The arrival of autumn in Tokyo’s Hongo neighborhood promises the yellowed leaves of ginkgo trees and an abundance of students. As if reawakening from slumber, the resumption of classes at the University of Tokyo breathes new life into its main campus. Students and faculty return en masse, collectively forming a vibrant intellectual community. And yet, this year, the promise of autumn for universities is uncertain.

The COVID-19 pandemic has disturbed the start of a conventional fall term, as the risks of transmission involved with campus life, from large lecture courses to nomikai (drinking parties), have led schools across Japan to hold classes partially or entirely online and curtail campus access. Even as life for many in Tokyo remains (mostly) normal, universities stand as an exception.

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