagues in order to bring the pandemic to a rapid end. The Japanese will be able to take advantage of those resources as well. A group at Oxford is already well on the way to developing a vaccine for the disease. Japanese doctors must know about this and are watching the progress carefully.

When the nation of Japan develops a consensus about anything, it is a powerful force. That might be seen as a silver lining to this terrible situation. In recent years, Japan has seemed to lose its focus and energy as it flailed around in social and economic malaise. If the Coronavirus pandemic results in the country regaining its footing, that would be something to be grateful for.

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