Fukuoka: Lockdown? What lockdown?

Japan's low-key approach to controlling Coronavirus appears, statistically, to be paying off; but it was a confusing experience for Euan Crispin, as he heard stories from home about the unfolding impact in Europe. Keeping calm in the crisis is a kind of work that governments rely on their citizens to do.


The view of Fukuoka from Atago Shrine. Photo by Euan Crispin

Arriving in Fukuoka just as the first case was announced in the city on the 20th February and when Japan had among the highest number of cases outside of China, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Aside from the common sight of people wearing masks, there was little sign of panic. On my first day, it being sunny, I headed straight for the local park which was packed with people cycling, jogging, sipping coffee and chatting with friends. Over a month later and as I see in the news and hear from my parents and friends back home that the situation is rapidly deteriorating with lockdown in full force, the scene here unfolds much the same. Either something is horribly wrong and Japan’s case numbers are about to explode, or it has managed to escape the worst through cultural norms, just enough social distancing and containment, or perhaps just sheer luck. Whichever way, I am definitely feeling uneasy about the situation.

Fukuoka is Japan’s sixth largest city located in the southern island of Kyushu. Thanks in part to a relatively low population density of 4,600/km² compared with Tokyo’s 6,158/km² (the whole island has a population around a third of the Greater Tokyo Area), and shorter commutes, it has largely avoided a high number of infections so far. Up until last week the number stood at 5 but has since increased to 46 at the time of writing. Many people I speak to have said these numbers are symptomatic of “undertesting”, with strict criteria that requires people to have had a fever for more than four days, and with the added difficulty of going through several different providers before they can get tested. Looking out my bedroom window, I frequently see removal vans either loaded up with belongings or in the process of unloading; the moving season (hikkoshi) being well underway with new jobs and the school year beginning in April, and another seemingly obvious route for the virus to spread. The government’s response has largely remained unchanged since the outbreak began with a relatively light impact on everyday life besides the closure of schools, tourist attractions, events and festivals. Schools are set to reopen in the next week, although a state of emergency looks increasingly likely to be declared.


The run on toilet paper. Photo by Euan Crispin

In the absence of tight restrictions, it was the smaller actions that struck me first. One of the initial items to be rationed was toilet roll, after a rumour went around on social media that there would be a shortage, and the shelves were left bare overnight, creating an amusing mental image of tiny apartments piled high with the stuff. At work, the decision was made to tape up the coffee machine and declare it out of order to avoid having to touch the handle. However, bigger issues gradually affected me more and more. My girlfriend was originally due to visit in the middle of March but after flight cancellations and increased travel restrictions this became impossible, while I am increasingly uncertain about my ability to remain in Japan due to visa suspensions. The power of borders to separate citizen from alien has made me far more aware of something I usually have the privilege not to worry about, although this is probably the shape of my future yet to come with Brexit on the horizon.

A man poses for a photo with his dogs among the cherry blossom. Despite people being encouraged to “refrain” from holding hanami parties, many are still taking place. Photo by Euan Crispin

Despite the freedom of still being able to go to work, cycle, walk, eat out and drink in a bar, I have realised quite how dependent my life is on links with the rest of the world. It is quite easy to feel trapped and isolated as others’ lives continue around you, but I have learnt to stem the tide of information by slowing down, taking a walk, reading others’ stories and getting inspired about how we can rethink our future path out of this crisis to avert the next.


This story was shared by Euan Crispin, a masters graduate in Cities and Global Development, currently working as an intern for UN Habitat in Fukuoka, Japan.


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