As spring comes back, Japan is getting ready to welcome the first travelers’ wave of the year, for the blooming of the cherry trees starting mid-March. However, the novel coronavirus outbreak may jeopardize the beginning of 2020 touristic season. First attested in China on 31 December 2019, the new disease named 2019-nCoV then Covid-19, can question the relevance of planning traveling.
Last Update: 17 March 2020.
First of all, we recommend taking media coverage of Covid-19 and the subsequent panic that may arise with a grain of salt: remember that each year the seasonal influenza epidemic affects millions of people and causes numerous deaths without the world being thrown into panic. As an illustration of seasonal influenza’s casualties: The U.S. Department of Health and Services estimated that for winter 2016-2017, of the 29 million suspected cases, 14 million were subject to a medical visit, and 38,000 were deadly.
Novel Coronavirus symptoms are similar to those of a flu:
- Cough; and,
- Difficulty breathing.
People that are more at risk seem to be: men, the elderly and people with immunosuppressive condition. New-born babies and babies seem less affected than the general population.
How many Coronavirus confirmed cases are there in Japan?
As of 17 March 2020, the number of cases are:
|Population||126,8 millions||327.2 millions|
|Ratio Confirmed Cases / Overall population||0,0067%||0.0014%|
*Not including Diamond Princess' 700 confirmed cases.
**About 49 confirmed cases were individuals repatriated from Wuhan or other affected Chinese province and Diamond Princess cruise ship and are not included.
Some cases were caused by interhuman transmission, meaning that sick people did not travel in Hubei Province in China, and especially in Wuhan, the origin of the virus. One of the first persons infected in Japan in January 2020 is a tourist bus driver in his sixties who drove two groups of Chinese tourists from Wuhan in the Kansai area.
This first report does not consider the cases on the Diamond Princess, a cruise ship that anchored on 3 February 2020, with 696 confirmed cases on board, and 7 deaths at the moment. Immediately placed under quarantine off Yokohama port (in the south of Tokyo), about 3,700 passengers and crew of all nationalities had to stay in confinement in their cabins (with origami and sudoku) for 14 days and monitor their health. People who developed illness were disembarked to be hospitalized. On 19 February 2020, the first passengers who did not develop symptoms and tested negative to Covid-19 started to leave the ship. With regard to the situation, Japan now refuses any touristic cruise ship from neighboring Asian countries.
At the end of February, the Coronavirus spread to South Korea, Italy and Iran, with a larger number of cases than in Japan.
With China, from where the outbreak originates, as a neighboring country and being a popular destination among Chinese tourists, Japan carefully monitors the evolution of the outbreak.
What are Japan’s Measures against Covid-19 ?
On 1 February 2020, Prime minister Shinzo Abe’s government announced the following protective measures:
- The novel coronavirus 2019-nCoV was labelled "Designated Infectious Disease" and "Quarantinable Infectious Disease," which means that anyone suspected of being affected by the virus is hospitalized and put under quarantine if necessary;
- Any foreign national who traveled in Hubei and Zhejiang Provinces during the 14 days preceding their intended arrival in Japan are forbidden to land in Japan;
- In the same idea, any foreign national holding a passport issued by Hubei and Zhejiang Provinces is forbidden to land in Japan.
A growing number of Japanese people, however, is not satisfied with the way their government first handled the situation. They mainly accuse the government of laxism and complain that the quarantine measures were taken too late in January 2020, as Chinese nationals traveled a lot between the two countries for New Year celebrations, and the first flights of Japanese nationals repatriated from Wuhan landed.
On March 5, announcement was made that Chinese and South-Korean tourists will have to enter a fourteen days quarantine upon their arrival in Japan, starting from March 9. This measure might be implemented for flight passengers who made a stopover in China or South Korea. From the same day and until further notice, no tourist visa will be delivered to these two countries'nationals, as well as Iran's nationals.
How is the situation in Japan ?
At the moment, there is no advice against traveling in Japan for tourism. The country is not listed among high risk exposure areas (China, South Korea, Singapor, Iran and northern Italy). However, some countries have issued reservations about traveling abroad for their nationals.
As for the flow of other travelers who still land in Japan, ports and airports have taken measures to check each passenger’s body temperature. In Japan, hydroalcoholic hand rubs and medical masks are widely provided in accommodations and shops. However, and all the more in hay fever period, Japanese people did not wait for the novel coronavirus outbreak to start wearing sanitary masks:
The only point of concern is a possible stock exhaust of medical masks in some konbini and supermarket in Japan. The masks are mainly worn in big cities and very crowded places such as train stations. However, they don’t seem totally efficient to prevent transmission of the virus and are mainly used to contain affected patients’ microbes. Moreover, for the best efficiency, changing mask every 30 minutes is necessary.
In case of symptoms of a respiratory infection, Japan’s Ministry of Health recommends:
- To follow the usual hygiene etiquette, which consist in wearing a sanitary mask and frequently disinfecting hands;
- To self-quarantine to avoid going to crowded places, and take some rest;
- If not recovering, contact a public hospital (保健所 hokensho) to get tested for novel coronavirus 2019-nCoV.
At the end of February, a fake news on Twitter spurred a shortage of toilet paper. The rumor stated that Covid-19 would cause a shortage in toilet paper production, to which many Japanese people reacted in buying toilet paper in mass, creating a real shortage.
Other than that, most of Japanese people do not seem particularly worried and continue to live as usual. Some companies even took this opportunity to promote teleworking.
On a positive note, hygiene etiquette (i.e.: washing hands, etc.), reinforced since the beginning of the Covid-19 outbreak and largely implemented by Japanese people, allowed a significant 60% drop of seasonal influenza cases over 2020 first six weeks.
Are touristic sites and events affected in Japan?
From mid-February, several restrictions to avoid gathering crowds were announced as preventive measures:
- Cancelled events:
- Emperor Naruhito's birthday greetings on February 23 at the Imperial Palace;
- Tokyo Marathon 2020, on March 1, is limited to professional runners and participants to Olympic Trial for Tokyo Olympic 2020. The participation of about 38,000 non-professional runners was cancelled;
- J-League soccer matches between February 25 and March 15 are postponed;
- For the first time since 1945, March Sumo Tournament (from March 8 to 22) will be held without public.
- Cancelled conventions and salons:
- The 16th cosplay festival Nippombashi Street Festa that was to take place on March 15 in Den Den Town, in Osaka (the event usually attracts 200,000 visitors);
- Shibuya Design Festival「Tadaima! Design Scramble 2019」that was to be held on 2020, March 22 in Tokyo;
- AnimeJapan (formerly Tokyo Anime Fair), due to be held in March (21-24);
- Kyoto Miyako Odori Festival in April;
- Inui Street Spring Public Opening (mid-March);
- Hanami at the end of March 2020. Flower viewing is permitted, but there will be no yatai food stalls:
- Megurogawa /Nakameguro;
- Ueno Park;
- Sumida Park.
- Temporarily closed parks and museums:
- Amusement Parks:
- Fuji-Q Highland, March 1 to 8 mars;
- Tokyo Joypolis Odaiba, March 2 to 12;
- LegoLand Nagoya, February 29 to March 15;
- Yomiuri Land, February 29 to March 15;
- Tokyo One Piece Tower, February 27 to March 17;
- Sanrio Puroland amusement park, from February 22 to March 20;
- Universal Studios Osaka, February 28 to March 22;
- Tokyo Disney Resort, from February 28 to March 31.
- Mori Arts Museum, February 29 to March 19;
- Sumida Hokusai Museum, until March 13;
- Kyoto Railway Museum, until March 15;
- Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, until March 15;
- Miraikan Museum Odaiba, from February 27 to March 15;
- TeamLab Borderless and Planets, February 28 to March 15;
- Tokyo National Museum, from February 27 to March 16;
- Edo Tokyo Museum, from February 29 to March 16;
- Naoshima's museums, March 3 to 16;
- Ghibli Museum, from February 25 to April 28.
- Aquariums and zoos:
- Aqua Park Shinagawa, from February 29 to March 15;
- Kaiyukan Osaka, March 2 to 15;
- Ueno Zoo, until March 15;
- Churaumi Naha, until March 15.
- Amusement Parks:
Note that as for now, only the biggest gatherings are cancelled, but many other events still take place as usual. Moreover, temples, gardens and restaurants stay open.
It is therefore possible to discover (in a peaceful environment!):
- A large part of Tokyo:
- Most of temples, shrines and Japanese garden in Kyoto:
- Osaka and its famous districts: Namba, Dotonbori, Umeda, the bay.
- Nara, Hakone, Kamakura and Enoshima, Nikko, Miyajima, Kawaguchiko, Kanazawa, Hiroshima, Koya-san, Takayama, Himeji, Kobe, Fukuoka, Shikoku, Yokohama, Yakushima, Matsumoto, Kinosaki, Okayama, Kurashiki, etc.
And hundred of other places introduced on Kanpai-Japan:
Life goes on in Japan, as we can see from Shibuya Crossing Live Camera (beware of the time difference between Japan and your country).
Additionnaly, the preventive measure of closing schools two weeks earlier than usual for spring break has been announced at the end of February to avoid spreading the outbreak in Japan. Spring break, that usually starts from mid-March, is thus beginning on Monday 02 March 2020. This early spring holiday is a demand from Shinzo Abe's government to fit Japan's fiscal calendar, but the application of this "urgent" virus spreading prevention measure with a delay of 4 days is questionable. Moreover, if schools are closed (from elementary to high schools), kindergarten don't close as many parents still need to leave their children in day care. Language school for foreigners are still operating as usual.
On March 1, the mayor of Kanazawa announced that the schools closure will take place only between March 5 and 19. In Ehime prefecture, schools will close later, in the same way.
Criticism is raising against these measures, deemed hypocritical as administrations, companies and shops continue their activities as usual. One must add that there is no plan to close train stations yet, places that are most likely to be frequently overcrowded.
Lastly, there are no specific measures towards elderly people, who constitute about the third of Japanese population.
Japan National Tourism Organization set up a 24/7 hotline in English to answer questions about Coronavirus: 050-3816-2787.
An Opportunity to discover Japan in unhoped-for conditions
As far as we know at the moment, cancelling a trip to Japan in the next few weeks is not necessary (on the contrary, see below). In any case, you should check your local government’s traveling advices before departure. If you decide or are allowed travel to Japan, it is strongly recommended to use direct flights. Many if not most airlines have already canceled most of their flights to China anyway. Those who had purchased a ticket with Air China before 28 January 2020 can even get a refund. Moreover, it is strongly advised to avoid this airline or change for another to lower the contamination and quarantine risks upon arrival in Japan.
There is no official advice against traveling to Japan. The World Health Organization (WHO) does not recommend avoiding visiting Japan either. As a reminder, in the U.S. there are already more than 1200 confirmed cases of Coronavirus and 37 deaths, (as of 12 March 2020).
The situation is worrying for China, but ironically the novel coronavirus is an opportunity to travel in Japan in unhoped-for conditions for Western tourists, despite anxiogenic reports from medias all around the world.
In Japan, the usually overcrowded touristic places are a lot quieter now, thanks to the dramatic drop in frequentation from Chinese travelers. South-Korean tourists have already started to boycott Japan since summer 2019, with the deterioration of diplomatic relationships between the two countries.
Tourists from Asian countries usually account for 80% of foreign visitors in Japan, but the dramatic drop, first in Korean, then Chinese travelers (more than 15 million in 2019 for both countries, on a total of 32 million tourists per year) over the last six month is a major shake on Japan’s touristic industry. Paradoxically it can also be the best moment to discover Japan with less tourists, with a touristic frequentation lowered back to what it was 10 years ago.
For example, Kyoto, overcrowded in the past few years, especially in touristic and shopping areas, has been incredibly calm since January. Unexpectedly emptied during Chinese New Year, the ancient capital of Japan might offer an unhoped-for quiet beginning of spring and sakura watching. Even the Golden Week might be much simpler this year, a situation that might not happen again in the future. And the same can be said for many other touristic places such as Tokyo, Hakone, Nara, Koya-san, Miyajima, and so on.
Moreover flights and accommodations prices are lowering down to make up for the loss of reservation from Asian customers.
Professionals in the deserted areas have started to worry and now encourage Western tourists to spend money in the local economy. In Arashiyama, some merchants even devised an advertising campaign about how their district is empty without tourists.
So, if you are healthy and feel like it, why not traveling to Japan? The choice is naturally yours, and it should be made pondering the information available, travel advice from your home country and common sense.
On the opposite, prices for autumn 2020 have already started to raise, and bigger prices increases are to be expected for spring 2021 to compensate for 2020’s financial losses.
As of 2020, March 17, European countries have instructed their citizens to stay at home and avoid non-essential travel to stop the Covid-19 outbreak spreading. In the U.S. , major cities have started to implement a similar curfew and traveling is not recommended. For those who are already in Japan and would like to come back home, contact your country's embassy or consulate for instructions.
The pressure of novel coronavirus on Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games
The current outbreak of novel coronavirus does not pose a great threat to Japan at the moment, but rather for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games that will be held in less than 6 months. As a big international sport event, it will not fail to attract a great number of visitors from all around the world, with the sanitary risks involved.
Even if Japan meets the deadlines to build quality infrastructures and set up reinforced security measures, competition is at risk if the coronavirus outbreak is not contained by July.
As of the end of February, it was announced that cancelling or not the Olympic Games will be decided at the end of May, at the latest.
新型コロナウイルス (shingata koronawirusu)