How Concerned About COVID-19 are Tokyo Residents? 7 Questions on What Life is Like in Tokyo Now

In Japan and overseas, we’re being bombarded with news about the COVID-19 pandemic.  Japan was one of first countries outside of China to be hit by the coronavirus but the infection rate is very low compared to most other countries.

According to the BBC, as of March 18, Japan has just over 900 confirmed cases, excluding cases from the Diamond Princess cruise ship. The U.S., France and Germany were all above 7,000 cases and Italy was nearing 36,000. Neighboring South Korea, which tested aggressively amid a surge of confirmed infections from late February, was at about 8,500 cases, but new infections are slowing.

Today, an expert panel guiding Japan’s coronavirus response recommended that schools in some regions could be reopened but that large gatherings and enclosed areas that could reignite the contagion should still be avoided, as reported by JapanToday. “The infectious disease experts made no reference to the Tokyo Olympics, set to start from July 24 but which have been cast into doubt by the coronavirus pandemic and the cancellation of sporting events and qualifiers around the world.”

Japan has closed about 90% of schools and cancelled many sporting events, but has refrained from putting firm restrictions on travel, businesses and restaurants, and social distancing has not caught on as a recommended safeguard.

So how are residents of Tokyo reacting to recent events? We’ve gathered the thoughts and concerns some Tokyo residents have expressed.

Q: How concerned are you about taking public transportation right now?

Out of our interview group of eight residents (including Japanese nationals and non-Japanese residents) who all live and work in the Tokyo metropolitan area, only two responded that they have not changed their public transportation usage. The remaining six are avoiding using public transportation when possible.

On top of limiting public transportation, one respondent also wrote “…I used to hold onto the strap when I didn’t have a seat, but I’ve stopped doing this since the end of January.”

Another writes, “I try to avoid using public transportation right now. It’s weird because sometimes it feels like there are fewer people on the train when I do end up using public transportation, but at other times it feels completely normal – packed as usual. So I’m not quite sure what the average person is thinking.”

Q. Public health authorities have said that we do not need to wear a face mask unless we’re sick. Do you yourself wear a face mask when you go outside? Why or why not?

All of our respondents except one replied that they are quite adamant about wearing a mask. Although their reasons for wearing a mask differ. Some wear masks since it is the beginning of allergy season in Japan, and state that it is unrelated to COVID-19. It’s very common in Japan to don a mask during allergy season to help block any pollen particles from disrupting your sinuses.

Our one respondent who is not wearing a mask at this time answered that he simply cannot find anywhere to buy a mask right now, but given the choice would be wearing one.

One of our expat respondents who comes from a country where mask wearing is not a common occurrence wrote: “[Wearing a mask] is kind of social etiquette in Japan in my opinion. It helps other people feel more secure, especially if you have to let out a cough or sneeze.”

An insightful comment from a respondent who lived in a country affected by the SARS outbreak: “A face mask is just like a form of daily protection in Taiwan, Japan, and other Asian countries. I was in Taipei City during the SARS outbreak, everyone wore a mask when going outside.”

If social distancing and wearing masks in public are shown to help curb the spread of pandemic disease, it will be interesting to see if other countries start embracing the custom of wearing masks during flu season.

Q. If you are working from home, has this affected your daily routine? Any change in your self-perceived productivity?

Our respondents who are being asked to work from home for the time being all generally seemed to welcome the change. A few remarked that there are certain paperwork related tasks that cannot be performed from home, making it difficult to completely work from home.

The most praised aspect of working from home is no longer having to commute to work. In Tokyo, the average commute is around 49 minutes one-way. That’s almost two hours each day stuck in a train or bus. It’s easy to see why this is a welcome change for many.

“I love working from home so it’s not affecting my daily routine. Without the commute time, I can sleep longer and work more focused, faster and effectively.”

But, there are some cons that come with the territory. One respondent writes, “Working from home is nice, but I often feel like I’m not moving around at all. I have to be very careful of not spending the entire day sitting down at my computer. It’s nice that I can take a quick walk or bike ride to move my legs, but there have been days where at the end of the day I’m like ‘Wait, have I been inside all day?’”

Q. Any advice for those who are also limiting their social interaction during this period? Tips on how to deal with cabin fever or how to stay focused on work, etc.

The shift from heading to the office every day to having to work from home can be jarring for some. Here’s how our respondents are adjusting to their new work style.

“Move around your apartment or house to keep your body from deteriorating and remember to stay hydrated. Get as much sunlight as possible from the windows. Enjoy the little victories and take mental health breaks from your work when you need them.”

“Regarding your work environment, it’s important to make clear rules by team or individual to stay focused on work.”

Q. How are your family members reacting to you staying in Japan during this time?

We received mixed answers for this question. Initially, Japan was a concern due to its proximity to China, and because of the Diamond Princess cruise ship that was docked at Yokohama in early February 2020. Fast-forward to March 2020 and the hotspots of the spread of COVID-19 are in Europe and North America.

“Initially they were worried about me, but in an ironic twist of fate America is now way worse than Japan. A lot of friends and family members message me to ask about the situation in Japan and I do the same for America.”

“I think my family is pretty flexible and not too pessimistic about the situation now. They think that the problems will be resolved at some point, understanding that it will not last forever.”

Q. Has this changed any of your upcoming travel plans? (Both within the country and international.)

Towards the middle of February we saw a dip in the number of tourists coming to Japan. Although this was primarily a dip in the number of tourists from mainland China, the news of COVID-19 was beginning to also affect the travel plans of many across the world. We asked whether or not these concerns have caused our respondents to adjust their travel plans.

A few of our interviewees already had international travel plans set for this time (in fact, specifically this week), but have had their travel plans postponed due to international border closures.

“I was planning to go to Montreal to watch the World Figure Skating Championships 2020, but the competition was cancelled.”

“I was supposed to go to Cambodia tomorrow but the flight got cancelled… so I had to cancel my whole trip.”

“For international travel plans, I have canceled everything and have not been able to make any plans until the coronavirus situation calms down globally. For domestic travel plans, I have made a few new plans because it is super cheap and there are so many options available now which were not available before.”

Out of all our respondents, only one is not overly concerned about international travel at this time. Most are hesitant to consider international travel, and some are even trying to take advantage of the cheaper prices for domestic flights/hotels.

Q. Would you have said that you felt confident/prepared for a national emergency prior to the spread of the coronavirus? Are you more interested in being prepared for any future disasters/emergencies?

This was an interesting topic since our respondents come from various backgrounds and ages, some of whom lived through recent disasters such as the Tohoku Earthquake in 2011.

“As I experienced the Tohoku Earthquake and suffered from natural disasters in its history, many Japanese people (including myself) are aware of the importance of preparing for disasters/emergencies.”

“I’m usually not even prepared for tomorrow, so definitely not. I am very much interested in making a disaster kit, although that will have to wait until I move into an apartment with more space…”

This is a small sliver of Tokyo residents, but hopefully it can give a little insight into the current mentality and mindset surrounding Tokyo. It’s important to remember that Tokyo is not the only part of Japan that is affected by the virus, take a look at the map of coronavirus cases by prefecture in Japan.

No matter where you are in the world, this virus outbreak is most likely affecting you in some shape or fashion. We at Real Estate Japan hope that you and your loved ones stay safe and informed throughout this worldwide ordeal.

Lead photo: iStock stock photography