Lockdown with Japanese characteristics

Under the state of emergency, prefectures will ‘request’ the public to comply with restrictions

April 11, 2020 10:10 pm | Updated December 03, 2021 06:33 am IST

Tokyo Metropolitan Government officials calling for self-restraint to prevent the spread of the new COVID-19 at Tokyo's entertainment district Kabukicho on April 10, 2020.

Tokyo Metropolitan Government officials calling for self-restraint to prevent the spread of the new COVID-19 at Tokyo's entertainment district Kabukicho on April 10, 2020.

The terms ‘lockdown’ and ‘draconian’ are somewhat synonymous in the popular imagination. Images of forced quarantining, punitive fines and violators being manhandled by police spring to mind. But a lockdown Japanese-style is a different cup of matcha.

Earlier in the week, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared a state of emergency in seven of Japan’s prefectures, including Tokyo. The declaration, however, is not backed by any legal means of coercion. It merely authorises the Governors of the concerned prefectures to request people and businesses to comply with social distancing guidelines, relying on peer pressure and a culture of conformism to succeed. The police in the Japanese prefectures under “lockdown” will not be out on the streets handing out fines or beatings, but safely ensconced in their work booths dealing with the lost and found cases that are their staple.

What exactly does this “voluntary lockdown” entail? Primarily, residents are urged to stay at home and avoid socialising. Working from home is strongly encouraged, but not mandatory. Schools, universities, childcare facilities, movie theatres and music venues are requested to temporarily close. If this proves inadequate, they can then be “ordered” to comply, but the difference is semantic. The order will still not be backed up with any penalties. In the worst case, the violators can be named and shamed, which in Japan carries a huge stigma.

There are, however, some punishments specified for a small number of offences, including hiding supplies that have been requisitioned by local authorities. The emergency declaration further permits governmental control of the prices of daily essentials. In the event of a surge in patients, prefectural governments will also be able to requisition land to build temporary medical facilities and could do so forcefully were a landowner to refuse.

Civil liberties

The reason for the Japanese reticence in using punitive measures against citizens lies in the historical memories of rights abuses by the authorities during the Second World War. Japan’s U.S.-drafted post-War Constitution enshrined civil liberties and denuded the power of the state. In the past, Mr. Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party has lobbied for a revision of the Constitution to give more teeth to the state, but these attempts have met with strong opposition.

The million-yen question is whether the Japanese people will rise to the occasion and respond to the government’s requests with enough compliance to contain the spread of COVID-19.

In fact, the government had already been requesting people to curtail their regular behaviour, long before the emergency declaration. Schools were closed in late February. Sporting events and concerts were cancelled through most of March. Many companies instituted work from home measures weeks ago. Museums and theme parks like Disneyland and Universal Studios shut their doors in early March. For a while, it seemed like these “voluntary” efforts were proving adequate as Japan’s infection rate remained low.

But then the cherry blossoms bloomed and despite the warnings of the authorities, large groups of people gathered to picnic under the flowering trees. Trains continued to be packed with commuters as many workplaces found it difficult to adapt to teleworking, given a work culture that values face time. In addition, Tokyo’s notorious nightlife continued apace with karaoke parlours and “hostess” bars buzzing with customers.

The sex trade has since emerged as one the main vectors of spreading the coronavirus. In the lead up to the formal emergency declaration, Japan’s infection rate had spiked. And it remains uncertain whether the emergency, which is in place until May 6, will merely duplicate the status quo of the last several weeks or lead to stricter adherence to the guidelines.

Michiko Sasaki, a 39-year-old Tokyo resident, is confident that the emergency declaration will have a strong psychological impact. “It doesn’t matter if there are no fines, we understand that this is serious,” she said.

In recent years, Japan has often been derided for its ostensible inability to develop out-of-the-box thinking. But while conformism and respect for hierarchy might not be the most prized characteristics in the contemporary economic paradigm, these old-fashioned traits might just be what the doctor ordered to fight a pandemic. The world will be watching to see if a “voluntary lockdown” is not an oxymoron after all.

Pallavi Aiyar is a journalist based in Tokyo

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