Gion Matsuri Kyoto 2022

7th Covid Wave in Summer 2022: Japan Unfazed by the BA.5 Surge

⏱ 5 minutes

In Japan as anywhere else, while the Corona waves continue to unfurl, their societal impact changes. At each new wave, we try to explain what the involvements in the archipelago’s daily life are as well as what is entails for the future.

📈 Record figures

The 7th Japanese Covid wave never ends to break the statistic records, that is the least we can say: whereas daily cases amounted to ~25,000 in July, the number spiked to 200,000 new cases per day 3 weeks later, shattering February 3’s previous 104,000 cases records at the peak of the 6th wave.

For the first time in this never ending pandemic history, Japan has become the G7 country with the highest number of cases, even topping the U.S. It was crowned with the dunce cap with more cases per million inhabitants than the rest of the world since January! All prefectures are affected, starting by Tokyo, Osaka, and Kanagawa. Meanwhile, the archipelago had its first monkeypox case confirmed.

For the first time also, the number of simultaneously active cases exceeds one million. As for the number of performed tests, that have been stabilized between 100 and 150,000 per day since spring 🌸, it rose 🌹 to 300,000 per day, to primarily test symptomatic patients. With a positive rate close to 100% (!) it is easy to conclude that the actual number of Covid patients if far greater than what the official figures show.

Like in winter 2022, everybody in Japan knows someone among their friends or relatives who is currently Covid-positive. True to the "name and shame" tradition, many celebrities were singled out and now it is the politicians’ turn, such as Karen Makishima (Minister for Digital Reform) or Taro Kono (former Minister for Administrative Reform, in charge of overseeing the administration of the Covid-19 🦠 vaccine, and unfortunate challenger in the Prime Minister’s position race). As for Japan’s world athletic team in the 2022 World Athletics Championships in Oregon, 15 members have tested positive and had to forfeit. In Kyushu, 120 train 🚅 services have been suspended for ten days due to Covid-related staff shortage ...

It seems that the archipelago is currently paying its lack of immunity related to the low number of contaminations during the previous waves. Yet, despite these records, the unfair Japanese rigidness and an isolationism almost unique in the world, it is almost as if nothing was happening...

🦠 The beginning of "living with the virus" in Japan at last

Some measures have certainly been taken:

  • The covid alert was raised to 4/4 in Tokyo
  • The government continues to provide obvious advice such as:
    • Getting tested upon declaring symptoms,
    • Ventilation of closed spaces,
    • Getting fully vaccinated (although the vaccination rate is high)
  • Wearing a face mask 😷, even if the measure was eased for the outdoor (officially but the population still massively wears the mask).

Fortunately, manbo or state of emergency instructions are out of the question, as well as the opening times reductions or travel restrictions between the prefectures. The experts, indeed, think that the Japanese health system is able to withstand this wave, and therefore restrictions on the population are not necessary, especially as they could further weaken an already beleaguered economy.

Anyway, with Omicron and its BA.5 subvariant, as anywhere in the world, the number of cases is swelling but severe cases and deaths are proportionally far less. As a comparison, the 5th and 6th waves respectively caused 2,200 and 1,500 severe cases, whereas there is currently less than 200 throughout the country. Consequently, the isolation period for contact-cases persons has been reduced to 5 days instead of 7.

Regardless this context of covid-cases explosion, the famous Gion Matsuri festival in Kyoto was back in July 2022, with an incredible gathering of 300,000 people crammed together to watch the parade (our front picture). Meanwhile the resuming of the subsidized domestic tourism campaign GoTo Travel has been postponed again.

Who is flying Japan’s Airplane? Is there any rationality left in the decision making?

On the political side, July 10’s upper house election is over at last. Prime Minister Kishida, who was appointed last October, succeeded in reinforcing his position through the Jiminto’s (LDP), the ruling party he belongs to, for the next 3 years. Therefore, he is not under pressure anymore to fake action.

✈️ The last wave before a complete reopening?

Remember, Japan has opened again to students, businesspeople and relatives of Japanese residents in March.
Since June 10, tourists are also allowed again, but with strict monitoring requirements: a visa sponsored by a Japanese travel agency and the constant supervision of a guide once in Japan (the itinerary is free):

Thus, by the time the agencies could wrap their heads around the procedures required by the new immigration conditions, only 252 tourists could enter in the archipelago in June. However, several dozen thousands of sightseers should be able to enjoy Japan this summer, a number not reached since March 2020, not considering those who traveled with other visas.

Still, the visa waiver reciprocity problem remains (while Japan has one of the most powerful passport), but this is a start.

Japanese shopkeepers are already happy to see international travelers coming back and spend their money, in greater amounts thanks to the weakness of the Yen 💴 for several months. Even a city such as Kyoto, that was overwhelmed with tourism before the pandemic, is impatient to welcome again the spendthrift gaijin:

Now that July elections are over, it is the 7th wave that is preventing the reopening to keep up the pace. For example, the raise of the daily entry cap in Japan to 30,000 on July 1 was delayed and was maintained to the current 20,000 travelers.

Fumio Kishida recently spoke again about the borders’ reopening: "[we are] not thinking specifically about strengthening border controls immediately but [will] pay close attention to the situation at home and abroad and decide accordingly." These attempts at running out the clock as frustrating as ever.

The current hurdles at the borders are obviously useless. It is a very long known fact and even the WHO is frequently reminding it, and the current wave is highlighting it more than ever. It is all the truer when the Japanese can leave and come back in their country freely whereas the foreigners’ entry in Japan, while possible, is still complicated and expensive. Such measures are therefore only political, without any sanitary ground.

It was former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, in the 2010s, who oriented Japan toward a touristic welcome and allowed for large growth before Covid. He was unexpectedly assassinated in early July during a political rally in Nara. Will Fumio Kishida take upon himself to continue this aspect of Abe’s foreign policy?