Japan Back in Bloom



Fred Tanaka, Lightning Communications

These are challenging times – the final catastrophic conflict in the battle between good and evil before the last bloody Day of Judgement.

You wouldn’t know it judging by the pace of life so far in Tokyo. Life here carries on with disruptions for sure but compared to scenes from the U.S. and Europe, the trains are running on schedule packed, in many prefectures children are returning to school, and people are getting back to work.

This stands in sharp contrast to the impression that Japan was shaping up to be “it” following the outbreak of the novel coronavirus in China. The Diamond Princess cruise ship that docked in Yokohama, Japan’s reliance on inbound Chinese tourism, and the initial discovery of cases made it a shoe-in to be the next hot spot. Compounding that outlook was the bungled handling of the cruise ship quarantine and the subsequent release of its passengers into the country.

As of March 23 there are 1,089 cases of infections and 42 people have lost their lives as a result of it. To put those figures into perspective, Japan has a population of approximately 127 million and over 3,000 people pass away annually at the hand of the flu. And by all appearances Japan has dodged a .950 JDJ bullet, united and getting back to work.

Save for the northern most island of Hokkaido which lifted its state of emergency declaration, there’s been no heavy-handed measures demanding citizens to quarantine, 6-ft. social distancing, or forced business closures. On the whole, Japan has been united in addressing the pandemic and disciplined about not leveraging the situation to attack or parry for political gain. To note, it was just decided tonight that 2020 Tokyo Olympics will be postponed for a year because of the outbreak of the coronavirus outside of Japan.

The three-day weekend last week heralded the start of spring and blooming sakura – cherry blossom trees. A wave of warm weather and the sight of hanami parties at Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park appeared to harbinger a U-shape return to normalcy as people converged on parks and pathways and restaurants and bars returned to life.

So what accounts for this? One reason There is a rational argument that there has been lax testing and under reporting to protect the economy, people’s psyche, and until now the Tokyo Olympics. That is still a frightening reality that needs to be factored in and the coming days will tell us if this was it.

However, why Japan hasn’t experienced the spike in cases and deaths can be attributed to the following factors. The first of these are stringent border controls. The nation and its interaction with the world, except when it’s been time to learn something new has been underpinned by a policy of isolation. That along with a deeply-rooted culture of exclusivity may have worked to contain the number of cases that could be brought into the country.

The second is the custom of wearing face masks particularly in the winter when the coronavirus hit and then in the months that followed as a means of alleviating allergies and other forms of particulates like “yellow sands” that drift across the sea from China. The other custom that could be a factor in its favor is a tradition of hygiene. Washing hands, gargling, the use of oshibori towels or towelettes before meals, and the prevalence of hand sanitizers that predated the pandemic likely helped to prevent the outbreak of new clusters and flatten the curve for new infections. It also didn’t hurt that bows are more commonplace than a handshake or a hug.

If like I’ve heard, this is Darwin’s theory at work, then Japanese businesses are taking the initiative to ensure that they emerge as some of the fittest when pent up demand rebounds and drives the economy back. As proof, while the world has been back on its heels Toyota and Nippon Telegraph and Telephone signed a capital and business tie-up deal for a “Woven City” (smart city) and the development of next generation cars including 5G technology as the hoped for made in Japan check to the dominant “Big Tech” companies in the US.

That said, the months, if not years ahead will tell how well Japan manages to avert a near miss and delivers on its promise of uniqueness. If it can emerge relatively unscathed and adapt its strengths to a new ethos demanded by the advent of digital transformation then once the coronavirus too comes pass it will be able to fully realize the promise of its technologies so to maintain its place in the international economic order and provide and once again become the standard other nations model.

If not the situation in Japan may be as fleeting as the cherry blossoms making them the perfect metaphor for the assured mood.

About the Author: Fred Tanaka conducts corporate, crisis, and marketing communications and influencer relations for enterprises and start-ups in consumer and B2B tech verticals. One of a handful of bilingual, cross cultural executives in Japan, he delivers advisory services along with tactical implementation in coordination with a network of contacts in media, government, and industry.

1 Comment

  1. Martin Sherman on at 12:22 PM

    Very nice accounting of the relevant factors.