When Prime Minister Shinzo Abe lifted the state of emergency for Tokyo and four other prefectures on May 25, formally ending the national state of emergency, he proudly touted how Japan worked to contain the COVID-19 outbreak without resorting to the draconian lockdown measures seen overseas.
“We were able to nearly contain the pandemic through the unique way of Japan,” he said.
But critics point out that the government’s measures — asking businesses to close and for people to stay home, but without any punishments for those who didn’t oblige — took advantage of the peer pressure prevalent in Japanese society. Essentially, if political leaders don’t strongly communicate their intentions, it can give the impression that public policing is acceptable.
For example, on April 28, a piece of paper was posted at a snack store in Yachiyo, Chiba Prefecture, saying, “Don’t have children gather around.”
The store, a popular place with 20 parking spaces that would regularly fill up before the pandemic, has been closed since the end of March.
“It gave me chills. There may be many people who feel that way,” said Yasuko Murayama, 74, who owns the store.
Something similar occurred at Ramen Kenta, a noodle shop in Nakano Ward, Tokyo. On the morning of April 23, a staffer found two pieces of paper posted on its door, telling the store to “be sure to close down” at 8 p.m., as requested by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government. The restaurant, which normally stays opens until after midnight, has been closing at 8 p.m.
“Neighbors are watching,” the post warned.
“People may have thought the meetings we hold after business hours were opening hours,” said store manager Kenta Yokoo, 37. “But it’s eerie, like we’re being watched. Someone also broke the window of a nearby store so it’s making me nervous.”
Naoki Sato, a professor emeritus at Kyushu Institute of Technology who has conducted research on seken, literally translated as “society” or “community,” said the moves were a result of society’s strong tendency toward obedience.
“In Japan, people have a strong tendency to abide by the rules set by society. Combined with the fear of infections, this led to people keeping those not following the rules in check,” Sato said.
The central and local governments seem to have taken full advantage of this in dealing with the pandemic.
On April 22, Okayama Gov. Ryuta Ibaragi announced that the prefecture will check the temperatures of visitors from the Kinki region, where many cases of infections were reported, at a highway parking area.
“Through the measure, people should be feeling that they have come to a place where they shouldn’t,” he later said during a news conference.
In Matsudo, Chiba Prefecture, city officials put up a banner in May saying, “We are under the state of emergency,” near a pachinko parlor that refused to shut down despite Chiba’s business closure request. The prefecture also disclosed the name of the parlor in a bid to essentially shame it publicly.
Mayor Kenji Hongoya also distributed fliers there, calling for people to take measures to prevent the spread of the virus. At one time, a man shouted at the parlor to shut down and exchanged harsh words with customers when he told them to go home.
“Even though there hasn’t been any physical harm to themselves, they feel it shouldn’t be tolerated,” Sato said. “Municipalities are taking advantage of those feelings, thinking that people (would abide by the rules) if they disclose the names of the pachinko parlors.”
Based on remarks of political leaders and media reports, society’s targets shifted from Chinese tourists to youngsters to pachinko parlors during the course of the pandemic, creating a grim atmosphere for society, said Kenta Yamada, a professor at Senshu University, adding that others would have been targeted if the state of emergency was put in place for a longer period of time.
“When people are anxious due to a lack of information, they create ‘enemies.’ The central and local governments need to rethink how they put out information and media outlets need to have a critical point of view.”