It was a different world that watched as reports emerged last year of a mysterious virus in Wuhan, China.
Fear took over as the alien pathogen traversed South Korea then Japan, engulfing East Asia within months before heading westward in what would become one of the worst pandemics of the past century.
In 12 months, the novel coronavirus has all but upended the most basic facets of life.
Masks, hand sanitizer and thermometers have become ubiquitous in schools, offices, taxis, train stations, hospitals, bars and restaurants across Japan, where the virus continues to infect students, teachers, hospital staff and those in the service industry.
Headlines and political elections remain entrenched in debate over the growing toll of the pandemic as the virus infiltrates nearly every form of public discourse.
For many, 2020 has been a year hijacked by uncertainty, a tumultuous period spent improvising and adapting to an unfamiliar way of life. For others, it was a matter of survival: nurses and doctors standing guard against an invisible assailant; small business owners trying to weather the worst recession in decades; parents, bus drivers and all manner of civil servants functioning dutifully even as the pandemic threw society into disarray.
From the first wave to the second to the ongoing third, the government has been criticized for its low testing, a fixation on economic measures and public messaging that was, at times, perplexing if not contradictory.
But by luck or design, the plan largely appears to have worked so far.
Whether the country’s countermeasures will remain effective until the virus is eradicated, only time will tell.
The first wave
On Jan. 16, the health ministry confirmed the first infection of the novel coronavirus in Japan. Isolated cases throughout the country — a traveler in Kanagawa, a taxi driver in Okinawa, a tour guide in Nara — began to emerge a short time later.
In late January, the government sent three planes to evacuate more than 700 Japanese nationals from Wuhan, which is believed to be the epicenter of the outbreak.
A handful of these evacuees tested positive for the virus upon returning to Japan. The virus was slowly beginning to spread, but it wasn’t until Feb. 3, when a cruise ship docked in Yokohama, that the outbreak in Japan made international headlines.
The Diamond Princess had just returned from a 16-day cruise, stopping in Japan, Hong Kong, Vietnam and Taiwan, and carrying more than 3,700 passengers and crew. It was placed under quarantine for 14 days after authorities found that a passenger who disembarked the vessel in Hong Kong had subsequently tested positive for the virus.
Over the next two weeks, the ship became something of an incubator as hundreds of passengers and crew became infected.
The World Health Organization announced an official name for the disease behind the outbreak — coronavirus disease, often abbreviated as COVID-19 — on Feb. 11, just a week before passengers from the Diamond Princess were allowed to disembark.
By the time the ship was cleared, 712 people had been infected and 14 had lost their lives.
The incident ignited international criticism, not only of the health ministry’s failure to quarantine passengers and crew properly but also of the government’s decision to confine people to the ship rather than evacuate and isolate them onshore.
However, attention shifted away from the Diamond Princess as infections began to rise in major cities. In late February, then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe hastily called for schools nationwide to close from early March to early April, a controversial move that was later criticized for acting with little forethought or scientific justification.
A day later, the governor of Hokkaido Prefecture declared a state of emergency — though he had no legal basis in doing so — weeks before the central government would make the same declaration nationwide.
On March 11, the World Health Organization officially declared a global pandemic as Europe and the United States began to suffer heavy casualties.
Meanwhile, public discourse in Japan was dominated by talk of canceling or postponing the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games, an event that would — under normal circumstances — attract tens of thousands of athletes, spectators, media personnel and public figures from around the world.
To host such a spectacle during an ongoing pandemic, critics said, would have been to invite disaster.
And so, after weeks of tiptoeing around the issue, organizers announced on March 24 that the games would be postponed by one year — the first time an Olympiad has been rescheduled during peacetime.
Weeks later, the country’s crowded city streets became eerily quiet after Abe declared a state of emergency in seven prefectures — Tokyo, Kanagawa, Saitama, Chiba, Osaka, Hyogo and Fukuoka — on April 7 before extending it nine days later to the rest of the country.
On April 11, the global death toll from COVID-19 reached 100,000.
In Japan, virus countermeasures are derived from laws enacted years before the novel coronavirus emerged.
Together, they allow public officials to impose, among other things, stricter hospital admission requirements for those who test positive for a pathogen, stronger border control measures and the reallocation of funding to enhance testing capacity, support health care facilities and bolster medical staff.
However, they do not allow the government or any municipality to impose monetary fines, criminal charges or punitive measures of any kind upon those who ignore official requests.
In its efforts to contain the virus, the country has relied almost entirely on the compliance of its people through the use of “soft” lockdowns and business closure requests incentivized by subsidies, zero interest loans and cash handouts.
Despite its voluntary nature, the declaration of a state emergency appeared effective in getting a majority of the population to refrain from using public transportation and stay indoors until the order was lifted on May 25.
Experts at the time were concerned, however, that voluntary measures will have a diminishing impact. In other words, they feared that people would eventually stop taking them seriously.
By May 2, the death toll in Japan had reached 500. Two days later, the total number of infections worldwide surpassed 3.5 million.
In June, major cities began to relax social distancing measures and lift restrictions on local businesses. Summer had arrived and society was beginning to reopen. However, experts warned that it was happening too quickly, and too soon.
The second wave
On July 1, Tokyo entered the second phase of its three-part plan to reboot the capital’s economy by incrementally lifting social distancing measures and business closure requests.
Gov. Yuriko Koike was initially optimistic. That is, until a day later when Tokyo reported 34 new cases — a record at the time — forcing her to raise the alarm and ask the capital’s 13.9 million residents not to lower their guard.
This wave was different from previous outbreaks.
During the first wave, the government focused its resources on seeking out and testing individuals thought to be at risk of infection. While other countries — South Korea, for example — introduced widespread screening programs in a bid to test as many people as possible, Japan conducted targeted testing in a ploy to buffer its health care system from a sudden surge in coronavirus patients.
While residents in their 70s and 80s accounted for a majority of cases during the first wave, a significant number of infections in Tokyo during the second wave were traced back to younger people who had recently visited clubs and hostess bars in Shinjuku’s Kabukicho neighborhood, one of the city’s most vibrant nightlife districts.
A similar trend was being observed in other parts of the country, with new cases emerging in karaoke bars, pachinko parlors, maid cafes and other establishments concentrated in the nightlife districts of Japan’s major metropolitan areas.
These cluster infections forced officials to refocus their strategy by proactively testing in virus hot spots and providing financial support to the owners, employees and patrons of the businesses suffering the most, which, in this case, were those located in nightlife districts.
In July, just as the second wave reached its peak, the government’s coronavirus subcommittee argued that testing low-risk, asymptomatic individuals would cost too much labor, time and money.
And yet, experts warned that low testing was masking the extent to which the contagion had spread within the country, which in turn made it difficult to grasp what was going on, much less predict what would happen next.
Since the onset of the novel coronavirus, disagreement over the merits of different testing methods has driven a wedge between public officials and the masses.
In theory, testing everyone would not only reveal the extent of the outbreak, it would provide policymakers and health care professionals the data they need to put in place countermeasures informed by reality, not speculation. In practice, though, doing so could unleash a wave of patients — many of whom don’t need hospital treatment and would otherwise be fine if they isolated themselves at home — that would overwhelm hospitals.
On July 22, the central government kicked off the Go To Travel campaign — a ¥1.35 trillion subsidy program meant to revive a starving tourism industry by subsidizing domestic travel — that would later become a controversial centerpiece of the country’s attempts to reboot the economy.
However, efforts to rescue local businesses from the ongoing recession would soon hit a wall, and force the country to realize that, during a pandemic, prioritizing economic recovery comes at a cost.
The third wave
The latest surge in confirmed COVID-19 cases began, once again, in the country’s northernmost main island.
Hokkaido began to report new infections in late October. Within weeks, major cities saw back-to-back record-breaking figures in a nationwide surge that has been rising ever since.
Clusters are emerging in places and at a pace never before seen in Tokyo, Osaka, Aichi, Kanagawa, Hyogo and Ibaraki prefectures, among others.
As winter approaches, there is concern that colder weather will drive people indoors into spaces where bad ventilation in close quarters could trigger cluster infections and further spread the virus.
In late August — shortly after Koike asked alcohol-serving food establishments in Tokyo to shorten opening hours until mid-December — Abe boldly promised that all citizens would receive a vaccine by June 2021.
Less than three weeks later, the prime minister would step down due to personal health issues and be replaced by his right hand man, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, a hawkish veteran of Japanese politics who is expected to carry on the conservative fiscal policies of his predecessor.
In office, Suga faces an unprecedented challenge: Keep the novel coronavirus at bay and protect the world’s third largest economy while preparing to safely — and profitably — host the Tokyo Games in 2021.
However, the government’s flagship economic scheme to revive the local economy — a tourism promotion campaign that subsidizes domestic travel — was thrown into disarray when new infections began to rise in October.
This third wave of infections resembles an outbreak of an altogether different nature.
Experts say cluster infections are occurring more broadly across different parts of society — from office buildings and restaurants to homes and apartment buildings — and deeper within specific communities.
Officials have been forced to peel back economic measures where the outbreak is deemed most severe.
In late November, the government’s tourism promotion campaign was suspended in Sapporo and Osaka just as Yasutoshi Nishimura, the Cabinet minister leading the country’s virus response, said Japan may have no choice but to declare a state of emergency if the nationwide surge isn’t subdued by mid-December.
Three weeks passed and the contagion was spreading in an upward trajectory.
On Dec. 14, Suga abruptly announced the campaign would be halted nationwide for roughly two weeks over the year end holidays. Restaurants, karaoke bars and other food establishments that serve alcohol were urged to close until January as well.
The Go To Travel campaign was meant to provide a lifeline to local businesses in small towns heavily dependent on inbound tourism. However, critics say those measures will only serve as a tourniquet to stop the bleeding until the country’s border restrictions are lifted and foreign tourists feel it’s safe to travel again.
The government’s response — at times proactive, at others not so much — has relied on a shifting combination of minimal testing, strict border restrictions, contact tracing, cluster busting and cash subsidies aimed at buffering the health care system and blunting the impact of a prolonged economic downturn.
The rationale for the country’s contentious virus strategy is perhaps best summarized by a response Nishimura gave to reporters during a news conference in November.
“To test as many people as possible — including those who are low-risk or asymptomatic — is of course one way to approach this crisis,” Nishimura said at the time. “However, just because I test negative today doesn’t mean I won’t test positive tomorrow. The entire country — more than 120 million people — would have to be tested every day to provide complete reassurance.”
The country, he explained, is focusing its efforts and resources on supporting the parts of society that are most vulnerable — hospitals, medical facilities and nursery homes.
“Of course, the debate is ongoing,” Nishimura said. “But we believe our efforts should, first and foremost, focus on individuals at higher risk of infection, or places where clusters are known to have occurred, and then expand from there.”
While vaccine research abroad is encouraging, the outbreak in Japan is showing no sign of abating. On the contrary, it appears to be gaining momentum.
Japan approaches the end of 2020 with comparatively low casualties. To date, the domestic death toll pales in comparison to those in Europe, North and South America.
And yet, thousands of families nationwide will spend the holidays with an empty seat at the dinner table.
2020 changed life as we know it. People were forced to endure and adapt over the course of the year as the virus illuminated society’s greatest weaknesses and its greatest strengths.
Time will ultimately tell which changes become permanent and which prove temporary, but the next 12 months in Japan are certain to be eventful.
We can only hope the new year brings change of a different kind.
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