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  • Writer's pictureHusky & Onigunsô

Life in Tokyo During a Pandemic Outbreak

Updated: Sep 3, 2021

How Japan's First Covid Response Felt Like in September 2020

Shibuya Crossing © Husky Loves Japan

Japan responded to Covid 19 by imploring its citizens to stay inside, work from home, and close public venues before ten o’clock in the evening. The «state of emergency» was a fact, but from the outside the measures must not appear so strict.

To some, the measures taken in Japan might seem similar to the ones taken by the Swedish government. To us who live in Tokyo, the crowds in the morning train seem the same. The crazy rush hours are still as hectic as you’ve seen onTV or YouTube.

This is not some Hollywood sci-fi movie; this is reality in Tokyo right now. The worst pandemic in recent time is all around us. All the while, the Tokyo nightlife keeps on buzzing like always.

Groups of salary-man still gather at small Izakaya's in the late hours of the night. Restaurants are cramped, alcohol flows and people chatter in tight groups. Social distance is nowhere to be found.

At times, we wonder if the pandemic is even here…

Is maybe the economy more vital to Japan than the general health of its populace?

Another metropolitan city was shut down, but Tokyo tries to maintain its normal life.

At the same time – if mass media are to be believed – the number of infected people and deaths are lower in Tokyo than in other major cities around the world.

How can it be that we can keep the numbers down without a lock-down? It seems almost miraculous. In fact, the only possible explanation we can come up with is so far-fetched, that it might actually be true.

Ancient Japanese script with a drawing of the Yôkai Goddess called Amabie.
Amabie (Image: Main Library at Kyoto University)

Japan's Covid Resistance Hypothesis 1: We are blessed!

There is a Japanese folk-tale written in the Edo period. It tells the story of a goddess («yôkai» aka. «monster») called Amabie. She appears before the people and says, «if you are tormented by pestilence, spread my portrait around, and peace will return to the land.»

The original document from 1846 – as shown above – is owned by Kyoto University. It was later re-introduced to the Japanese public by the famous manga artist Shigeru Mizuki, when he drew Amabie in one of his books from 1984.

These days, Amabie's image is spread all across Japan. Anything from baked goods to stationary supplies, or sanitation posters are plastered with her figure. And the Goddess Amabie protects us all.

Japan's Covid Resistance Hypothesis 2: We are NOT blessed!

If God (of the Christian variety) is putting his subjects to the test by unleashing Covid-19, he seems to have skipped Japan. In that case, the country appears not to be particularly religious anymore.

Kamikaze (the wind of the Gods) has finally blown over…

Still from the anime film Akira. A billboard predicting the cancellation of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
«Just cancel it» is written is white characters in the lower right corner.

Japan's Covid Resistance Hypothesis 3: Anime Premonitions are a real thing!

Have you heard about the anime-film «Akira»?

It is based on a manga that was written in 1982. Akira tells the story of an alternative reality in which World War 3 broke out in 1982. Tokyo was ruined by warfare, but the city was re-built to facilitate the 2020 Neo-Tokyo Olympics.

On a promotional billboard it reads: «Only 147 days till the opening ceremony starts».

Under it, someone has written an ominous premonition: «Just cancel it!»

In the manga, WHO (the organization) blames Japan for not taking appropriate measures to deal with some sort of pandemic crisis. The date on the billboard from the anime is the 28th of February (147 days before the opening ceremony). Incidentally, this is about the same date as when WHO started to announce that Covid-19 was a global issue that had hit Korea, Italy, Iran, and Japan especially hard.

Already in 1982 we expected 2020 to become a trying time…

A recreated billboard from the anime film Akira about the cancellation of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
This display recently appeared on the Kyoto University Grounds (Photo courtesy of Kyoto NP)

Japan's Covid Resistance Hypothesis 4: Germophobia saved the day!

Most doctors laughed when Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis claimed that washing your hands could prevent fever in the 1840s. In Japan we were adamant about both hand washing and using facemasks even before Covid-19 was unleashed.

To outsiders it might seem like a silly custom, but perhaps it’s as simple as this: Wearing a facemask does not completely stop germs, but at least it hinders it. When all people use facemasks, it protects twice, in the sense that both victim and carrier are putting up a semi-safe «wall» for the germs to traverse.

Sidenote from Husky: I believe the facemasks offer a false sense of security when it comes to protecting me from the virus. Still, there is one obvious benefit from using a mask that I truly believe helps me from getting infected: It is a constant reminder to stop touching my face, and keep my hands away from my nose and mouth. This is the most vital function of the facemasks, in my humble opinion.

Kamikaze has definitely blown over, but the custom of washing our hands and gargling every day remains since the third or fourth century. The earliest recordings of this ritual describes it as an expression of purification of the body after coming back from the land of the dead…

However effective, facemasks, insistent hand washing and daily gargling might just play a part in the tale of The Covid Monster Who Let Japan Be.


Connect with Nakatsu: Japanese dealings with plague through the history (Japanese only) Amabie in modern Japanese commodities (Japanese only)

Kyo-Suzume Culture and Tourism: The 2500-year-old history of hand washing and gargling (Japanese only)

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