EVERY MARCH and April trees along the banks of the Meguro river in Tokyo fleetingly erupt with fat pink and white cherry blossoms, heralding the arrival of spring. For a few glorious weeks, millions of people across the city flee the drudgery of the office and factory to spend an hour or two in places like this, eating and drinking under falling sakura petals. It is a ritual with ancient roots, with a chapter devoted to it in “The Tale of Genji”, a tenth-century work that is perhaps the world’s first novel.
In this year of coronavirus contagion, however, the prospect of cheek-by-jowl hanami parties has alarmed the authorities. Tokyo’s government has urged people to steer clear of gatherings “that involve food and drink” to slow the spread of infection. To little effect. The happy combination of bright weather and a three-day weekend has sent many flocking to the parks anyway.
Host to the world’s biggest cluster of covid-19 infections outside China barely a month ago, Japan appears dramatically to have slowed its spread since then. Tokyo, a teeming city of nearly 14m people, has recorded a little over 100 cases and just two deaths. Nationwide, there are just nine infections per million people, well behind G7 nations such as Britain (84) and Italy (978).
Nobody seems quite sure why. Apart from sending nearly 14m children home from school, the government largely ducked the draconian measures taken elsewhere. Lofty standards of public hygiene have certainly helped—initial reports of the disease triggered panic-buying and street brawls over hand-sanitisers and surgical facemasks. Even the cultural preference for bowing over hugs and handshakes may be playing a part.
Whatever the reason, complacency about social distancing appears to be settling in. Trains are packed in the mornings and bars are full at the weekends. Schools in some areas are already preparing to re-open and there are calls for a loosening of restrictions on large public events. For some, hanami parties are an act of cheerful public defiance.
Yet it is too early to say that Japan has ridden out the epidemic. The number of infections is rising in Kansai, the nation’s second-largest economic bloc. A team of government experts warned on March 19th that an “explosive” pandemic was still possible. More than a third of the Japanese population is over 60 (the elderly are particularly vulnerable to the flu-like virus) and relatively few have been tested. Indeed, some suspect the government is playing down the scope of the pandemic to avoid upending the Olympics, which are supposed to start in July.
Until this week, the capital has still officially been limbering up for the world’s biggest sporting event. The Olympic torch arrived from Greece on March 20th to a forlorn welcoming ceremony at a military base in northern Japan. More than $12bn has been splurged on preparations—though some estimates suggest the eventual cost will be more than twice that. The city’s successful bid for the Olympics in 2013 rode a wave of patriotism, amid the recovery from the earthquake-tsunami-nuclear disaster of March 2011. The games are something of a legacy project for Abe Shinzo, the prime minister, who is crowning his nearly eight-year run in office. The Olympics were to mark the definitive shedding of the gloom of the country’s post-1980s inertia.
But on Sunday the International Olympic Committee said it was stepping up its “scenario planning” for the games, with delaying them one possibility. Canada became the first country to withdraw its team. So Mr Abe has appeared to bow to the inevitable, telling parliament on Monday that there may be no option but to postpone them. Nearly two-thirds of Japanese voters want him to do just that. Covid-19 has already walloped the economy. Even before the virus arrived, it had contracted by an annualised 7.1% in the last three months of 2019. In its wake, tourism from China and South Korea, sources of most visitors to Japan, has collapsed. Predictions that 10m people would visit Tokyo in July and August now look wildly off. Without that economic bump, recession seems inevitable.
For now, people have shrugged off such concerns and headed to the parks. Depriving Japanese of cherry-blossom parties would be like snatching hugs from Italians, said Koike Yuriko, Tokyo’s governor. Reluctant to ban parties outright, the government has advised people to stroll around and admire the trees from a distance. That sort of hanami party might relieve the stress of living with the modern plague. Cherry blossoms, after all, are a symbol of the fragility of life.
Illustration credit: Dan Williams