Questions about complacency are being raised as people gather at popular sakura spots in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. 

As Japan shrugs off the cold days of winter, people around the country start thinking about the hanami cherry blossom viewing season, that long-awaited time of year when people gather together under the sakura trees to enjoy parties with friends and work colleagues while getting drunk on beers and the beauty of the blossoms

This year, however, things feel different as Japan — like many other countries around the world right now — struggles to contain the coronavirus outbreak. Unlike a number of countries elsewhere, however, Japan is taking a less drastic approach to containment, choosing to keep things running more or less as usual, with a few exceptions like: restricting arrivals from certain countries; asking schools, large tourist sites and events to close; making requests for foreign travellers to self-quarantine for 14 days; and advising locals to stay away from crowded, poorly ventilated areas.

Japan’s lenient stance may seem surprising, but it’s in response to the relatively slow rise of cases being recorded in Japan compared to the rest of the world (Japan is the line second from the bottom, in red). Pundits from overseas, however, are concerned that the low numbers being reported are due to the low number of people actually being tested for the virus.

Now that the cherry blossoms have started blooming in Tokyo, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government is asking people to exercise self-restraint when it comes to holding sakura parties in municipally managed parks and riversides during hanami season

With no penalties in place to ensure people are exercising this self-restraint, however, the sunny springtime weather and the call of the blossoms has been strong in some parts of the country, and photos from the weekend show a lot of people out and about ignoring signs asking people to refrain from hanami gatherings.

▼ Toyosu Park in Tokyo’s Koto Ward.

Some of the top hanami sites in Tokyo were popular with visitors on the weekend, and Shinjuku Gyoen even held a Free Admission Day from Friday through to Sunday, which drew throngs of people to the park.

The free admission day was reportedly a coronavirus countermeasure designed to sidestep the problem of crowding, and therefore possible virus transmission, at the ticket windows.

However, the line for the new Starbucks inside the park — which opened on 20 March — was filled with people. While other countries are recommending people practice social distancing and keep a distance of six feet (two meters) between people, this recommendation is not being made by the Japanese government.

Signs at the entrance to the park informed visitors that the consumption of alcohol on the grounds is prohibited, and the use of plastic sheets, like the ones usually used for hanami parties, were also prohibited, as part of the park’s coronavirus countermeasures.

▼ Still, some visitors couldn’t resist a hanami picnic under the trees.

At Meguro River, another famous hanami hotspot, the usual riverside stalls were open and ready for business.

The area beneath the trees, however, was cordoned off with signs prohibiting parties and sitting in the area.

▼ This sign by the river asks that people mind their “cough ettiquette“.

The Starbucks Reserve Roastery Tokyo, which is located right by the river, has closed temporarily from 20-29 March to avoid attracting crowds .

“Not as many people as usual, but there are still quite a few people about. The sakura are about one-third in bloom.”

Pink-and-white lanterns are usually strung beneath the sakura trees at Meguro River and lit up at night during the blossoming period. This year, however, in an effort to discourage crowds from gathering, there are no lanterns.

At Ueno Park, the city’s premier hanami spot, netting is being used to keep people from conducting hanami parties under the trees, with signs saying “No Parties” in Japanese and English.

▼ However, photos reveal people are crossing over into the prohibited area to sit under the trees.

▼ The usual stalls are still doing business here too.

This sign asks people, in bright red writing, to refrain from laying sheets out and partying in groups with food and drinks, but the scene behind the sign hints at a different story.

There are areas in the park where people can be seen enjoying hanami picnics, but they’re not the large drunken party gatherings that are usually seen at this time of year.

While there were fewer people around the park, it certainly wasn’t empty, and the dip in numbers was due in part to the dramatic decrease in foreign tourists due to restrictions placed on travel by governments abroad.

Yoyogi Park, another well-known hanami destination, also has similar signs asking people to refrain from spreading out sheets and having parties.

▼ However, there’s no stopping the hanami get-togethers here.

Some people reported seeing patrols breaking up more rambunctious groups and gatherings of people who’d laid out large plastic sheets.

These patrol workers didn’t ask all partygoers to disband their picnics, but they did make announcements at the entrance reminding visitors to follow the government’s request to refrain from holding large enkai parties.

It should be noted that the message from the government regarding hanami, which is reflected in the signs displayed in a lot of parks right now, is asking people to refrain from holding “enkai” in particular. Enkai literally translates to “banquet meeting”, but generally refers to large gatherings with food and alcohol that go for a number of hours, often into the night.

For Japanese people, an “enkai” is a party usually attended by a large number of work colleagues, university alumni, or members of a club or group like a sporting association. Having a picnic with your family or a few friends doesn’t really constitute an “enkai” here in Japan, which explains why the patrols at Ueno Park didn’t ask smaller groups to comply with the government’s request.

While a number of people will no doubt be surprised to see so many people enjoying hanami in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the messaging from the government here is very different to that being used in the West. In the West, the words “social distancing” and “self-isolation” are being widely used to describe the actions people should be taking right now to protect themselves against the virus, but here in Japan officials are using the word “自粛” (“jishuku“), which translates to “self-restraint” or “self-discipline“, to appeal for more cautionary behaviour when going out.

People are also being cautioned to stay away from congested places that aren’t well-ventilated, so for many, a short, restrained hanami picnic with a few friends in a well-ventilated area doesn’t appear to be breaching any governmental guidelines.

However, given that people are already out and about, enjoying picnics under the blossoms when the sakura have just started to bloom, visitor numbers look set to rise during the peak blossoming period.

Here’s hoping the number of coronavirus cases don’t rise exponentially as well, because if people aren’t able to exercise self-restraint by themselves, the government may have to step in and do it for them.

Sources: Twitter (1, 2, 3, 4, 5)
Featured image: Twitter/@roku6318
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