Tourists and the Japanese Art of Pandemic Envy

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The first tourists have begun to trickle back into Japan, with a few guided tour groups arriving this week in a small experiment designed to get locals used to the idea of foreign visitors. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is promising to let in more package tours starting next month as the country starts to reopen.  

Foreigners have actually been visible for several weeks in Tokyo because citizens and permanent residents are allowed to invite family members in for visits. The sight of the stereotypical western tourist — tattooed, clad in backpacks and cargo shorts, necks craned to gaze up at Tokyo’s glass-wrapped skyscrapers — isn’t really off-putting. What’s alarming for some here is that the visitors are frequently unmasked. 

Despite never mandating it, Japan embraced masks early in the pandemic and has never let up. Masking is almost universal, even outdoors. But with the return of tourists and an acceptance that foreigners don’t always follow local ways, the Japanese are having their first real discussion about when the right time is to let down the mask themselves. 

The head of the Tokyo Medical Association, Haruo Ozaki(1), helped trigger the national discussion, calling for a review of guidance on outdoor masking earlier this month as TV news showed footage of maskless passengers on public transport in the US and Europe. Critics bristled at Kishida’s initial refusal to change course even as he conducted mask-free photo-ops in countries with looser requirements. 

In response, Japan’s government has begun to shift a bit. The government now says masks aren’t always necessary outdoors, assuming social distance can be maintained or no one is talking. Recommendations for kids exercising outside, or on their way to and from school, have also been eased as officials weigh the risks from infection versus those of heatstroke as Japan’s punishing summer approaches. 

But reaction is split even to this minor tweak. A poll by the Asahi newspaper found 55% saying masks aren’t required outdoors but 42% still favored them. Curiously, a separate poll found over-70s were the age group most in favor of easing, with those in their 20s and under most likely to favor the status quo. Another survey noted that teens had so embraced masks that half said they’d continue to wear them as much as possible even post-Covid.

On the streets of Tokyo, the number of maskless locals has risen, but the overwhelming majority appear not to have budged. Outside of fringe elements, the mask never became a divisive symbol here, and the country itself is a little puzzled why. One theory is that it’s down to how light Covid curbs have been in the country: The government has merely requested public cooperation with suggested restrictions and not imposed lockdowns. Another editorial this week speculated it might be “spite behavior” — the idea that everybody is happy so long as no one is. 

It’s the latest example of what might be called pandemic envy — in which Japan compares itself jealously with other countries, rather than the other way around. Nowhere was this clearer than the calls for Japan to implement a full lockdown — a step that would be constitutionally dubious at best, to say nothing of its economic impact — which reached a fever pitch last August, just as the delta wave peaked with more than 85% of seniors vaccinated. 

Japan has the fewest Covid deaths per capita among the most densely populated countries in the OECD. That’s despite a lack of lockdowns and its world-leading percentage of senior citizens. These factors mean Japan’s caution in relaxing its voluntary steps is warranted. In nearly a year since “Freedom Day,” the UK has seen 50,000 Covid deaths — or around 20,000 more than Japan has suffered throughout the entire pandemic, despite a population twice the size and the UK’s early vaccination campaign. 

While some nations have decided to “let it rip,” Hitoshi Oshitani, one of the chief architects of Japan’s response, continued to urge caution this week. “Scientists and government advisers have to grapple with the fact that we do not yet know the right balance in the long term,” he wrote in an article in Nature. “We are nowhere near back to normal.”

There’s much we don’t know about why Japan has been so comparatively successful, or how masking contributed — but we do know that success hasn’t come from blindly following other countries. This is not to advocate for masks forever, just that when one is going down a mountain, it’s tough to turn back if you start going too fast. The consistency of Japan’s guidance has been one of its strengths, eschewing divisive steps such as vaccine passports and mandatory shots that other countries required only to subsequently revoke. 

Caution certainly has its downsides. Japan should ditch the unnecessary parts of its pandemic theater. For example, it should allow baseball fans to sing and cheer again in outdoor stadiums. An overabundance of wariness is potentially becoming entrenched. Bank of Japan Governor Haruhiko Kuroda recently flagged that spending on dining out and travel remains at just 70% of pre-pandemic levels.

The absence of a Covid resurgence after the recent Golden Week holidays shows that the time is right for Kishida to restart, cautiously, the popular “Go To” tourism subsidy campaign of his predecessors. And despite what is sure to be an intense media focus on the tendency of foreign tourists not to mask, Japan should speed up the letting in of overseas visitors in substantial numbers — not just guided tour groups — as it begins rolling out fourth shots to seniors.

But these steps should be done in a logical manner — not just because everyone else is doing them. Other countries have largely failed to learn from Japan’s pandemic response. Japan doesn’t need to make their mistake. 

More From This Writer and Others at Bloomberg Opinion:

With Borders Still Shut, Japan Risks Becoming ‘Pure Invention’: Gearoid Reidy

Why Japan and Germany Are Ready to Fight Once Again: Ian Buruma

China Is Winning Battle for the South Pacific: James Stavridis

(Corrects the fifth paragraph to reflect conditions that don’t require outdoor masking.)

(1) Ozaki is also noted for his heavily promoting the use of ivermectin, the anti-parasitic drug which has since been shown not to help in keeping Covid patients out of the hospital.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Gearoid Reidy is a Bloomberg News senior editor covering Japan. He previously led the breaking news team in North Asia and was the Tokyo deputy bureau chief.

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