ADDENDUM: What a difference a day makes in these hectic times. The announcement that Tokyo would postpone the Olympics and Paraolympics to 2021 came out on the evening of March 24th. On March 25th, Tokyo reported its highest number of new confirmed daily COVID-19 cases: forty. We also know now that ten of these forty new cases confirmed in Tokyo yesterday had indeterminate infection routes, which means that there is untraced community spread. Governor Koike Yuriko held an emergency conference in the evening, calling again for “self-restraint,” for hand washing, for avoidance of the “three densities” again (although holding her meeting in a crowded room, with nary a mask in sight).

While Gov. Koike repeated the term “lockdown” as a measure that would have to be implemented to prevent an “overshoot” (ôbaashuuto) in new cases that would overwhelm the medical infrastructure, the governor does not legally have the same kind of enforcement power that officials have employed in places like Paris and New York City. As a historian, I can understand why a city governor in postwar Japan would not have the authority to mobilize the police to control citizens’ movements, although I didn’t previously know this. The way local authorities move to contain this virus will have a lot to do with the legal structures in place regarding governance. This became apparent to me also as mayors throughout the United States invoke the Cold War-era command to “shelter in place.” The best Gov. Koike can do, barring the declaration of a national state of emergency, is to urge people to stay home. She encouraged telework and avoiding going out in the evening, and emphasized that the city faced an emergency situation. The knock-on effects for those who cannot telework remains unknown. The service industry is huge in Tokyo. This also includes sex work, which at soaplands throughout the city intrinsically defy the injunction against the “three densities,” and also employ some of the most precarious workers in the Japanese economy.

Hearing Gov. Koike and her expert panel, I found it strangely comforting to note that they are watching developments abroad closely. The cognitive dissonance I’ve suffered watching English-language news and videochatting with friends living in what seem to be siege conditions while life goes on relatively normally in Tokyo, has been shared by everyone I know living this life amidst two sets of information inputs in this moment. Dr. Omagari Norio of the Disease Control and Prevention Center minced no words when asked by a journalist about why this new coronavirus is something to fear: he emphasized that in the minority of cases that develop complications, the degradation of their condition is so rapid and so extreme that it has shocked doctors. His statement been trending on Twitter this morning as if this is the first time people have heard this.

I’m suspicious of my own feelings about being soothed by the experts assembling and explaining what I basically already know in their cut-and-dried way. I recognize that such a conference meets my desire to feel like the people in charge know what they are doing and are taking care of me. Many have pointed out, cynically, that the release of information about such a high number of cases and this urging for a soft lockdown comes right after the announcement that the grand spectacle of the Olympics will be postponed by a year. It is something of a relief, nevertheless, to think that whatever obfuscation may have been occurring on the part of officials—whether as the result of active manipulation or passive wishful thinking—that could have impeded a serious response to COVID-19 in Japan may be over.

– 25 March 2020

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Chelsea Szendi Schieder is a historian of contemporary Japan and an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Economics at Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo, Japan. Her book, Co-Ed Revolution: The Female Student in the Japanese New Left, is forthcoming on Duke University Press.


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The Teach311 + COVID-19 Collective began in 2011 as a joint project of the Forum for the History of Science in Asia and the Society for the History of Technology Asia Network and is currently expanded in collaboration with the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science(Artifacts, Action, Knowledge) and Nanyang Technological University-Singapore.

Tokyo Notes [3] :: Chelsea Szendi Schieder (Japan)