Make your home page

Many people in Japan defy appeals to stay home to curb virus

Ryota Kano (left) shows off his African owl to passing children in a park during Japan's annual Golden Week holiday in Tokyo on April 30, 2020. (Behrouz Mehri/AFP via Getty Images)

TOKYO (AP) — Under Japan’s coronavirus state of emergency, people have been asked to stay home. Many are not. Some still have to commute to their jobs despite risks of infection, while others continue to dine out, picnic in parks and crowd into grocery stores with scant regard for social distancing.

On Wednesday, the first day of the “Golden Week” holidays that run through May 5, Tokyo’s leafy Shiba Park was packed with families with small children, day camping in tents.

The lure of heading out for Golden Week holidays is testing the public’s will to unite against a common enemy as health workers warn rising coronavirus cases are overwhelming the medical system in some places. Experts say a sense of urgency is missing, thanks to mixed messaging from the government and a lack of incentives to stay home.

distant, tropical Okinawa, locals have resorted to posting social media
appeals to tourists not to visit, “to protect our grannies and

“Please cancel your trip to Okinawa and wait until we
can welcome you,” Okinawa’s governor Denny Tamaki tweeted.
“Unfortunately Okinawa can provide no hospitality and our medical
systems, including on remote islands, are in a state of emergency.”

this country driven by conformity and consensus, the pandemic is
pitting those willing to follow the rules against a sizable minority who
are resisting the calls to stay home.

To get better compliance,
the government needs stronger messaging, said Naoya Sekiya, a University
of Tokyo professor and expert of social psychology and risk

A tougher lockdown would also help.

the halfhearted adherence to the calls to stay home has dismayed Tokyo
Gov. Yuriko Koike, none of those spurning the advice are breaking the
law. Legally, the state of emergency can only involve requests for
compliance. Violators face no penalties. There are few incentives to
close shops.

The main message has been economy first, safety
second: Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has insisted Japan will not adopt
European-style hard lockdowns that would paralyze the economy. His
economy minister heads the government’s coronavirus task force meetings.

message coming from the government is rather mild, apparently trying to
convey the need to stay home while prioritizing the economy,” Sekiya
said. Since people lack a shared sense of crisis, instead of staying
home they’re hoping for the best and assuming they won’t get infected,
he said.

Three-quarters of people responding to a recent survey
by the Asahi newspaper said they are going out less than usual. But just
over half felt they could comply with Abe’s call to reduce their social
interactions by 80%.

People of all ages are shrugging off the
stay-at-home request. The popular “scramble” intersection in downtown
Tokyo’s Shibuya looked uncrowded, but eateries and pubs on backstreets
were still busy. In the western suburb of Kichijoji, narrow shopping
streets were jammed during the weekend with families strolling and
heading to lunch. Pachinko pinball parlors have drawn ire for staying
open despite name-and-shame announcements and other pressure to close.
Bars and restaurants are ignoring a requested 8 p.m. closing time.

ridiculous,” said an 80-year-old man drinking Wednesday at a downtown
bar. “What am I supposed to do at home? I’d only be watching TV.”

are trying to fight back. In Kichijoji, they patrolled shopping arcades
carrying banners saying “Please, do not go out.” Local mayors appealed
to the government to close the crowded Shonan beach, popular with
surfers and families, south of Tokyo. Some prefectures have set up
border checkpoints to spot non-local license plates.

“It seems not
everyone shares the sense of crisis,” said Kazunobu Nishikawa, a
disaster prevention official in Musashino city, which oversees
Kichijoji. “Many people understand the risks of this infectious
disease,” he said, but “others seem to think COVID-19 is nothing more
than a common cold and don’t care as long as they don’t catch it.”

declared the state of emergency on April 7, as virus cases surged. It
initially covered only Tokyo and six other areas but later expanded to
include the whole country.

Abe did not ask non-essential
businesses to close. But Koike, the Tokyo governor, fought and prevailed
in requesting that schools, movie theaters, athletic clubs, hostess
bars and other such businesses in the city be asked to close. Most
restaurants and pubs still can operate from 5 a.m. to 8 p.m., and
grocery and convenience stores and public transport remain open as

The government has rolled out an unprecedentedly huge
economic package of 108 trillion yen ($1 trillion) that included loans
for small businesses and other coronavirus measures. Responding to
criticism he was neglecting individuals and families in dire need of
cash to survive, Abe belatedly announced cash payouts of 100,000 yen
each to all residents of Japan.

Survey data show the 80% social
distancing target has roughly been met during weekends, with the numbers
of nightlife goers and commuters noticeably lower. But parks and
popular outdoor spots in Japan’s densely crowded cities are still
bustling with people, said Hiroshi Nishiura, a Hokkaido University
professor and expert of epidemiological analysis.

Tokyo reported
47 newly confirmed cases on Wednesday, with the total across the nation
just over 14,000, though limited testing means the number of infections
is likely much higher.

Call center employee Mayumi Shibata is
among the many Japanese who cannot fully work from home, partly because
much paperwork in this modern nation is still not computerized and most
documents must be stamped in person using ink seals.

“I will
commute as long as I can keep my job,” Shibata said while standing
outside the busy downtown Shinagawa train station one recent morning.

With the trains slightly less crowded, conditions for commuting are better, and she tries to take her lunch break outside, if it’s not raining, to get some fresh air. “I’m trying not to get infected,” she said.

AP video journalists Emily Wang and Haruka Nuga contributed to this report.