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Lockdown Stories: Spending the Global Pandemic in Tokyo

Published: 9 June 2020 - Christian Hess

In early May GHCC director Anne Gerritsen wrote to the extended GHCC community to start mapping their experiences of the global pandemic. She has written about the idea behind the survey here and discussed concepts of the 'local' during the pandemic here. In this third instalment of the GHCC pandemic mini-series, Dr Christian Hess, Associate Professor of Chinese History at Sophia University, Tokyo, documents his life in lockdown from the vantage point of a US academic in suburban Western Tokyo. Dr Hess wrote his response to the survey in May before Japan's state of emergency was lifted. It is followed by a brief update to reflect the changes that have occurred since then.

What has been specific to your local situation? (this might be something about you, or your family, or the circumstances in your location or your national response)

I am spending the pandemic at home, a detached house in a residential neighborhood in suburban Western Tokyo. The university I work for is closed and will offer online instruction this term. We are scrambling to set this all up. Those of us with kids are wondering how we will teach from home while also homeschooling our own kids (and keeping them quiet while we Zoom, record lecture segments, etc).

May and June are usually frantic months for academics in Japan, as most schools around the world are on summer break, while we teach until late July. We usually have lots of visitors coming to town, giving talks, and meeting up, and there are June conferences like the Asian Studies Japan Conference. This has all ground to a halt.

Like many places, my children’s (elementary and junior high) schools are closed. This happened on Feb. 28. My son is waiting to enter his new school, a private junior high. Because it is private, he will have some online lessons on an adjusted schedule. Although Japan is one of the richest countries on earth, public schools here have no such resources. My daughter goes to the local public elementary school and gets a homework packet every few weeks. It is up to us to get her through this. The wealthier private schools/international schools here have much better access to online resources and teaching. These are far out of reach even on a professor’s salary. We have no idea how long this situation will last and there is great anxiety among parents about what this disparity will do in the rigid, testing-based school system.

The Japanese government lacks the legal authority to enforce the kind of lockdowns we see in other places. So, they can shut down institutions like schools and basically pressure restaurants and small businesses to shut, while larger companies keep forcing their workers to come to work. Most of the parents in my neighborhood are working from home, though several have to go to their offices in central Tokyo. This is a very dodgy situation.

Each day, at 10:30 am, the public address emergency speakers in our town blast a recorded message telling us to stay at home. Many neighborhood children are out playing, while some families are strictly following the lockdown. This has led to some tensions among neighbors. Since the government cannot enforce the stay and home orders, they rely on moral suasion. About 3/4 of the families with kids on my street decided to let their kids play outside, mine included. This of course led to tension with the few families making their kids stay inside. It kind of blew up one day and we had a kind of neighborhood meeting, but it worked out and now people communicate better.


The Japanese government has shut its borders to many countries. It has also said that those foreigners living here essentially can’t freely exit and re-enter Japan. People are strongly discouraged from visiting elderly relatives, and this appears to be holding. With so much time off school we would have usually gone to visit my wife’s family in Osaka, but we have not. I do feel anxiety because of travel restrictions. Even though I am a lawful permanent resident, I am not allowed re-entry to Japan if I leave the country. This is especially worrisome since my elderly mother in California is high risk (age and existing health issues).

At the time of writing, the Japanese government has not released any believable figures about the outbreak, something that most people in my middle-class suburb are in agreement on. This is a city of 13 million, in an urban region of 37 million and the reported cases are often under 100 per day… Yet we also hear stories of people presenting with symptoms being turned away from 5 or 6 hospitals, and sometimes never getting in. I do not know anyone who has been sick, though a number of my neighbors (including myself and daughter) were hit with serious colds that lingered for some time right about the time the numbers started increasing

Travel and commuting within Tokyo has been dramatically reduced by the government’s emergency declaration, which has just been extended until the end of May [note: the emergency was lifted on 25 May]. Most people I know are doubtful things are going to change much come June. There is considerable anxiety and growing pressure from parents and educators to hit the reset button on the school year, which starts in early April here in Japan. There is growing debate about starting the year in September, because so many children will have missed a significant portion of the school year.

We still have good deliveries and the supermarkets are well-stocked. There are some interesting shortages, but the toilet paper panic has ended. There are brisk sales of bleach. Pasta is very hard to come by. There are no masks and no hand sanitizers, unless you line up an hour before the market or drug stores open, and even then you might not get any.

In what ways has this felt like a ‘global’ experience? What is ‘global’ about it to your mind?

I suppose it is global in the sense that as an educator and parent I see my friends around the world dealing with similar anxieties and frustrations. Governments failed for us. Period. We also see around the world vulnerable workers having to choose between their health and “work”. We see the mobility that we came to identify as a major feature of the global present gone to all but the wealthy. Will this come back? The US just stopped issuing green cards. These are extremely hard to get. The message is that the US is not open, even to those able to qualify and apply for permanent residency. Japan has not gone this far, but the inclusion of foreigners with permanent residency in the travel restrictions is troubling.

I have no idea what will happen in my professional field. The large international conferences have all been cancelled. It is unclear when they will happen again, and we may be in a time of dramatic change in terms of what conferences can and can’t do and how they can move forward in the future. For international associations that rely on these for visibility and income, these are worrisome times. These are major meeting points for scholars from different parts of the world. Now what?

In terms of my own field, Chinese history, there was already considerable tensions between China and the US, and growing tensions between Japan and China, and this was starting to have a real effect on academia. As a US academic who specializes in China working and living in Japan these concerns hit hard. Now I honestly wonder if I will go again to the place I have devoted much of my life to studying. When will we be able to travel to China again? Will we have access to historical resources? What should I be telling my students?

I teach in a global studies graduate program, and I wonder what we will say now to students? Trump already symbolized a turn away from or re-framing of globalization that started to have frightening economic and political impacts, including a rise in nationalism, ethno-nationalism, attacks on visible minorities, religious groups, and rampant anti-intellectualism. This has all been followed by a dramatic downturn in mobility. This has only been furthered by the pandemic response.

Optimism has seldom been part of my life, so this is a particularly difficult time. That said, one LOCAL thing we have experienced that is hopeful, is that we are now much closer to our neighbors and our neighborhood. I wonder if this resurgent localism is a global phenomenon? People who for years simply quickly greeted each other and went inside (if even that) now chat for long periods of time, on a first name basis. They actually talk about things, their worries, their hopes. In Tokyo, at least, this new sense of community will be something to build from in the near future.

Update 6 June 2020

About a week ago, the state of emergency was lifted in Tokyo.  Things are cautiously moving toward “normal” and with social distancing practices in restaurants and cafes.  Schools too are reopening slowly.  Our kids go to school two days a week now for half days, and then five days a week on a shorter schedule starting next week.  Universities remain closed and are teaching online. No word yet on the Fall semester. 

The Japanese government, after receiving criticism for being the only G7 nation that would not allow permanent residents to return from abroad, has softened its stance. However, significant travel restrictions remain in place.   Relations between families in our neighborhood are better than at the start of the pandemic (they were never bad but are now closer).