Side-effect of Covid-19 pandemic in Japan: Start of a new paper-less and online-based business style?

Blog post by Hiroe Ishihara*)

Corona-chronology: Start of Covid-19 in Japan

The first mass infection with Covid-19 in Japan came with the docking of the cruise ship Princess Diamond in the port of Yokohama on February 3, 2020. A passenger on board of this ship was infected with Covid-19, which had been confirmed on February 1. By the time the passengers of this ship disembarked on February 23, 696 passengers were infected (out of 3,711 on board).

Despite these early cases of Covid-19 reported in Japan, the total number of Covid-19 cases first remained low in Tokyo. Until March 24 only 171 cases were reported (excluding the cases from the cruise ship). This situation was in startling contrast to those in countries like Italy and the US where there was a mass outbreak of Covid-19.

End of March: Covid-19 spikes

However, on March 25, there was a sudden spike in the daily increase and 41 new cases were reported in Tokyo in one day. The Governor of Tokyo, Yuriko Koike, made a special announcement, urging the central government to declare the state of emergency. But it was not until April 7, after a long process of negotiations and preparation, that the national government declared the state of emergency in major cities.**)

April: More than 2,000 cases

Currently (as of April 14, 2020), Tokyo has a total of 2,319 reported cases of Covid-19 infections. Compared to Italy or US, where there are more than 20,000 death cases, a bit more than 2,000 cases might sound like a small number. Likewise, the government’s measures to contain the virus may seem to be working well. However, more than 80% of Japan’s population, including myself, feel that the government’s declaration and response to Covid-19 has been too slow – according to a poll conducted recently by Sankei Newspaper and ANN (a Japanese TV company).

Capital Tokyo: quiet but not locked down

Despite the declaration of emergency, a full lockdown has not been imposed on Tokyo yet. The municipal government is requesting many of the businesses, especially restaurants and non-essential stores, to close down, but it is not a legally binding measure. At the same time, many of the businesses have complied with this request. The major underground stations like Shibuya, Shinjuku, and Ueno, are very quiet at this moment. Very few people are walking except for rush hour when businessmen and women continue to go to or depart work.

Japan’s business is paper-based

Despite the emergency declaration, the paper-based business style in Japan is hampering the shift to remote working despite the government’s strong encouragement to do so.

Coping with Covid-19 at the University of Tokyo: conflicting policies

As for the University of Tokyo, the University’s president, Makoto Goikami, issued an official notice on March 18 that the University will start the new academic year in April as every year. And he wrote that the university will encourage to shift from face-to-face lectures to online ones. From that moment onwards, different faculties have been taking different measures. For example, the Department of Engineering and their Graduate School decided to postpone their lectures until the beginning of May, whereas the Department and Graduate School of Agricultural and Life Sciences, my own faculty, decided to start lecturing as usual but at the same time encouraged to give online lectures. So face-to-face lectures were still allowed and possible.

Covid-19: some positive side-effects?

However, by the end of March 2020, my Department and Graduate School decided that face-to-face lectures were not allowed anymore. Lectures were to be conducted only online through Zoom until May 6. All of a sudden professional Zoom accounts were distributed to the faculties and students. Various Zoom tutorials were distributed to the faculty members who give the lectures as well as to the students who take part. Everyone is still struggling to adapt to the new online system. But if the Covid-19 pandemic had not happened, I feel that the University would not have shifted to working with online tools. So, if there were one good that should come out of this Covid-19 calamity, then it would be this new style of paper-less and online-based business. But at the same time, I miss the face-to-face lectures where I can see my students and see their reactions. I sincerely hope that things will calm down and we will be able to resume the face-to-face teaching and lecturing very soon.

*) The author is an assistant professor at the University of Tokyo, Faculty and Graduate School of Agriculture and Life Science, in Tokyo, Japan. ZEF has an academic collaboration program with the University of Tokyo, i.e. with its IPADS program (International Program in Agricultural Development Studies).

**) On April 16, after this blog post had been written, Japan’s prime minister announced the state of emergency for the whole country.

Contact: Dr. Manfred Denich, m.denich(at)