‘Social distancing’ in Japan puts strains on family life

Blossom-viewing parties, concerts, sporting events and job fairs all falling victim to coronavirus

A couple wearing masks among the cherry blossoms in Saitama Prefecture, Japan. Photograph: Reuters/Athit Perawongmetha

The Meguro river runs by our Tokyo apartment before snaking through some of the city's better neighbourhoods and emptying out into Tokyo Bay. For a few weeks in March and early April, up to three million people crowd along a 1km stretch of its banks to view cherry blossom trees in fleeting full bloom. Not this year.

Japan’s beloved Hanami (blossom viewing) parties are falling victim to the coronavirus, along with concerts, sporting events and job fairs.

Asia’s biggest St Patrick’s Day parade, which has been making its way down Tokyo’s Omotesando shopping street for years, has been cancelled on March 15th.

Tokyo's government has asked people to avoid "parties that involve food and drink" to slow the spread of Covid-19, which has infected more than 1,000 people in Japan, and killed 12.


Baseball matches and sumo bouts are taking place in eerily empty stadiums to ensure what the government calls “social distancing”.

More than 12 million children, including our eight-year-old son, have been sent home. Explaining his abrupt decision on February 27th to ask roughly 38,000 schools to close for a month, prime minister Shinzo Abe called the request unavoidable but "gut-wrenching" for students, especially before graduation ceremonies in April.

Actually, many kids seem delighted at this unexpected liberation from classroom drudgery. Parents, on the other hand, are pulling their hair out. Babysitters and nannies are still relatively rare in Japan. Dads and working mothers have been forced to plead with bosses to take time off, or (more rarely) bring kids to the office.

Grandparents have been drafted in to help with childcare. My wife’s parents, who live about 45 minutes away in western Tokyo, take our son two days a week. We put him on the bus in the mornings, wearing his washable facemask, with instructions to disinfect his hands at the other end of the journey.

Kindergartens and day-care centres are exempted from the closures, but many parents are heeding calls to keep their kids indoors. Millions are stuck at home reading or playing video games. Some publishers have started free online distribution of the country’s most popular manga comics to give parents a break.

Home deliveries are booming, with some firms reporting demand for curry and instant noodles up by 40 per cent since the first case of the virus was reported in January. A survey this month by one delivery firm with 2.8 million subscribers found over 80 per cent are trying not to go out “as much as possible” or “to some extent”.

Still, society hasn't collapsed, as Toshihito Kumagai, mayor of Chiba (the prefecture next door to Tokyo), predicted in anger after the school closures were announced.

Fist fights

The most visible signs of frustration have been fist fights outside pharmacies and panic buying of toilet roll and a small list of household items. This week the reselling of surgical facemasks was criminalised. The calm may be deceptive. In a population of 127 million people, fewer than 10,000 have been tested for the flu-like virus. Health officials fret about the eventual impact of the crisis in a country where one-in-three people are over 65. The virus has proved particularly dangerous to the elderly.

Hanami parties, heralding the arrival of spring, might relieve the stress of living with the coronavirus. Cherry blossoms are a symbol of the fragility of life. Millions of Japanese gather every year under trees in parks, drinking and eating as the blossoms fall. Reluctant to ban them outright, the Tokyo government has advised people to stroll around and admire the trees from a distance. It will hardly be the same.