Mary Ture ’21
By the time I arrived in Tokyo on January 8th to start my spring semester abroad program through Temple University, news of an infection spreading around Wuhan was already making headlines. By my second week, COVID-19 had made it to Japan as one of the first confirmed cases outside of mainland China. From there, it was all downhill. My family was begging me to come home before I had even fully unpacked, and Davidson’s Education Abroad office had already sent me numerous warnings. Of course, I ignored their pleas and continued to explore what I thought would be my new home for the next four months, which doubles as the most populous city in the world. Despite the endless crowds filling the smallest of spaces and the inability to ride a train without inevitably touching someone, I felt oddly safe. In my experience, the Japanese have the calmest and most respectful demeanor, along with unmatched organization and efficiency, making Tokyo the most orderly place I’ve ever been. As a result, I felt that I’d be safest staying put, even as the situation worsened. Not to mention, I never wanted to leave such an incredible city.
As the number of cases continued to rise, I began to notice subtle changes. By the middle of February, toilet paper was nowhere to be found, and the otherwise stocked grocery stores and fruit stands became the busiest spots in town. All of the pharmacies and convenience stores in my neighborhood were out of facemasks, and there were sanitation crews everywhere: on the streets, in the train stations, etc. Despite these changes, everyone seemed to remain calm, which made the situation a bit deceiving. The decorous nature of Tokyo was never compromised, unlike situations we’ve seen here in the U.S. Although major changes were taking place around the city, nobody was panicking, and there seemed to be an unwritten rule not to speak of the virus. Still, I couldn’t help but notice that more people were wearing facemasks, the trains were clearing out, and many tourist attractions and venues were shutting down. While everyone outside of Japan was anticipating a surge in infections, from within it seemed like only a minor threat.
Over a holiday, a group of students in my program went to Seoul for the weekend, right as the virus began spreading in South Korea, and narrowly escaped a lockdown. When they came back, one of the students was exhibiting symptoms and immediately visited the local clinic, where she was denied testing and was instead treated for the flu. At first, this was alarming, but I figured there must be some logic to it. However, I then heard of two other classmates with similar stories, one of whom was denied testing at three different locations. I soon learned that Japan was testing nowhere near its capacity, despite rising cases in prefectures nationwide. There was a general perception that this was for the sake of the Olympics, to prove that Japan had the situation under control and would still be able to host this summer. The lack of conversation about the virus only amplified my worries, and I knew we weren’t getting the full picture.
Finally, our program began to address these concerns and, like most other resources at the time, provided thorough hand-washing instructions. At that point, it seemed like very few people were taking the situation seriously. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, the Prime Minister announced that all public schools would be closed through March, which appeared to be the first legitimate response on behalf of the government. Still, Temple University remained silent, and I continued attending class in person. My professors were confident that we would be unaffected by the changes taking place, and they urged students not to change routines. The inaction on behalf of the school was extremely frustrating. However, after a few days of continued ‘normalcy,’ Temple seemed to give in and suddenly announced that all classes would move to remote instruction. Before I knew it, I was forced to pack my belongings, visit immigration services, and four days later, I was sent home.