Bertie Coningsby’s Guide to Life in Japan(Life in Japan during the Covid-19 pandemic)

“We are very sorry but masks and alcohol gel are sold out”


As you have probably already heard, a state of emergency has been declared in Japan as in other places in the world and over a third of all the people on the planet are under some form of lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic. Lots of us are suddenly spending most, if not all, of our time at home. Everything feels very unsettled and uncertain, and we are all having to adapt to these changes.


Changes have been slow in Japan. Over the past few months, we watched Covid-19 emerge in China, then spread to South Korea, Italy, and Iran, and then to Europe and America and the rest of the world. You would expect that Japan, being so close to both South Korea and China, would have reported far more cases of coronavirus than it has.


Some people say that Japan’s reported cases are fewer than neighboring countries’ owing to the fact that Japan has not been conducting as many tests as other countries in the region. Some say that the spread of the virus has been limited because the concept of social distance and mask-wearing already existed in Japan before the pandemic (people often wear masks here when they are ill, or if they want to avoid getting ill and people don’t tend to shake hands, they bow).


However, the number of cases in Japan has been increasing much more rapidly in the past few weeks, and the Japanese government has started to take decisive action. A few weeks ago, Governor Koike of Tokyo asked people to avoid going out into public as much as possible, but as cases have been rising, the government realized that a polite request would not be enough.


On the 7th of April a state of emergency was declared, and the public was asked to decrease their social interactions by 80%. The Japanese government does not, however, have the constitutional authority to order people to stay at home, so we are all relying on people’s common sense and sense of public duty to stay at home and stop the spread of this virus.  


Covid-19 news

 A Japanese news report about Covid-19 in Wuhan.


I have noticed the biggest changes to public life within the past two weeks. Many non-essential shops have closed, supermarkets have started to limit the number of people coming in at the same time, plastic protective screens have been hung from ceilings to protect cashiers, and some shops are going as far as to not let people enter who are not wearing masks (but with masks so difficult to come by, this seems a slightly unreasonable, if understandable, demand.) Some supermarkets have started to limit the buying of instant noodles, packet curries and pasta to one packet per person, and you can forget about trying to buy masks, hand-sanitiser or lavatory paper.



Meat, pasta, instant foods, and lavatory paper sell out quicker than other items

“We kindly ask customers to understand that due to the state of emergency declared by the government…we will stop selling masks and disinfectants at opening time. Many customers have been queueing for a long time before shop opening hours [in order to buy masks and disinfectants] creating the sort of enclosed and crowded space the government has warned us about. This decision has been made with the safety of customers in mind.”


Most noticeably, shop workers and many others seem understandably anxious and jumpy in public. With most supermarkets and shops not actually controlling the physical distance between shoppers, people have started to navigate around each other in the aisles as if they were ships avoiding icebergs. When someone sneezes, sniffs, or coughs, people look up and, if they can, move away.



Supermarkets have told customers to stand at least a meter apart when queueing




Shibuya is a usually packed shopping district in central Tokyo and is home to the world’s busiest pedestrian crossing (up to 2,500 people sometimes cross there at the same time!) It is now empty and silent and only a handful of people can be seen crossing. Interspersed with adverts shown on looming billboards are messages from celebrities and politicians urging people to “Go home!” Television camera crews film the empty crossing which has become a symbolic yard-stick for the effect of the pandemic.


The busiest pedestrian crossing on earth, before and after the state of emergency was declared.


A screen in Shibuya displays official information about government measures to deal with Covid-19


As you may have read in the first blog post in this series, I came to Japan last November on a Working Holiday Visa. My plan was to work as a model and actor, to write, to improve my Japanese and to explore Japanese culture and society. Since then, I have done a variety of television work. I played a British soldier in a program about a WW2 Japanese prisoner of war camp, and I presented a travel documentary about the Kamakura snow festival in Northern Japan (I’ll talk more about this in a blog post soon). I love this sort of work, and it has all been a brilliant experience. However, since last month, most possible future jobs have been cancelled or postponed and, along with many others, it doesn’t look as if I’ll be doing much of this sort of work in the near future. So I have come up with some ways of leading an exciting and fulfilling life in Japan, at home.


Me playing a British sailor in a WW2 Japanese prisoner of war camp


Life and work before the “lockdown”


Presenting a documentary about the Kamakura snow festival in Akita, Northern Japan


Luckily, I am quite good at entertaining myself;


I love to read, to write, and to pursue my own creative projects. I especially love to write, and have decided to use my time at the moment to work on my first book (but I can’t tell you what it’s about yet!) Apart from writing, I am using this time to learn new things. I am learning how to develop 35mm film photographs in a home-made dark room with one of my housemates. I am learning Persian and improving my Chinese, Serbian and, of course, Japanese. I am meditating, cooking, dancing energetically around my room, reading a lot, drawing and making videos.


The world is a very strange and depressing place at the moment, and it is important that we all do the best we can to stay at home, to do our part in limiting the spread of this virus. That’s why it’s important to find things to do at home that you enjoy, and things that you otherwise might not have made the time to do. If you are stuck at home at the moment unsure of what to do, I have compiled a list of ideas for you which are detailed in the following post. I’ll see you there!


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