National

As Japan scales down events due to COVID-19, Ehime Prefecture sticks to hanami tradition

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

The ever-growing outbreak of COVID-19 is prompting some municipalities to urge cancellations of hanami parties, the annual Japanese tradition of picnicking and carousing while enjoying the ephemeral beauty of cherry blossoms that start gracing parks and riversides once spring arrives.

But Tokihiro Nakamura, governor of Shikoku’s Ehime Prefecture, said Friday he was having none of it.

In a meeting held to discuss emergency economic measures to salvage local businesses hurt by virus fears, the governor reportedly clarified that the prefecture will not call for the across-the-board cancellation of hanami parties.

“Excessive self-restraint will only hurt the economy,” he was quoted by media as telling the gathering.

Instead of requesting the parties not be held at all, the prefecture reportedly will urge caution by setting up signs in parks asking cherry blossom revelers to avoid partying in large groups, wear face masks and be mindful of “coughing etiquette” recommended by the health ministry.

Ehime’s move bucks a nationwide trend toward restraint initiated by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s calls for large-scale events to be scrapped, postponed or downsized to mitigate the risk of infections. Some municipalities have already moved toward urging the cancellation of cherry blossom-viewing parties in light of the epidemic.

Growing momentum toward that end put a damper on what otherwise would have been a cause for celebration on Saturday when the Meteorological Agency confirmed the official arrival of the cherry blossom season in Tokyo.

This is reportedly the earliest arrival since records began in 1953, owing largely to the unseasonably warm winter that prevailed in Japan over the last several months.

In another unseasonable “break from tradition,” snow was falling during much of the day in the capital Saturday, forcing the agency’s officials to use umbrellas as they confirmed the bloom on a Somei-Yoshino cherry tree at Yasukuni Shrine in Chiyoda Ward.

According to the officials, the flower blossomed 12 days earlier than average and seven days earlier than last year.

Ehime’s move contrasts sharply with policies announced by local governments in Tokyo and Kanagawa Prefecture.

Earlier this month, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government released a statement calling on residents to refrain from partying during the hanami season in parks and alongside the rivers under its jurisdiction.

Even those who merely want to enjoy the sight of cherry blossoms by taking a casual stroll under the trees are asked to be mindful of coughing etiquette so as to prevent the spread of infections, the metropolitan government said. Kanagawa Prefecture followed suit by issuing a similar request Thursday.

Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike lamented the toll the novel coronavirus could take on the seasonal tradition that holds a special place in the hearts of many Japanese.

“There is nothing more saddening for Japanese than hanami being taken away from them. It’s like hugging is being taken away from Italians,” she told reporters Thursday.

Fears induced by the coronavirus outbreak are so rampant that even before Tokyo and Kanagawa unveiled their respective policies, there had been signs that this year’s hanami season was going to be a much quieter affair than usual.

A survey conducted by news site Weathernews before the Tokyo announcement showed that nearly 40 percent of its respondents said they will forgo attending hanami parties altogether. This was followed by 33 percent who said they will join the parties but make some changes to their original plans, such as eschewing popular spots and settling for appreciating the flowers from inside their cars.

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