Japan’s Response to Covid-19: A Work in Progress

A cursory glance at statistics might suggest that Japan’s exposure to Covid-19 thus far has been relatively mild. As of April 23, Japan has confirmed approximately 12,000 cases and 300 deaths. But the rate of infections has increased rapidly over the last several weeks, and the government recently declared a nationwide state of emergency encouraging telework and social distancing practices to contain the spread of the virus. Like many other countries, Japan’s response to the crisis has evolved over time and could ultimately be judged by the extent to which people heed the government’s recommendations. While it may be too early to reach any definitive conclusions on the effectiveness of government policy, satellite imagery reveals a reduction in activity consistent with the timeline for Covid-19 mitigation actions.

Japan announced its first Covid-19 case on January 16, and the virus grabbed the headlines in early February when the government quarantined the Diamond Princess cruise ship that subsequently became a virus hot spot. The response then appeared to intensify as the central government called for school closures; instituted travel restrictions from China, South Korea, and other countries; and updated legislation on health pandemics to include Covid-19. By the end of March, an uptick in cases in Tokyo prompted the local government to urge residents to stay home on weekends. On April 7, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared a national emergency in Tokyo and six other locales, encouraging social distancing and telework to mitigate the spread of the virus. That declaration was updated on April 17 to encourage such measures nationwide and is currently set to expire on May 6 after a string of national holidays. Recent public opinion polls suggested support for the national emergency declaration but also criticism that the national response was too slow, placing the government’s actions under increased scrutiny.

February 28, 2020: Typical flow of traffic to the south of Tokyo’s Imperial Palace.

April 9, 2020: The same intersection just six weeks later—a 62 percent drop in traffic.

Satellite images of the road network that connects residential and business districts around the Imperial Palace in central Tokyo reveal a decrease in traffic that could reflect the evolution in the government’s response to coronavirus. The images compare midday traffic at intersections around the Imperial Palace on February 28 (just after the recommended school closures) and April 9 (just after the first national emergency declaration), both weekdays. They indicate a 50-62 percent drop in traffic depending on location. (Traffic congestion in Tokyo has reportedly decreased 30 percent since the government issued the first national emergency declaration, much less than U.S. cities such as New York or Los Angeles where stay-at-home orders were issued earlier.) Though not expansive, this snapshot of vehicular traffic in central Tokyo across a six-week time horizon can be reasonably associated with Covid-19 mitigation actions.

February 28, 2020: Typical flow of traffic to the north of Tokyo’s Imperial Palace.

April 9, 2020: The same intersection after the first national emergency declaration.

Are these measures adequate? The Japanese public has expressed frustration with various elements of government policy, and Abe, like many other leaders, is under pressure to both protect public health and shore up the economy. (The CSIS Japan Chair has asked two experts to evaluate the Abe government’s response to Covid-19 in the forthcoming edition of the Debating Japan newsletter.) This satellite imagery seemingly captures the irony that desolate thoroughfares in Tokyo and elsewhere could be prerequisites for realizing both objectives.

Nicholas Szechenyi is deputy director and senior fellow of the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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