It has been 17 months since the first reported cases of COVID-19 in Japan. During this period, the government declared states of emergency on three occasions. The good news, reports the June 28 edition of Shukan Taishu, is that the end of the pandemic may be in sight.

As the rate of vaccinations starts to pick up speed in Japan, pundits are starting to make bets on life after the pandemic. | GETTY IMAGES
As the rate of vaccinations starts to pick up speed in Japan, pundits are starting to make bets on life after the pandemic. | GETTY IMAGES

“The rollout of vaccinations from February is making the difference,” occupational health physician Yoichi Shimomura tells the magazine. “By June 1, the number of people receiving their first jab passed the 10 million mark. If things proceed smoothly, ‘herd immunity’ might even be achieved by autumn.”

OK then, the magazine wants to know, what happens after that?

As other countries are already starting to report, Japan is also likely to get an economic boost from so-called “pent-up demand.”

“I suppose it will begin from August, or maybe from September,” a business reporter predicts, saying this will spell good news for the travel industry.

“The EU is loosening travel restrictions but will require people to show certification of vaccination. From summer the Japanese government will be issuing ‘passport’ documents,” says medical journalist and author Junji Maki. “Holders returning to Japan will be exempt from the quarantine period.”

Looking at other countries, business writer Shinichiro Suda notes a correlation is being observed between the speed of vaccine rollouts and economic recovery.

“At the earliest, economic recovery here ought to be making itself felt from this autumn, or from early next year at the latest,” he predicts.

A person in the fitness industry is optimistically predicting that as vaccinations rise, more people will become active, particularly those made sedentary by the pandemic who suffered from the “double-punch” of high blood pressure and diabetes.

“More people will be determined to work off the weight they accumulated from prolonged indoor confinement,” the trainer says.

Home barometers

One useful social barometer in Japan has been changes in demand for home appliances. Shukan Jitsuwa from June 24 reported on the impact of the pandemic on sales.

The government handout of ¥100,000 per person last year is believed to have spurred outlays for various necessities. Depending on the size of households, the total amount per family may have reached up to ¥400,000, and since people spent less on eating out or traveling, some of these funds are likely to have gone to purchase home appliances.

Boosted by government guidelines for teleworking that call for people to have their own personal digital terminal, sales of notebook and laptop computers last year jumped 56.1%, to 10.775 million units, according to data from the Japan Electronics and Information Technology Industries Association.

Last year’s sales of air conditioners rose year-on-year by 3.5%, passing the 10 million-unit mark for the first time. Refrigerator sales also rose by 3.1%, while appliances related to personal grooming and appearance, such as men’s electric shavers, irons and hair dryers declined.

To sustain their businesses, electronics manufacturers are undoubtedly waiting for the return of shoppers from overseas.

Future tense

Writing in the July edition of the monthly Bungei Shunju, journalist Masashi Kawai, who also serves as director of the government-funded Population Decline Countermeasure Research Institute, offers a “future chronology” of things likely to follow in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

Kawai was previously cited in this column in a piece where he remarked that, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, “the already gloomy projections for population figures will be accelerated by roughly 18 years.”

In the July piece, Kawai offered forecasts from a broader perspective, including these predictions:

  • Market demand by retirees and older people, already hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, will continue to shrink. By 2024, the members of Japan’s postwar baby boom generation will all have passed the age of 75, and their social welfare-related costs will continue to snowball. In the wake of the pandemic, it is unlikely this age group will recover its physical, mental and financial power, which is likely to affect department stores, theaters and other establishments appealing to that generation.
  • Late-night and all-night businesses such as convenience stores, restaurants, gasoline stands and transport services emerged and thrived as a result of the “bubble economy” from the mid-1980s. Kawai says now they’ve already “turned the corner” and can no longer expect to sustain their customer base. Aggravated by the pandemic and a shortage of part-time workers, and with fewer night-owls out and about, a downturn can be expected.
  • The number of foreign workers coming to Japan will taper off. Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare figures for the number of such workers in Japan at the end of last October were 1,724,328 — a record. Due to the pandemic, the year-on-year increase was only 4%, as opposed to 13.6% in 2019. Greater international competition for workers and improvement in living standards in other countries are changing the equation.

“The time when foreign workers could support their family overseas for a year with one month’s earnings from a Japanese convenience store is over,” Kawai says.

The government had previously considered an annual inflow of 240,000 foreign workers per year, to maintain Japan’s population at 100 million by 2060. But whether tourists or workers, Kawai writes, a stable flow in the number of foreign arrivals sought by Japanese society isn’t in the cards. It would seem that “population decline countermeasures” for foreign workers may eventually become a pressing issue.

Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations.

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