Philip Patrick Philip Patrick

Japan’s Covid success is a mystery

Akihabara, Tokyo (photo: Charly Triballeau/AFP via Getty)

Japan’s Covid ‘State of Emergency’ is now officially over. Tokyo, the last of Japan’s 47 prefectures to be officially released from restrictions, was declared safe(ish) on Monday, meaning its cautious three-step programme of reopening all commercial premises and entertainment venues can begin.

The war over Corona may have been won here, but with a host of competing theories and interested parties hoping to claim credit, the battle to decide how it happened is just beginning.

Japan’s official death toll from Covid-19 has not yet reached 1,000. This is in a country of 126 million people with densely packed cities, where people live a cheek-by-jowl existence on public transport, in compact offices, snug bars and restaurants, and tiny living spaces. This remarkable outcome was achieved in a country with no centre for disaster control and which ignored the ‘test, test, test’ mantra of Matt Hancock and his equivalents across much of the rest of the world.

Yes, there was a lockdown, of sorts, but it was all a bit phony. Major department stores closed, shrines and parks were cordoned off, and most, though not all, chain coffee shops, cafes and restaurants either shut or converted into takeaways. But the bustling and narrow shotengai (local shopping arcades) that lead to the stations, and through which most people will walk at least once a day, remained just as bustling as ever, which made a mockery of official attempts to encourage social distancing through the ‘Three Cs’ approach (avoid closed spaces, crowded places, and close contact).

So what happened? Time magazine lists some of the most prominent theories, as well as some of the wackiest. A rapid response contact and trace system is claimed to have been in operation in Japan, though I neither saw nor heard any evidence of it.

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