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Spring is here, parks are busy with people enjoying the warmer weather and the country has (slowly) begun its much-anticipated vaccination program. It seems like things might just start getting back to normal — or some semblance of it, anyway.

But these glimmers of hope don’t mean that the situation in Japan is suddenly coming up roses. Dissatisfaction over the nation’s slow vaccine rollout, the ongoing discussion of whether to cancel the long-postponed Tokyo Olympics, and a fresh state of emergency in Tokyo, Osaka and Hyogo prefectures highlight that Japan is very much not out of hot water.

More than a year on since the pandemic first hit Japan’s shores, and with Golden Week holidays on the horizon, The Japan Times asked some experts to help us get to grips with the latest health guidance and to offer advice about how (or if) it’s safe to socialize.

Can I meet up with friends and family?

Official government advice is that you can, but only in small groups. “We ask that whenever possible, dining should take place within families or in groups no larger than four,” Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said in a March 18 press conference regarding COVID-19. “Given that … people have been heading out in increasing numbers, there is concern about a rebound occurring,” he continued.

A report from the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare (MHLW) published in February 2021 highlights the primary routes of transmission as being either through droplets or through contact with somebody who is positive for COVID-19. We’ve heard it all before, but it’s still important to avoid the “Three Cs” — closed spaces, crowded places and close-contact environments.

“Situations such as social gatherings, eating and drinking with a large group of people or remaining in an eating or drinking area … for a long time, having conversations without masks, living in a small communal area and changing seating arrangements may increase the risk of infection and should be avoided,” the MHLW report stated.

Simply put, the official advice is to avoid meeting up with large groups of people. But not all social gatherings take place in bars and restaurants; often they are held outside or at people’s homes, and it can be tricky to determine whether or not it’s safe to visit a friend.

“When you are sure somebody does not have a chance to get the infection or doesn’t have the infection, you can go into (their) house,” says Mika Washio, the director of Tokyo’s International Health Care Clinic. “Or you can go inside (while maintaining) social distance and (wearing) a face mask, and you always disinfect after you touch something.”

Do we still need masks?

From meeting up for meals, heading out for a jog or simply taking the dog for a walk, you have to wonder: Is it really still so important for people to wear masks all of the time? “I do think so, if you want to strongly protect yourself and families or friends from the infection,” Washio confirms.

Her advice is echoed by Masayoshi Kikuchi, public relations manager at Tokyo Metropolitan Park Association. “(Going to) the park is considered relatively safe, but please wear a mask,” he says via email.

And for the times when you’re thinking about meeting up with friends for a meal at a small restaurant, or simply grabbing a quick drink together, the MHLW recommends that, even if you don’t have any symptoms, you “try to avoid going to such places. If you must go, make sure that you wear a mask.”

Signs at parks throughout Tokyo encourage visitors to wear masks and maintain a safe distance from others, even while outside. | REBECCA SAUNDERS
Signs at parks throughout Tokyo encourage visitors to wear masks and maintain a safe distance from others, even while outside. | REBECCA SAUNDERS

Is it safe to visit a park?

OK, so restaurants and bars are out. With warmer weather, and official advice from MHLW to “enjoy meals at outside spaces,” it can be difficult to know exactly how to use public parks and follow official social distancing guidelines.

“We ask that you observe the four rules of the new normal,” Kikuchi says when asked about the best way for friends and family to meet safely outside. “‘Wear a mask,’ ‘keep social distance,’ ‘avoid crowded places and busy times,’ ‘don’t forget to wash your hands and gargle after visiting.’

“When visiting a park, we recommend light sports such as walking or jogging on the assumption that you’ll observe the four rules,” he continues.

Various parks have put a string of measures in place to help stop the spread of COVID-19. One example, according to Kikuchi, is the sprawling Kinuta Park in Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward, which implemented advance reservations for using the sports facilities, regular disinfection of facilities by staff, and installation of hand sanitizer and soap in changing rooms and toilets.

Picnicking in parks isn’t against official guidelines, with the MHLW simply advising people to “select places like parks at off-peak times.” Yet dining with other people — even in groups of four or fewer, as the government advises — comes with a risk. “When you have meals, you should use (separate) dishes because there are some cases of spreading COVID-19 with sharing food,” Washio warns.

This is echoed by MHLW who suggests diners serve themselves and “avoid sharing plates,” as well as instructing people to sit side-by-side rather than face-to-face. The ministry also asks that you refrain from chatting in order to concentrate on eating and avoid serving alcohol and sharing glasses or sake cups. Consider everything “BYO.”

What if I feel anxious about socializing?

After a long period of social distancing, and with many of us still working from home, it’s inevitable to feel anxious about socializing.

“Going back into society and work after 18 months of COVID restrictions will take time to adapt and adjust, and this is OK,” says Tokyo English Language Lifeline (TELL) director Vickie Skorji.

Pressure from family members or friends can also cause conflict and add stress to an already difficult situation. Skorji recommends trying to make “I statements.”

“(You could say) ‘Right now, I don’t feel comfortable meeting with the whole family. But I would be happy to meet you or a couple of friends for a short period of time.’ This way, the focus is on you and your feelings, and avoids getting into any discussions about differing points of views on COVID,” she says.

Lil Wills, International Mental Health Professionals Japan (IMHPJ) outreach coordinator, suggests keeping communication open in order to avoid assumptions. “Remember that everyone has reasons for their reactions that make sense to them,” she says. “Understanding the values and concerns behind your friends’ behaviors and being clear about your own will help you accept their choices while being able to stand firm in your own. It’s OK to be different from each other.”

How about once I’m vaccinated?

If you’re already vaccinated: Congratulations!

Vaccination of the elderly population is now underway across the country. The government is putting faith in the process, outlining vaccination as one of its “five pillars” to prevent a resurgence of infections, aiming to administer around 80,000 people daily in a “safe and speedy manner.”

For now, however, the vaccinated percentage of the population is low, and there’s yet to be any official advice about how to socialize once a higher number of people have received an inoculation.

Skorji encourages people to take things slowly: “Once you are vaccinated, taking things in small steps is an excellent way to move forward.

“You could start meeting up with just one or two friends, perhaps outside initially and for a set period of time. As you become more comfortable being with others, increase the number of people you see, the length of time and locations,” she continues.

And for those who are feeling worried about receiving a vaccine, Willis says: “My advice would be to get reliable scientific information from a medically qualified source. Accurate information is the best way to deal with vague fears and feel more in control.”

So even though that cross-country Golden Week trip may still be on hold, that doesn’t mean you can’t socialize safely a little closer to home.

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