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Covid-19 changes Japanese society, Church

As its lockdown eases, the government is relying on Japan's high level of social consciousness to achieve its goals

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Covid-19 changes Japanese society, Church

People drink and eat in an alley of izakaya bars in Tokyo’s Shimbashi area on June 17. (Photo: AFP)

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Cacophonous Tokyo has come to a standstill as people work remotely without commuting in packed trains.

Events are canceled and sports games postponed. People refrain from going out at night to drink and party after the coronavirus outbreak’s tremendous impact on Japan’s social life.

The 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games that were expected to “provide a spark for the Japanese economy” have been postponed for one year.

The Japanese have followed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s call to practice the “three Cs”: avoiding closed spaces, concentrated gatherings and close contact.

In their zeal to practice jishuku (a form of self-restraint founded on a sense of self-responsibility), those who defy it are declared “Covidiots” and shunned as morally inconsiderate.

Silent pachinko gaming halls, masked karaoke and gym treadmills with a 10kph speed limit have become part of daily life in Japan as the world’s third-largest economy reopened with strict guidance to stave off the spread of coronavirus on May 25. The government lacks the legal tools to enforce preventive measures but relies instead upon Japan’s high level of social consciousness to achieve its goals.

With more than 5,900 coronavirus cases and 323 deaths so far, Tokyo, like the rest of Japan, has been spared the kind of explosive outbreak seen elsewhere. In all of Japan, more than 18,000 persons have tested positive and 971 have died from the pandemic.

On June 24, Tokyo reported 55 new infections, marking the highest number of daily cases since May 5, and has become the most affected among Japan's 47 prefectures.

On June 19, the metropolitan government in Tokyo lifted the remaining business restrictions on nightclubs and live music venues and increased the number of people allowed to attend large outdoor events to 1,000.

The Archdiocese of Tokyo, which had canceled all public Masses and meetings just after Ash Wednesday, Feb. 26, announced on June 10 that public liturgies and small-group meetings could resume on a case-by-case basis on June 21 with restrictions on the number of participants.

The elderly were asked to remain at home and priests over 75 years of age were ordered to refrain from distributing Holy Communion, relying instead upon lay ministers. Not all parishes have reopened because of the practical difficulties of maintaining social distancing in small churches.

Tokyo, with a population of 14 million, emerged from hibernation after easing the restrictions. Gyms, theatres, karaoke booths and other entertainment venues and offices are following the Covid-19 guidelines, which have transformed how they operate.

In karaoke booths, customers are expected to sit two meters apart and wear a mask or face shield except when they are singing or eating. In normal times, karaoke would have packed the participants into a small, windowless room to sing with friends.

Asked whether customers will enjoy karaoke under those conditions, the Japan Karaoke Box Association said the participants would have “peace of mind.”

Famous for their garish lighting and deafening noise, Japan’s pachinko gaming halls have turned down background music and machine sounds to the minimum.

At gyms, members will have to wear face masks and disinfect each machine after use, as per the guidelines of the Fitness Industry Association of Japan.

Theatre actors are “in principle” required to wear masks at all times, including while performing, and exceptions can be made if there are “difficulties in expression.”

Television companies are told to avoid close contact between actors. Scenes of singing, action and kissing are reduced to a minimum.

The much-touted after-work drinking scene in Tokyo also has gone for a toss with the pandemic. The often jam-packed izakaya dining bars are reinventing themselves to survive.

Izakayas — a mainstay of working culture and late-night drinking — offer cheap drinks to thirsty office workers in cozy settings. With more people working from home and social distancing rules in force, these drinking outlets have halved their seating capacity.

The “hang out with colleagues after work” culture practiced for decades has been damaged.

The hospitality industry makes up 16 percent of coronavirus-related financial losses in Japan so far, according to Tokyo Shoko Research.

“Our aim is to construct a new kind of daily life,” said PM Abe when he announced the end of the state of emergency on May 25. “From now on we have to change our way of thinking.”

Among Japan’s population of 126 million, more than 30 percent are over 60 years and they are the most at risk from the virus.

To boost the economy, the government has announced the country’s largest-ever stimulus package, US$990 billion, to help businesses and households cope with the coronavirus outbreak.

Takeshi Niinami, a government adviser and head of Japanese beverage maker Suntory Holdings, said that more than 20 percent of bars and restaurants will not survive the pandemic.

"The pandemic has shaken the foundation of our business, which is to provide a venue for face-to-face communication," said Tadao Nakashima, CEO of Bears Corp, who has been in the izakaya business for more than two decades.

*With input from Catholic Church officials in Tokyo

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