LWIF EP147: Tokyo’s Coronavirus Timeline (COVID-19 in Japan | Jan 16 – May 25, 2020)

A timeline of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) in Tokyo, Japan: from the first case to the end of the state of emergency.

Note: the transcript below is like 98% accurate as sometimes I say words differently, but the general gist of it is the same.

Before I show the transcript, the main sources of information I used were:


Hello World. 2020, it’s been… yeah.

Today I’ll talk about COVID-19 in Tokyo, as well as in Japan as a whole, and the timeline of how things occurred.

And before I get into it, there was such a huge amount of info. I literally skimmed thousands of articles and headlines while compiling this, and yes, I did fully read scores of them. However, there is much that is left out. So, in the description I’ll leave links to a number, but not all, of the sources I used, so that if you’re interested, you can dive in as deep as you want.

Okay, so the first confirmed case of novel coronavirus in Japan happened on January 16th. He was a Chinese national returning from Wuhan.

I actually remember this day because my wife told me the news in fear, and, as I usually do, I brushed it off and said it’s just one case and I’m sure the government will put measures in place to take care of things.

Before that first case, on January 14th, the Ministry of Health, Labour & Welfare japan asked the public to adhere to “coughing etiquette” and handwashing.

January 26 – Shortly after, Japan started evacuating its citizens from Wuhan, China.

This coincided with the first reports of face masks and hand sanitizers being sold out in stores.

February 2nd – A week later, Tokyo’s governor, Koike-san, was imploring everyone to wash their hands and wear surgical masks to prevent the spread of the virus.

“This is one of the things I’m very worried about,” Koike said 

Then, on February 3rd, a literal ship of warning arrived in Yokohama Bay. It was the Diamond Princess Cruise ship. Someone who had disembarked in Hong Kong tested positive and now the ship and its 3,711 passengers and crew were to be quarantined off shore.

February 10th – Halfway through a week of quarantine, the count of infected people rose to 135. And this is when it became clear that Japan didn’t have the testing capacity.

Only 336 people, or roughly 10%, had been tested so far.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga indicated during a news conference Monday afternoon that it would be difficult to test all of the passengers and crew, adding that testing will be prioritized for people with potential symptoms and the elderly.

In the following weeks, it was found that some people didn’t get tested properly before leaving the ship and infected passengers were able to travel home via public transport. Japanese medical workers who went on board also contracted the virus.

By March 1st, everyone had left the vessel and in the end, 712 caught the virus and 13 died.

The government was roundly criticized for its handling of the cruise ship by both local and international media.

I skipped ahead in the timeline a bit though. The first death attributed to the coronavirus in Japan happened on February 13th. The woman who passed away was in her 80’s and was the mother-in-law of a taxi driver from Tokyo who had tested positive.

February 14th – At the same time, Kyoto launched its empty tourism campaign. This is quite extraordinary since in recent years Kyoto had become inundated with tourists, so much so, that there were many complaining of overtourism. Now under tourism is the problem.

February 15th – This is also when the media started to worry about how the virus would affect the Olympics.

In some good news, on February 21st it was reported that:

In the week ended Feb. 9, reported influenza cases plunged by over 60 percent to 44,737, compared with 129,989 the same week a year ago.

You can see in the graph how 2019/20 was trending like other years, but takes a sharp decline, which scientists say could be a result of people following advice to wear masks and wash hands.

On February 26th, it was reported that hospitals were denying testing to patients due to policies around handling infectious diseases.

You can see in the flow chart, there are two flows for being tested. If in the previous 2 weeks before symptoms you had to be in close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19, or been to an area where there was an outbreak PLUS have fever or respiratory symptoms AND a temperature of above 37.5 degrees or higher (which is above 99.5 degrees fahrenheit), you could get tested.

Otherwise, you needed to have the following four symptoms for four days:

  1. Cold-like symptoms
  2. Temperature above 37.5
  3. Extreme fatigue
  4. And difficulty breathing

The four days was cut down to 2 If you were a senior, have underlying health conditions, or were pregnant.

All in all, this caused many to have an incredibly hard time getting tested.

The unfortunate result of these strict testing guidelines, was that not only did many potentially infected people not get tested, but if they were able to, sometimes it required many visits to various hospitals and hours or days trying to get it.

In addition to this, the government didn’t have much testing capacity at this time.

This spawned conspiracy theories that Japan was purposely under testing to make the numbers look good for the Olympics.

In the last week of February, concern over the virus ramped up. Sports leagues were postponed, Disneyland closed, there were calls to cancel the Olympics, people were panic buying toilet paper, the stock market started crashing,

and then on February 27th, Prime Minister Abe Shinzo requested that all elementary, junior high, and high schools close until spring break. At this point, there was just over 200 confirmed cases across Japan.

The school closure was an announcement without warning, and many parents were at a loss at what to do with their children, since they still had to work. At the same time, daycare facilities were to remain open.

For those of you that don’t know, the Japanese school year ends mid-March, and there’s a 2 week break after that, so closing the schools as of March 2nd wouldn’t result in much academic loss seeing as it was the end of the academic year.

However, this was also the time of graduation and entrance ceremonies for elementary, junior high, and high schools. It’s safe to say that many students were heartbroken over having altered celebrations, whether they were cancelled, limited, or virtual.

On February 28th, the prefecture of Hokkaido was the first one to declare a state of Emergency, when under a hundred of it’s population of just over 5 million contracted the virus.

February 29th – The next day, Prime Minister Abe-san made his first official address about the virus. He vowed to increase testing capacity as well as make the costs of testing covered under public health insurance.


Side note:

http://www.euro.who.int/__data/assets/pdf_file/0011/85466/E92927.pdf p.59 of document

Japan Health System Review | European Observatory on Health Systems and Policies | 2009

By the time Mid-March rolls around, Japanese delivery provides the option to go zero contact, the Nikkei 225 index is down 30% off it’s peak, and 70% of Japanese people don’t expect the Olympics to be continued as planned.

March 14 – On top of the speculation about will he or won’t he cancel the Olympics, there’s talk of if Abe-san will declare an emergency since lawmakers pass a bill allowing him to do so.

Basically, at this time, and for the next couple months, there’s a lot of back and forth about who, or what organization, has the power to do what.

In the case of the Olympics, the contract with the IOC required Japan to host the games by the end of 2020. If not, financial consequences could be severe.

For declaring a state of emergency, it was about what the government could and couldn’t ask residents and businesses to do, and how they would protect and compensate them.

In the end, the national government revises and makes new laws to deal with the virus, but to the media and general public, its actions feel reactionary vs. forward thinking.

On March 19th, as Japan hit 1,000 cases, Bloomberg news pondered where the expected Coronavirus explosion in Japan was

Japan has imposed no lockdown AND the looming question is whether Japan has dodged a bullet or is about to be hit.

Japan asks travelers from Europe, Egypt and Iran to self-quarantine for 14 days after their arrival.

March 21 – With the end of March approaching, so was Hanami season, which is a nationwide passtime where friends and families gather, often in seas of people, to view cherry blossoms.

  • Photos I took in 2018

Even though Ueno park was closed, people still gathered.

Up to this point, coronavirus coverage seemed minimal. As an example, this is Japan’s national broadcaster, NHK, showing how cut up tennis balls can be used to make moving desks around quieter. This was kind of odd timing considering kids weren’t even in school at the time.

  • NHK | March 24, 2020


In Canada, our national broadcaster, the CBC, had wall-to-wall coronavirus coverage, reporters were reporting from home, and our Olympic Committee just decided that they wouldn’t send athletes to Japan, the first one in the world to do so.

Then on March 24th, after weeks and weeks of waiting, the International Olympic Committee Member Dick Pound, yes that’s his real name, blinked first and said the Tokyo Olympics would be postponed.

Right after Abe-san officially declared the Olympics postponed until 2021.

This felt like a huge turning point, because the Olympics have been talked about in Japan for years and years. The amount of initiatives that were tied to the Olympics were immense.

March 25 – So following the announcement, Tokyo governor Koike-san asked people to stay indoors over the weekend as virus cases had begun to increase dramatically. But it wasn’t the weekend yet, so shoppers naturally rushed to shops to buy as much as they could.

Around this time it was discovered that the prime minister’s wife had earlier in the month attended what looked like a hanami party. Abe-san denied it stating it was a private party at a restaurant with acquaintances… which is totally different.

March 28 – The weekend arrived, and what do you know, the number of people out and about in Tokyo did drop.

Then on March 29th, news hits that the popular comedian Ken Shimura dies from the coronavirus. The nation is shocked. He’s a national treasure in Japan and some say the U.S. equivalent would be if Tom Hanks had died.

Again warnings go out that there’s no need to hoard food, there’s enough for everyone.

The COVID-19 crisis “does not increase the amounts of food we eat,” a ministry official said

Obviously that minister didn’t check my stomach before speaking. My scale says I’m 2kg heavier.

On April 2nd, Abe-san declares that each household will get free cloth masks, which we later find out costs nearly half a billion dollars.

The masks are smaller than usual, and only two are to be given per household, regardless of size, which spawns memes (meems) galore about the #abenomask, a play on #abenomics.

In this one, someone takes the Sazae family from Japan’s longest running televised anime series, and demonstrates how to use the two masks.

The Japanese people are expecting more help than a couple masks, which the government announces the the next day (April 3rd). ¥300,000 will be given to each household in need, which is expected to be 10 out of Japan’s 58 million households.

Koike makes her first addressin English and explains the three C’s.

She also requested that people stay at home.

Now, any foreign nationals that have traveled to 73 different countries in the last 14 days will be denied entry to the country.

April 4th – And because we all needed a break from the virus, pikotaro of pen-pineapple-apple-pen fame made a video about washing hands

I think the song glitched out because all I kept hearing was wash, wash, wash.

April 5th – As new daily cases across the country surge past one hundred, it’s speculated that Abe-san will announce a state of emergency, something that New York had done a month earlier on March 7th.

And now for the second time, millions across the county receive a basic health condition survey from the government through the popular messaging app LINE.

The next day, on April 6th, Abe-san said he would declare a state of emergency covering Tokyo and six other prefectures. But, he’d make the official announcement soon.

On April 7th, finally, after the announcement two days before that there would be an announcement the next day, which announced this announcement, it was announced that Tokyo and six other prefectures would enter a State of Emergency. It was to last a month, until the end of Golden Week on May 6th.

The multiple announcements were criticized as confusing and unnecessary.

Anyways, Abe-san called it the biggest crisis since World War II and intended to decrease the number of people interacting by 70-80%. Interestingly, the state of emergency in fact did not force anyone or business to do anything, but instead, enabled the governors of prefectures to request that residents stay home, except for essential tasks, and that businesses change their behaviours and implement infection control measures.

Again, it’s worth mentioning that the measures carried no penalties for noncompliance. So the only resource the government had was to ask nicely, provide some financial compensation to residents and businesses, and if that didn’t work, to name and shame.

Before this announcement, the government approved a 108 trillion yen aid package, which is a cool trillion US dollars.

Although the government had been requesting cautious behaviour before, the state of emergency, despite having no consequences for non-compliance, did change how the people of Japan acted.

On this same day, a Japanese doctor working in New York was alarmed by Tokyo’s handling of the virus and thought that Tokyo looked like New York two or three weeks ago, which had under 1,000 cases and a handful of deaths.

However, by April 8th, there were 130,689 total cases and 4,774 total deaths in New York.

On April 10th, Koike-san requested specific measures in Tokyo to combat the virus, which asked certain types of businesses to close or reduce operating hours.

For businesses that cooperated, they would get financially compensated.

And in a popular move with young Japanese, Koike-san, went on Hikakin’s YouTube channel, one of the most popular in Japan, and clearly answered questions using simpler language than she did in televised broadcasts.

It’s rare for politicians to be interviewed by YouTubers in Japan, so the change was welcomed.

April 12 – Perhaps seeing Koike-san’s success on social media, who was the governor of Tokyo, bad had run for the prime minister of Japan before, Abe-san, the prime minister of Japan, decided to jump in on a popular musician, Gen Hoshino’s, video to show what he was doing to help by staying home. This video didn’t go down so well with Japanese netizens, and parodies soon followed.

One twitter user said, “At a time when people are fighting for survival, to show a video of such luxury … one can’t help but wonder, ‘who do you think you are?’”

Unlike Koike-san, who gained praise as the pandemic continued, Abe-san’s approval rating crumbled away.

So how well did residents follow the government’s requests to stay home? The week before the state of emergency was announced, traffic on the Yamanote line, the main train loop around Tokyo, was down 35% during the work week. After the state of emergency declaration it was down 60%. On the weekend it plunged even further to 85%. The Shinkansen, the bullet train, was down even more, with a 92% drop.

At this time, some workers expressed difficulty in following Abe’s request due to the nature of their work, while others said they weren’t able to do everything at home even though they had already started teleworking.

On April 14th, due to the crisis, Japanese lawmakers cut their pay by 20%.

April 15th – Released figures showed that visitors to Japan in March was down 94% from the previous year, which was no surprise.

At Narita airport, cardboard boxes were set up for travelers that had to wait for test results, as every arriving passenger was required to be tested for COVID-19. Those who were able to book with nearby hotels, which quickly became occupied, or stay with friends, were allowed to leave before results came in. But for those without that luxury, a cardboard bed it was.

This same day, dealing with pressure from coalition partners, the national government decided to change tack and instead of giving 300,000 yen to families in need, it would do a much simpler plan of giving 1000,000 yen to every 国民 (kokumin), which can be literally translated as country people, but it’s general usage is to describe a Japanese citizen. Because of this word choice, some foreign residents speculated that they wouldn’t be included. However, as seemingly most theories played out, the worries were for nought and all who were a resident of Japan for over three months would receive the money, even if many as of the date of this video (May 31, 2020) haven’t actually received it.

On April 16th, it was another big moment, when Japan declared a state of emergency for the entire nation.

One of Japan’s biggest holiday periods, Golden Week, was coming up, so this move was set in place to discourage people from travelling during the holiday season. As such, the lifting of the state of emergency was set to be on May 6th, at the end of Golden Week.

To sum it up, the message was:

This was on the same day that Tokyo hit a new high of over 200 cases.

About 60% of employees in Tokyo and six other prefectures were still commuting to work. It is assumed that some of this was caused by the physical presence needed to carry out their work, such as physically stamping documents with hanko’s, an official seal, and having to fax documents.

Appropriately, Abe-san later instructed his government to find ways to do business without the use of seals.

April 18 – On the first weekend where all of Japan was under a state of emergency people, for the large part, stayed at home, or at least away from tourist, entertainment, and shopping locations.

April 22 – And to lighten the mood up, the government released this trailer about a new coronavirus movie.

I personally think I’ll pass on seeing it.

So what happens until May 6th, is that for the most part, the people that can stay home do, and numbers start to flatline and decline. However, everyday there seems to be a new concerning story:

  1. There are people crowding some of Japan’s beaches and mountains, although I think this was more confined to some popular spots as opposed to a widespread phenomenon.
  2. People also complain about parents taking their kids to parks.
  3. The Mayor of Osaka says that women are indecisive and take a long time shopping, but that men can snap up things they are told to buy and go, so he thinks men should do the shopping.
  4. There are reports of children of front line workers losing access to daycare spots as people fear they will spread the virus.
  5. There are incidents of Jishuku Keisatsu, or in other words, self-restraint police. These are regular residents that are harassing people that they believe aren’t from their area, or online personalities that are publicly showing themselves to not be acting with enough caution.
  6. Moving the school year to September is discussed, so as to bring it in line with the international norm, as well as allow time for the schools to restart properly. The idea is quickly shelved.
  7. Essential workers face abuse as they continue to risk their health
  8. This is all the while Japanese medical workers continue to face shortages of PPE, Personal Protection Equipment.
  9. Although, masks for purchase start showing up in the wild, enabled by business directly importing them from overseas.

On May 6th, the end of the Golden Week, Tokyo stays under 100 new infections for the fourth day in a row, with only 38 new coronavirus cases.

At last, on May 7th, Japan dramatically eases restrictions on testing and we see daily testing numbers jump up significantly. Thankfully, cases don’t rise.

Then on May 12th, the Tokyo government releases data to show that there is no surge in deaths during the pandemic. This does not yet include April data, predictably causing some on the internet to believe that the April data will show the true amount of excess mortality.

On May 14th, Japan lifts the state of emergency from 39 prefectures, or essentially, the one’s with less concentrated populations. Tokyo is still under a state of emergency and the government is waiting until there are less than 0.5 infections per 100,000 before releasing it.

May 15 – The next day, Tokyo hits single digits of new cases for the first time, with a tally of only 9.


May 21 – By the following week, Tokyo is hitting its infection targets, and it seems inevitable that the state of emergency will be lifted.

And on May 25th, after being under a state of emergency for 7 weeks, Tokyo has its state of emergency lifted and the first wave of the novel coronavirus is officially over.

  • Cabinet PR Office of Japan | May 25, 2020

By this time, virtually all arrivals of foreign nationals, if they haven’t been outright restricted, are severely limited, and even people who hold long-term and permanent Japanese residency won’t be let back in to Japan if they leave (*unless there are special exceptional circumstances for their departure).

Tokyo Governor Koike-san reveals the plan to ease up restrictions in three stages. She warns if the virus comes back and gets worse, that restrictions will be put back in place again, and that for now there will be a new normal.

My kids physically go back to school on June 1st, after being out of school for 3 months.

  • Me | June 1, 2020

All throughout this, the media and the internet have wondered why Japan and Tokyo has managed to avoid the high numbers that other G7 nations have faced. I quote Foreign Policy:

In its battle with the coronavirus, Japan appears to be doing everything wrong. It has tested just 0.185 percent of its population, its social distancing has been halfhearted, and a majority of Japanese are critical of the government’s response. Yet with among the lowest death rates in the world, a medical system that has avoided an overloading crisis, and a declining number of cases, everything seems to be going weirdly right.

One aspect to the Japanese approach that I have yet to mention was it’s contact tracing and focus on clusters. Contact tracing is tracking down all those that were in contact with a person who tested positive for the virus. By tracking the person down, clusters of the virus can be found and suppressed.

Another aspect that seems unbelievable, is that Japan did very little testing in comparison to other G7 countries.

Some reasons for this beyond their focus on contact tracing, was that there was little testing capacity available at the start, strict testing requirements, a lack of hospitals designated to handle infectious diseases, and an overwhelming shortage of personal protective equipment.

This changed by May, as hotel rooms were procured for those with mild symptoms, testing guidelines were eased to include more people, and the availability of tests rose.

A potential factor that many have mentioned that could have resulted in Japan’s low numbers —- is its mask wearing culture.

Before the virus, its usage was both widespread and normalized. People were not only wearing masks to protect themselves from allergies and sickness, but also to prevent others from catching their sickness. While some wore it to hide their faces. So when requests to wear masks came, it wasn’t a huge cultural shift to do so.

As the virus numbers have increased then decreased, I’ve seen mask usage vary accordingly, but even right now, at the end of May, if I’m on a busy street in Tokyo, my unscientific visual counts tell me that 80 to 90% of the people are wearing masks.

If I travel to paths along parks and riverbanks, I’d say the current usage is closer to 50%.

We continue to learn about COVID-19, but mask usage seems like a very credible theory as to why the infection rate in Tokyo was much lower than people were predicting, especially given the normally crowded train situation.

Another prominent theory posits that it’s the BCG vaccine, a vaccine for tuberculosis that all Japanese people have, that’s keeping the mortality rates low.

Other people say it’s the low obesity rates among the Japanese.

However, the best theory I have seen as to why the virus isn’t spreading as much in Japan as in English speaking countries is this one presented by TBS.

I say, forget the 3 C’s, it’s all about the P’s.

As of June 4, 2020, in Japan, COVID-19 has officially infected 16,901 people and killed 906.

Next video will unfortunately be COVID-19 related, but instead of a roundup of news, I’ll be talking with fellow residents of Tokyo, discussing how it was like living during the time of coronavirus in Tokyo.

Thanks for watching, see you next time, bye.

I would like to thank all those that had to work and provide essential services, from hospital staff, to grocery store clerks. Thanks and stay safe.

Thanks to my supporters on Patreon

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