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Mid-August is a traditional time for many Japanese to leave the densely populated cities and travel to see family in rural areas. Many fear that in the absence of firmer government advice, those travelers may be bringing an unseen passenger — the coronavirus.

The Bon holiday period is synonymous with summer holidays, cleaning family graves and reuniting with friends and family. But with national and local officials giving conflicting signals over the risk of travel as the period approaches, the holiday threatens to boost the spread of the pandemic, as cases continue to rise across the country.

A day before many were due to travel, Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike made a belated call for residents to refrain from going to their hometowns or otherwise traveling.

"This is a special summer. I want residents to avoid trips, going to their hometowns, going out at night or traveling far away,” Koike said at a news conference Thursday. "If the situation worsens, I will have no choice but to declare a state of emergency in Tokyo.”

The advice conflicts with that of the national government, which has pointedly refrained from calling for curbs on traveling home for the holidays, even after virus cases hit daily records in many parts of the country. Osaka reported a record 225 infections on Thursday.

"We are not asking for a blanket call on travel restrictions, nor are we giving a specific direction on whether people can or should not travel during the o-Bon period,” said Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga on Tuesday.

Asked Thursday if people should make up their own mind on whether to return to their hometowns during the holiday period, Suga responded, "Basically, yes.”

Elderly relatives

With cases flaring in population centers nationwide, the government’s lack of direction against travel has been met with criticism. Some regions little touched by the virus have called on people not to return, fearing the specter of infected but possibly asymptomatic young people leaving cities and transmitting the disease to elderly relatives.

Confusing the matter further is the government’s insistence on pushing ahead with a domestic travel campaign to spur the tourism industry. But experts say that not all travel is equal, and traveling to see family raises the danger of infection.

"At o-Bon, people are going out with friends, having drinking parties or coming in close contact with their family,” said Haruka Sakamoto, a public health researcher at the University of Tokyo. "Usually, their relatives are of an older generation, such as parents or grandparents in their 80s or 90s. I think o-Bon is a much higher risk than the Go To Travel campaign.”

In Tokyo, infections within households have become one of the primary causes of rising cases. Such transmission accounted for 10 percent of cases found in Tokyo on Tuesday, Koike said, with 40 percent of the cases found in the elderly traced to their own households.

Shigeru Omi, the head of the current panel of experts advising the government, said Wednesday that he had advised the government to tell people to think very carefully about returning home if they can’t take sufficient steps to avoid spreading the virus to their family members. Yet speaking Thursday in Hiroshima, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe gave no clear advice beyond encouraging people to take basic precautions.

Other governments have had to face similar dilemmas during major holidays. At the start of the Lunar New Year, when millions of Chinese travel across the country, Beijing locked down the city of Wuhan and ordered travel agencies to suspend tours. Saudi Arabia downsized Islam’s annual hajj pilgrimage, and countries including Malaysia and Indonesia stepped up their vigilance during Eid al-Fitr.

The U.S. has faced similar criticism over mixed messages. For the July 4 holiday weekend, as many states were canceling fireworks and parades and urging social distancing, President Donald Trump attended celebrations in Washington and at Mount Rushmore.

Reservations falling

Despite the muddled messaging, many are choosing to avoid the risks. The period is usually among the busiest on the nation’s bullet trains, with tickets selling out as soon as they go on sale and passengers without reservations spilling into the aisles and forced to stand for hours. But reservations over this year’s Bon period are at just 16 percent of last year’s, East Japan Railway Co. spokesman Akihiro Kodama said.

Atsushi Sasaki, a 35-year-old developer who lives in Tokyo, said he and his family will refrain from going back to his hometown in northeastern Miyagi Prefecture this summer.

"I don’t think it’s worth the travel if it just stokes more worry,” said Sasaki. He usually goes back home every summer, but said he didn’t want to cause more worry to his parents and their neighbors as numbers continue to rise in Tokyo. "To be honest, I did want to see them in person. My parents do want to see their grandchild too, but they’re also worried about the virus.”

Local governments are continuing to take matters into their own hands. Two towns in Fukushima that have had a single case of Covid-19 between them are offering free polymerase chain reaction tests to students and others returning home, public broadcaster NHK has reported.

And some governments are taking it upon themselves to urge people not to visit their hometowns during the holidays. Norihisa Satake, the governor of Akita Prefecture, asked residents to refrain from traveling to the capital and said people should avoid visiting the region to see family and friends.

"The virus is not transmitting in the community within this prefecture at this time,” he said. The region has just 18 cases. "The best defense now is to avoid meeting people from the areas affected as much as possible.”

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