TOKYO — It was a scene of normalcy, something friends in New York or London or San Francisco can only conjure in memory: a man and a woman, out for a drink.
Tokyo had already been in a coronavirus state of emergency for more than a week. But through the windows of a narrow restaurant in Roppongi, a popular nightlife district in central Tokyo, I could see them sipping from large beer steins, chatting in non-social distancing proximity.
Several other patrons waited, face masks pulled down under their chins, while cooks served up battered octopus balls.
Nobody was breaking any laws: Even Japan’s new state of emergency empowers governors only to request that people stay home and that businesses close. The Tokyo governor has asked people to refrain from going out at night, but said restaurants and bars may stay open until 8 p.m., prompting macabre jokes about the virus’s nocturnal habits.
Tokyo is a place where people follow rules. They wait for green lights to cross streets. In subway stations, they board escalators single file.
But there is always room for subversion. On my normal route to work, I pass an alley book-ended by “no smoking” signs, always crowded with smokers. Tokyo’s cacophonous (and alcohol-soaked) nightlife caters to employees seeking an escape from days conforming to Japan’s hierarchical work culture. Even under the threat of a deadly virus, people don’t relinquish these outlets easily.
Some social distancing is also built in to the culture. We bow rather than shake hands. Hugging is rare. And while the Western world debated whether face masks were needed, Japanese did what came naturally. Long before the coronavirus, especially during winter flu seasons, Tokyo’s trains were filled with faces shielded behind white masks.
That may partly explain why this city has seemed seduced by magical thinking, presuming we are immune when so many others around the world are not.
Even a member of Parliament refused to do what was being asked; he was kicked out of his political party when he admitted he visited a so-called hostess bar in Tokyo after the state of emergency was declared.
Some of the “resistance,” if you will, is rooted in this country’s work culture, where employees fear they will be deemed slackers if they don’t show up to work in person.
On Friday, the first day of the government’s expanded state of emergency to cover all of Japan, a stream of people emerged from a subway station in my neighborhood, walking briskly into an office tower. At noontime a day earlier, office workers lined up to buy lunch at food trucks, chatting while seasoning their orders from communal condiment bottles.
Tokyo may have been lulled into complacency during the weeks when Japan contained the coronavirus while avoiding economically devastating lockdowns.
Although schools have been closed and large events canceled since the beginning of March, much of life in this city — by most measures the world’s largest — continued as normal until early April. (The crush of people did start to thin with the Tokyo emergency declaration, but remember this is ordinarily a place of teeming crosswalks and breath-shortening packed trains at rush hour, so less crowded is a relative term.)
While my family and I Zoomed with friends isolated at home in New York and California late last month, we went to dinner with friends in a crowded riverside Tokyo neighborhood, wondering if we were foolhardy. At the briefing in late March to announce the delay of the Summer Olympics — a decision taken only after much international prodding — reporters packed into an unventilated room.
After I posted photos on social media, friends asked if we were safe. That’s it, I told my husband. Our family and the Tokyo bureau of The Times would initiate our own lockdowns. Our family would no longer get together with others in person, and our bureau staff moved immediately to working from home.
Two weeks later, following dire warnings from experts, the prime minister declared the state of emergency. That was April 7.
Since then, people do seem to be taking requests to stay at home more seriously. Weekday ridership on Tokyo subway lines is down by about 60 percent compared with last year. Far fewer people crowd the sidewalks. A popular karaoke palace is shut. At a Roppongi izakaya — a Japanese-style pub — a chalked sign outside offers take-out, and advice: “Stay home.”
Still, even with much lower testing than in many other nations, Japan had confirmed 10,361 infections and 161 deaths as of Saturday. Some hospitals in Tokyo warn that they cannot cope with coronavirus patients already being admitted.
As Tokyo tries to hang on to some sense of itself, it feels like people are trying to thread a needle they cannot see. The government says residents need to reduce human contact by 80 percent to flatten the curve. Yet it seems too many people are trying to squeeze into the 20 percent.
At home in our living room, we periodically hear loudspeaker messages booming over our neighborhood. “Please refrain from going outside,” we are told. I wonder if enough people are listening.
Makiko Inoue and Hisako Ueno contributed research.