Golden Week In Japan Ain’t So Golden in 2020
An Update of Life in the Land of the Rising Sun After Two Full Months in the Coronavirus Era
The sizzle of yakiniku on a grill, laughter from the chef and his hungry friends, Kirin beers in their hands, a joyful toddler prancing through an adjacent field under a flapping set of koinobori, the Japanese kites of spring, his father following, hoping the boy won’t stumble into the happy BBQers, and a couple nearby, fumbling tent poles, these are the typical sounds and sights of this annual Golden Week in Japan.
This year the BBQ pits are closed, a sign apologizing for the situation covers the park’s map, a solitary man sits on a bench facing a jungle gym without children, and two teens kick a soccer ball across an otherwise empty field.
As with other countries around the world, much of life in Japan is on pause as the government reacts to the developing COVID-19 situation and citizens adapt to the “new normal,” hoping it won’t go on too long.
It’s caused some to change Golden Week to Gaman Week with gaman being an oft-repeated Zen Buddhist concept which means, in sum, “suck up the suck and don’t gripe about it.” Less poetically: persevere.
This is the second in a bi-monthly update of life in Japan, which I’ll write as long as the crisis lasts. In today’s post, I’ll rundown some of the key events of March and April on the national level and then I’ll go into observations of life in my local area and some of the changes to my daily life.
10 Weeks? Only 10 Weeks? Feels Like 10 Years!
Yes, it was 10 weeks ago on Thursday, February 27th when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe requested at a press conference all public schools to shut down through March, abruptly ending the school year as well as my 15-year career as a public school teacher. (A run-down of that crazy first weekend can be found in my blog post below).
Does Japan Need to Chill Out In Its Response to the Coronavirus?
Japan, the country which I have lived in since summer 2004, is panicking itself into a tailspin.
When February ended, there were only 146 cases and six deaths from COVID-19 in Japan, so folks were shocked by Abe’s request and many figured that he made the decision to preserve the 2020 summer Olympics in Tokyo.
Besides school being out, life proceeded as normal during the first three weeks of March. When asked, Abe spoke confidently about the games being held but on March 24th, it was official: the games would be delayed until no later than summer 2021 and in the past few weeks, there are increasing predictions that the games may not be held at all.
Meanwhile, during that final week of March, as the reported cases began to spike, especially in Tokyo, many in the media speculated that the numbers had been artificially repressed during the month to keep the Olympic hopes alive.
In a way, things mirrored the U.S. where governors sought more action from the federal government, as on March 25th Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike asked residents “if possible, work at home and refrain from going out at night as much as possible on weekdays” and requested people returning from abroad to refrain from going out for 14 days. While Abe didn’t make such a call, several governors from other prefectures made similar declarations to Koike’s, but for the next several days Abe, cabinet officials and a panel of government health experts debated whether or not declaring a state of emergency was really necessary.
Over this time, I made it a habit to read articles on Japan Today and the comments, which are mostly written by other gaijin (foreigners). The general tone was one of frustration with the indecisiveness of the Abe government, though I didn’t share that sentiment nor did I envy the people having to make these decisions.
April 2020: Things Start to Move Faster
On April 3rd, the government extended an entry ban to 73 countries. A few days later, Tuesday, April 7th, the prime minister declared a state of emergency for Tokyo and the prefectures of Kanagawa, Saitama, Chiba, Osaka, Hyogo and Fukuoka.
Meanwhile, in the town I live in, Takasaki, about 75 miles northwest of Tokyo, children went to school that day for the opening ceremony of the 2020–21 school year. However, that was the only day they’d go, as that evening the city postponed the start of school until this Thursday, May 7, the end of Golden Week (this was since extended to the end of May).
And on April 16th, a little too late for many, the prime minister extended the state of emergency for all of Japan and this was also recently extended through the month.
As of this writing (Tuesday, May 5), according to Wikipedia there have been 15,253 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Japan, 4,496 have recovered and 556 have died.
To go a little deeper, according to Worldometer, 328 of the 10,386 active cases are in critical condition. To put things in perspective, the United States has had 211 deaths per 1 million, Japan has had 4. That said, testing here has been an issue, while the US has had 22,612 tests per 1 million, Japan has only had 1, 459 per 1 million. (I’ll save my commentary for my next post on this topic.)
And so here we are. You can read a very detailed description of things on the national level on this Wikipedia entry, but the rest of this article is focused on my experience and observations of things here in my local town of Takasaki, Gunma, about 75 miles northwest of Tokyo.
Before I do that, I want to be clear about something: Japan is not under a strict lockdown like many other countries. Because Japan is a very homogeneous, ancient culture, it relies less on the rule of law and more on peer pressure to enforce decisions made by leadership. Authorities here don’t have the ability to order such laws, though I sometimes wonder if lawmakers could pass laws to give them that power.
A Slow-Moving Earthquake
After that initial, shocking change at the end of February, life hardly changed in Japan in March. While the kids couldn’t attend regular classes, teachers like me were required to go to school throughout the month.
This kind of reminded me of when typhoons have swept through the area and kids were sent home but teachers were required to stay. I’m not sure the logic of that and in this case I became a little frustrated because I was retiring at the end of the month and had nothing left to do. Eventually, I was able to get myself a private classroom to work from and spent most of my days creating media, in particular my podcast, and occasionally cleaning my desk.
Like most people in the world, I went through a lot of emotions as I adjusted to those first few weeks but on the surface I had it pretty easy. Besides my work days, things just didn’t change much in March. The main difference was my social calendar was mostly freed up: my daughter’s baseball team stopped most of its practices and my Japanese classes ended. Besides that, life went on; I was still able to meet some private students at a restaurant, still able to take my daily bike rides, still able to play park golf weekly with my buddies and generally do my thing.
And quite honestly, while April found me without full-time employment, things were still reasonably normal, but there was this sense of creeping shutdown, though for me it was mostly related to what was happening in the world beyond Japan. I became increasingly concerned by some of the measures taking place and increasingly vocal in my concerns on my social media platforms.
If you’ll allow me to expand beyond Japan for just a moment, one of my biggest concerns about what is going on in the States is how partisan politics is playing such a big role in where people stand regarding the government’s response to this crisis. I’d like to see a bit more critical, independent, thinking about the response, but I do understand how emotionally heated things have been over the past few years. I’ll save further comments for a future post.
Toward the end of the second week of April things more noticeably changed. First, because the government was asking people not to go out to eat nationwide, the students for my two monthly side gigs at a restaurant canceled our meeting.
But the biggest blow was when my beloved park golf course was shut down on Friday, April 10th until May 20th. Here’s hoping it doesn’t get extended but considering the national government extended the emergency until May 31st, I have my doubts.
With park golf gone but the weather warming up, I had an idea to take advantage of it and my newfound free time by going camping. I’ve only camped twice in Japan over a decade ago, but for the past several months I’ve been cycling by a free public campground and decided 10 days ago that I’d finally bust out my tent and use it. So on April 26th, I scouted a good spot, but then moments later found out the campground would be closed for the time being. D’oh!
And on my most recent bike outings, not only have I noticed an increase in the number of people wearing masks while walking, jogging or cycling, but the main park in our area was closed on April 29th, right before its busiest time of the year. That said, while other parks have put up signs not to use the BBQ areas, people can still use them and there are no police walking around telling people not to. At least not yet.
So that’s where things stand. And to tell you the truth, while I’ve been attempting to stay Stoic through these times, remembering the wisdom of the Serenity Prayer— God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference — well, I’m going to post a part two to this essay where I go into more detail about my various thoughts on this situation and speculate on where it might be going. Until then, stay well everyone and enjoy some pictures of lovely Japanese spring…
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