It’s FINALLY happened! After a long week of preparation and debate, the Prime Minister of Japan at last announced a State of Emergency in several of the large metropolitan areas. Although we all knew about this on Monday, discussion and debates continued throughout the day on Tuesday. Last night—finally—the official statement was made. Today was a day of more detailed explanations and debate, and beginning tomorrow, things will gradually go into effect. Watching the process and experiencing the different levels of uneasiness has been… an interesting experience.
In this land where decisions don’t usually happen quickly, two major developments occurred the last week of February. First, all sports competitions, concerts and large events were canceled, including graduations and other year-end ceremonies. The next day, with only one day’s notice, schools nationwide were requested to close for the month of March. Since March is the end of the school year, this very sudden request was a surprise and threw everyone into frenzied activity. Later, on March 24, the Olympics and Paralympics were postponed. With each of these decisions, the mood around us became more somber.
Here in Japan, we’ve got handwashing and masks down to a science and people generally comply with the rules. After a month of subdued living, toilet paper and most cleaning supplies had returned to the stores and the number of confirmed coronavirus cases was… not too bad! The government announced that students should prepare to go back to school in April. People relaxed a bit and… the spread of COVID-19 began to take off at an alarming rate in the Tokyo area. Ever the foreigner, I struggled to understand why we saw such lack of decisive action to curb this latest trend. It was like watching a bad movie plot unfold in slow motion. You watch wide-eyed with shock and dismay, but you can’t do anything to stop it from happening.
We still have a lot to learn about Japan, even after living here for so many years. Evidently, the law does not allow this country to do lockdowns in the same way that many other countries are doing. There are no legal restrictions to make people stay home, or close schools, malls, shops and nightclubs. Instead, the government can only make a strong request. If people don’t comply, there are no penalties. Japan is a “shame” society, however, so most businesses and individuals will fall in line. The past two weekends, the governor of Tokyo has pleaded with people to stay home. I was stunned to hear at one point that one-fourth of all the COVID-19 cases in Tokyo could be traced to night life in Shinjuku, but in spite of that, most of the bars and entertainment places remained open. Hopefully, declaring a State of Emergency will give more weight to the “request” and many more shops will close. (A list is currently being compiled and debated.) In general, social pressure works really well in Japan. Most people take the government’s requests seriously and look down on those who don’t.
Where we live, things are uneasy but not as strict as places included in the State of Emergency. Ishinomaki is not a large city, and as of this writing, there are no confirmed cases here. (Not much testing either, but that’s another story.) Since the end of February, we have not been able to hold regular gatherings at House of Hope. The large memorial concerts planned for the anniversary of the March 11 disasters were cancelled or postponed. We were planning several smaller concerts and events in early March, but stopped advertising and held a few unofficial gatherings instead—with ten people or less in attendance. Now, even ten would be too many people.
Like everyone else I know (and don’t know), there are times I find myself frustrated with the ever-changing circumstances and guidelines. The boundaries of what we are able to do are gradually shrinking, and it’s my default mode to want to keep pushing the limits. Things have even changed since yesterday, when I started writing this! And despite the national emergency and its effect on everyone’s level of caution, kids in our area of Japan went back to school today! I’m so confused.
Thankfully (and oh, how thankful I am for this), there is one thing that never changes! Whether there is a pandemic or not, it’s my daily habit to open God’s Word and seek hope and grace for all the concerns and chaos in my life. When I focus on his promises to be with me, I do not need to be afraid. (I am sometimes, but I don’t need to be.)
As we’ve been going through the different stages of restraint and social distancing, I’ve become more and more thankful for all the things we are still able to do. The weather is getting a little warmer, so people are starting to work on their gardens. We can go outside and talk to our neighbors who are also outside. Many people have more time, so we can chat much longer than before. I have talked to people recently with whom I hadn’t had a regular conversation in months! I can still go around to my neighbors’ houses with cookies and a word of encouragement. I can pray for them when it’s appropriate. I don’t go inside, but we can have plenty of conversation on the front step. I can still write this article at the neighborhood donut shop. I can blog, and we can text people. We have more time to pray for people. This really isn’t all bad! And I am SURE God can use all these things for his good purposes.
Recently we have received a series of announcements from the US Embassy in Tokyo encouraging Americans who want to return home to do it now. There are very few international flights left. For some “foreigners,” it’s hard to realize they may no longer have the option of leaving Japan for quite a while. But we, personally, do not want to leave. We live HERE, and we love our neighbors a lot. We still feel safer here, and… we’d like to keep on showing up for the people around us.
Dean recently received an interesting text message from a neighbor he hasn’t seen in some time. He was concerned about whether we would leave Japan or not. After a little texting back and forth, he said… “Recently I am thinking about how I have spent these nine years (since we first met) and what will happen in the next few months. This may be a more serious situation than the 3/11 disasters. It is great to hear that you will stay with us. Please stay safe and pray for us.”
Actually, that is just what we hope to do—keep showing up for our people here and keep praying for them. In the meantime, just as we need to do anywhere and anytime, we will trust God for his protection and ask him to work in the hearts of those around us. Although we feel even more limited than usual in what we can do, it’s a chance for God’s glory to shine. Both now and always, our hope is in him alone.
Linda Bengtson serves with her husband Dean as missionaries for the Church of the Lutheran Brethren in Ishinomaki, Japan.