COVID-19 diary: Why we will wait till next year to enjoy the cherry blossoms in Japan
In this exclusive first-person account, we get an insider’s view on the impact of COVID-19 on Japan, responses to the crisis, and how people are coping with ‘the new normal’.
Last weekend, two things happened. March 28-29 was the peak of the cherry blossoms in Tokyo, and it was also the first weekend that Tokyo governor asked its residents to refrain from going out to avoid COVID-19 spread.
To go out or not? Most of us chose not to go out.
In Japan, the strategy to focus on identifying infection clusters and tracking them has been successful so far. Japan has also been able to minimise infection and prepare healthcare infrastructure to be able to treat the seriously ill in the event of a leap in infections. This was achieved largely due to Japanese people’s care about sanitisation and public health in general.
However, following the decision of postponing the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics on March 24, 2020, measures were taken to shutdown Tokyo, which has a population of 14 million.
On March 25, the Tokyo metropolitan government suggested remote work and stay-home weekdays, and the mayors of surrounding prefectures advised citizens to refrain from visiting Tokyo over the weekend. Many retailers and movie theatres in downtown Tokyo also decided to close their operation or shorten their working hours to reduce public exposure.
The postponing of Olympics and Paralympics, estimated at nearly $6 billion, will have a negative impact on the Japanese economy. In addition to this, there is also the COVID-19 impact on sectors like tourism, travel, and hospitality.
Interestingly, there has also been a positive impact in terms of boost to online education. Schools, which were closed since early March, have started online classes by changing the mindset of teachers and education sectors. This also accelerates the government initiative, 'Global and Innovation Gateway for All', facilitating the ICT environment.
This initiative includes a digital device for all nine million students in elementary and junior high school all over Japan, accounting for a $2.1 billion budget for the first year. Work-style reform for office workers is another example of a positive impact.
On March 16, the Bank of Japan announced a large-scale easy-money policy. The government has started a financial support plan including spending at $14.5 billion to rescue SMEs. In another development, a Japanese VC, along with 20 other investors, announced special online support for startups with respect to advice on topics like strategic management and cash flow.
What this means for me
I got to know about the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan in January through news media. I first thought it is a regional disease and similar to flu. Later, I recognised this as a challenge to all of humanity, across the world.
I first prepared what was necessary for me to live in safety and keep my business going. I also cared for people around me and prepared them to be ready for more sanitisation and an uncertain environment in our lives.
For example, I gave masks and sanitsation gels to people. I also shared fact-based information globally, which is part of my expertise. I have been working in as normal a manner as possible, while taking the maximum safety measures for the future and informing my business collaborators about it.
The most difficult thing is not to be able to visit my parents, as there is the possibility that I may infect them if I carry the virus. The second challenge is to share the same imagination on what is the possible future. Our future won’t be linear from what it has been, and a new normal may come for us. It is very difficult to imagine we won’t be in the same environment that we have been used to for so long.
I shared the photos I took in Tokyo with my friends and partners at work, which was well appreciated. Some friends overseas told me there is hope that some place in the globe is moving on – as Tokyo is the only G7 country capital that is not locked down (at least till March 30). This reaction has been very encouraging for me, and I appreciate I was able to play a positive role for others.
But things are changing now. Events and projects are being cancelled or postponed, country borders are being shut, and a complete Tokyo lockdown may happen anytime soon.
The road ahead
I have been thinking of what will be the new normal, which we are entering, separated from the past.
I keeping thinking what people will want and need in the future, and what I can do with whom and for what. This keeps my mental health in good condition.
For physical health, I use some meditation apps to have quality sleep, eat a balanced diet, laugh a lot with family and friends, and exchange quality and fact-based information with leaders globally. It may not be a good time to exercise outside, but I try to move away from the desk once every 30 minutes for a stretch.
I try to express my opinions more than ever before, so that I can be more connected with the people I know, and extend new connections by sharing the same values. In this restructuring of time, everybody is searching for inspiration, value, and purpose for themselves, and I feel reconnecting is the key for the new normal.
Last weekend, citizens in Tokyo followed the government’s guidance – we were not forced to, but we did not go out. We gave up viewing cherry blossoms, which is a big spring event for us – but we save it for the next year.
This is how we cope with this pandemic. The Japanese suffered through big earthquakes in 1995 (Kobe), and 2011 (Tohoku). We remind ourselves now that cooperation, empathy, and resilience are more important than ever.
What will I do when all this ends? Well, first I will run to my parents to meet them face to face. I will also not forget to have home parties in Tokyo with my friends and colleagues. I will also work more on India-Japan collaboration.
The India connection
In Fall 2020, I will take Japanese business and thought leaders to visit India to see, learn from, share, and collaborate with India. I have already brought Japanese delegations to India in the past, and attended events like YourStory’s TechSparks and Future of Work, One Globe Forum, DesignUp, CII India Knowledge Summit, NASSCOM Product Conclave, NASSCOM Technology & Leadership Forum, ad:tech, Kochi Biennale, and so many other amazing events.
I have visited India over 35 times in the past 10 years, promoting business and cultural collaboration between India and Japan, particularly in the area of innovation. India’s fight against coronavirus has also inspired me a lot, as people realise how individuals and communities can impact the society.
As in the case of Italy and Spain, the clapping for healthcare workers during the ‘janata curfew’ in India was inspiring. Another example is the donations made by business leaders, movie stars, and foundations.
Some of the movie stars are also taking to mainstream and social media to emphasise the message of “stay home”. Many foundations and experts are urging a focus on prioritisation of healthcare measures. I keep learning from these examples.
The new normal
In this crisis, we all are being challenged on what “human beings” can do. Let’s make the future together and become a part of OUR future.
Next year, we can walk through the streets with cherry blossoms in full bloom and party under those trees! Till then, we all must be safe and stay healthy.
For more reading on Japan:
COVID-19: Fighting a Pandemic - Japanese documentary by NHK (free viewing till April 9)
In pictures: First day of Tokyo shutdown to stem coronavirus by Nikkei Asian Review
Downtown Tokyo, snowing and people stay home on March 29th by Nikkei (which owns the Financial Times)
(Edited by Megha Reddy)