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Detective work and a culture of cleanliness — has Japan found its own way to stop COVID-19?

If Japan seems complacent about the threat of coronavirus in a world that's been crippled by it, that's partly because the number of infections here has been relatively low. But that could change, writes Saša Petricic.

So far, Japan has had fewer than 3,000 confirmed cases

The streets of Tokyo remain busy as Japan adopts its own approach to preventing the spread of coronavirus, one that relies on tracing cases and requesting cooperation, not lockdowns. (Saša Petricic/CBC)

They stand curb-side, shoulder to shoulder, breathing down each other's necks, waiting for the light to change.

It's rush hour at Tokyo's bustling Shibuya crossing earlier this week. As workers head home and young people gather for the evening, there's plenty of socializing and little social distancing.

In fact, except for a few extra masked faces, closed schools and subways that are less crowded than usual, there are few sign of panic or pandemic. Stores and restaurants are mostly open and office hours have been largely maintained.

"That's Japanese culture," said financial worker Riku Tanaka with a shrug. "It's our culture to never take a break from work, no matter what."

It's only in the last week that pubs, karaoke bars and pachinko gaming parlours were officially encouraged to close, and police and barbed wire were posted to keep crowds from Japan's iconic Sakura festival, when the cherry trees blossom and Tokyo turns pink. Parties are common in parks under the flowering branches.

"Move along," a police officer told groups of gawkers this week. "You can see it next year."

Japanese government attempts to dissuade young people from partying under cherry blossom trees, a tradition during the country's Sakura festival, has met with mixed success. (Saša Petricic/CBC)

If Japan seems complacent about the threat of coronavirus in a world that's been crippled by it, that's partly because the number of infections here has been relatively low. Japan has had fewer than 3,000 confirmed cases and 80 deaths in a country with 126 million people ― more than three times the population of Canada.

Regional outbreaks in the northern island of Hokkaido, Osaka and elsewhere were given special attention, but declared resolved relatively quickly.

Tokyo numbers rising

Many consider Japan's tidy streets and personal hygiene as its protective shield.

"Japanese people are quite careful about being clean," said student Shunpei Kanai on a busy Tokyo street corner. He pointed to frequent hand washing and a culture of cleanliness.

Parts of downtown Tokyo appear as though there is no pandemic at all. (Saša Petricic/CBC)

Still, the country is getting nervous.

Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike has declared "high concern," issuing increasingly anxious warnings for people to avoid going outside. The number of cases in the megacity is rising now by almost a hundred per day, shocking many.

Hospitals have been told to reserve beds only for the severely ill and to tell others who test positive to stay at home. With the Tokyo Olympics now postponed from this summer to July 2021, the government is considering using some sports facilities to house the sick.

"We're just barely holding it together," Economy Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura said this week. "If we loosen our grip even a little, it wouldn't be surprising to see a sudden surge."

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has conceded Japan is "barely holding the line," but he's been reluctant to declare a state of emergency, much less order a lockdown. Even if he did, Japanese law doesn't give officials the kind of sweeping powers of enforcement other countries have to force people to stay home or impose fines on those who disobey.

Worries about impact on sagging economy

His government is worried about the impact on an economy that was already faltering before the crisis hit. Japan's GDP is on track to shrink by 7.1 per cent, based on figures from the first quarter of the year, raising the spectre of a recession even worse than the last big one in 2008.

All of Japan's auto makers, engines of the country's economy, have stopped production because of falling demand worldwide. The cost of postponing the Olympics has been pegged at $6 billion US. The country's tourism industry is in freefall.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been reluctant to declare a state of emergency, much less order a lockdown. (Eugene Hoshiko/Associated Press)

Instead of calling the epidemic an emergency, Abe offered something a little less: a supply of two cloth facemasks per household, to address a national shortage.

"You can use soap to wash and re-use them, so this should be a good response," he said.

Japanese Twitter users exploded with criticism of the government's tepid response.

"Is the Japanese government for real? This is a total waste of tax money," said a user named Usube. As with many commentators, the message was that Tokyo should be doing more.

"If too much consideration is put on the economy, there will be cases where we can't protect lives," said SatoMasahisa. "Life is the top priority."

'We have to be very careful'

Experts are watching Japan closely to see if it can keep the coronavirus under control without resorting to lockdowns or extensive testing, and without crippling the economy. No major nation has been able to do that, though Sweden is trying something similar, with mixed results.

Tokyo residents have been coming to see Japan's annual cherry blossom festival in smaller numbers. (Saša Petricic/CBC)

Kenji Shibuya, a public health expert at King's College in London and a former chief of health policy at the World Health Organization, is skeptical that his home country can pull it off.

He said either Japan has successfully been able to ferret out clusters of the disease and stop it from spreading through detective work, or "outbreaks are still to be found."

"My guess is that Japan is about to see an explosion of transmission," he said, "so we have to be very careful."

Age is a factor

By one measure, Japan may be especially in danger. It has the oldest population in the world, with 28 per cent of people over the age of 65. Based on fatalities from the coronavirus globally, that's the group with the highest risk of dying.

So far in Japan, all but a couple of deaths have been among patients over 70.

WATCH | How Taiwan is fighting the COVID-19 outbreak

Both Taiwan and Canada reported their first presumptive cases of COVID-19 within days of each other, but their experience of life with the pandemic has been quite different. Children in Taiwan are still in school, restaurants are open and there’s no shortage of protective supplies. Watch what Canada can learn from Taiwan's approach to fight the spread of the coronavirus. 5:42

It's exactly why Toshio Baba has barely been out of his house in more than a month — though this week, urgent errands took him down a crowded street in Tokyo's Shinjuku commercial district. He's 85 and walks slowly with a cane.

Baba is concerned the government's delay in implementing stricter measures to prevent transmission is putting him — and many other Japanese — at risk.

"I'm definitely worried," he said. "If a senior citizen like me tests positive for coronavirus and ends up in hospital, there's not a great chance of survival, because my body would have to beat it on its own."

About the Author

Saša Petricic

Asia correspondent

Saša Petricic is the CBC's Asia correspondent, based in Beijing. He has covered China as well as reported from North and South Korea. He previously reported on the Middle East, from Jerusalem, through the Arab Spring and the Syrian civil war. He has filed stories from every continent for CBC News. Instagram: @sasapetricic

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