It looks as though the worst of Covid-19 is behind us.  Vaccinations have started around the world and herd immunity appears  to  just a few short months away.  MLB and NPB spring training has begun  and it  looks like both MLB and NPB will be able to play full schedules this year and that the city of Tokyo will finally be able to host the Olympics—barring unforeseen circumstances.

Last year, the NPB proved itself clearly superior to the MLB in dealing with the Coronavirus pandemic—playing a nearly full schedule of 143 games when Covid-19 restricted baseball in America to a meager abbreviated 60 games. In fact, the nation of Japan proved itself superior to the United States when dealing with the pandemic.  The USA suffered 499,999 total deaths from the Novel Coronavirus compared to Japan’s 7,438 as of February 22, 2021, while  Tokyo’s overall death total was 1,245 compared to New York City’s  total of 28,824. Tokyo’s overall cases totaled 109,000, while New York City totaled 684,185.

No one knows exactly why Japan did not record the disastrous levels of infection and death seen in Western countries. Indeed, observers in Tokyo  had expected the total to be much worse in the city given the densely packed conditions in the capital, the crowded commuter trains that workers endure twice a day, and the fact that a quarter of Japan’s population was over the age of sixty-five. However,  the country’s habit of wearing facemasks to prevent the spread of colds and influenza (the typical Japanese goes through forty-three masks a year) as well as the custom of bowing instead of shaking hands, kissing, or hugging as is common in the West, not wearing shoes in the house, and using special slippers in the toilet, appeared to have made a difference, as did the practice at restaurants of providing hand wipes, usually in the form of oshibori or wet towels. Compared to the sloppy, unhygienic practices of Americans (and Europeans with the exception of Switzerland, Austria and Germany) ) the general cleanliness of Japanese society, which included spotless subways and armies of old people cleaning public bathrooms, was a decided plus, as was, some speculated, the country’s BCG vaccination policy.

Moreover, when the Prime Minister Abe declared a state of emergency last spring for Tokyo and six other highly populated prefectures, last spring, instructing that all nonessential institutions and businesses close down and that people self-isolate for a full month, later extended to two, people obeyed—as they did when Prime Minister Suga declared a second state of emergency this January.

Interestingly, unlike in New York City where the  New York Governor Andrew Cuomo had emergency powers to order  businesses to shut down and people to stay off the street,  the office of Japan’s prime minister did not have the power to order any of this to take place, a state of affairs arising from the country’s postwar constitution, which was written to prevent the kinds of abuses of power that led to the rise of Japanese militarism and the Pacific War. That would have required a parliamentary resolution. However, Tokyo’s citizenry, much to their credit, complied. Seemingly overnight, supermarket shelves were picked clean of all meat, most dairy and eggs, bread, and instant ramen, giving you an indication of the dietary habits of modern-day Japanese.  The city’s entertainment areas transformed into ghost towns. Travel during the Golden Week holiday, one of the busiest times of the year, fell by 78.9 percent in Tokyo, according to cellphone data collected by government officials. Major festivals, concerts, and sporting events, including the start of the official pro-baseball season, the summer sumo tournament, and the all-important National High School Baseball Championship at Koshien Stadium in August, were all canceled, along with the shelving of the 2020 Olympics.

The willingness of the populace to conform was a distinct feature of pandemic life in Japan,  unlike in the United States, which put a premium on “individual liberty,” and led the world in COVID-19 fatalities. Indeed, widely reported in the Japanese media was an August 2020 survey by a team of psychologists at Doshisha University that found that the top reason people wore masks during COVID-19 was that everyone else was doing so. Relieving anxiety and preventing infection were far, far behind,

Some Japanese scientists have suggested there may be a genetic “factor x” that inhibited the disease, or perhaps some kind of historical immunity that developed over time. The aforementioned cabinet minister Taro Aso, in one of his more memorable foot-in-mouth remarks, attributed the low COVID-19 rates to the “superior quality” of Japanese people.—a remark that caused gales of laughter in foreign news rooms around the world. 

It would be hard, however, to credit the curious responses of the government, which was fixated on “economics” and holding the Olympics instead of using the empty Olympic Village, for example, as a quarantine facility to house the ten thousand Covid patients now waiting to get into hospitals.

Moreover, the virus scare also exposed weaknesses in Japanese technological readiness. Whereas the country had once led the world in technological advancement, it was not well prepared to deal with certain aspects of the shutdown. Only 5 percent of Tokyo students, for example, had the equipment necessary for home schooling. It took the government months to issue emergency-aid payments of ¥100,000 to its citizens because of the hard-copy paperwork required. This stood in contrast to the US, where nearly every child had access to ZOOM and payments of $1,200 to each citizen were made by the federal government in a matter of weeks, mostly through digital direct deposit to individual bank accounts.  US labs were also able to produce a vaccine in record time, along with the UK.

(On the other hand, however, Japanese scientists did manage to send a space probe, Hayabusa 2, on a successful six-year, five- billion-mile journey to a remote asteroid to collect earth samples, returning home in 2020, so there is also that.)

Finally,  there was the extremely ill-advised government sponsored  “Go-To” travel and eat out campaign. It caused the  the Covid case spike to hit 2477 on January 6 this year and the city’s hospital alert system to be raised to its highest level ever , along with another state of emergency. Bankruptcy and suicide rates surged.

Overall, however, the fatality rate from COVID-19 in Tokyo was far lower per capita than just about any other major capital, including  Madrid, Rome, Berlin, and London., as well as Manhattan.  And despite the enormous financial loss, the shutdown of businesses had a positive side. For the first time I could remember, on my morning walks I saw normally workaholic fathers out playing with their children in public parks. It was revolutionary—as were the newly instituted social distancing measures, which eased congestion in the city, if temporarily.

As for me, the lockdown provided my wife and me with an opportunity to catch up on the latest series on Amazon and Netflix as well as to mine the considerable Amazon Japan library for classic Toei yakuza movies starring Ken Takakura. My wife thought they were great. When all was said and done, the seasonal flu rate had declined by more than 60 percent over the previous year, an obvious tribute to the exceptional hygienic practices of the people, which went into hypermode during the coronavirus crisis.

.So once again, it is time for baseball and a return to normalcy.—or semi-normalcy. 

Games will be played outside of a bubble and a small number of fans will be allowed in.

Temporary rules from 2020—the universal designated hitter, a runner on second to start any extra inning, expanded rosters, expanded playoffs and seven-inning games in both ends of a doubleheader—are also not part of the current agreement and won’t be in effect this season.

Only the three-batter minimum for a relief pitcher will return, as it was permanently implemented by MLB.

Ladies and gentlemen get ready. It is time to play ball.


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