Thu. Sep 23rd, 2021

Japan will emerge from 10 weeks of coronavirus restrictions on Sunday, just in time for the peak of the annual cherry blossom viewing season.

In normal years, the appearance of the delicate pink flowers is the cue for friends to spread out picnic blankets and lose their inhibitions in a ritual that often involves copious quantities of food and drink, and a nodding recognition of the floral spectacular. But the lifting of the state of emergency, announced earlier this month by the prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, will not be celebrated beneath the sakura.

In Tokyo parks that would normally be filled with picnicking families, signs warn that flower-viewing parties are forbidden. Popular spots have been roped off and festivals cancelled or scaled down. Illuminations will not be switched on and security guards will be on the lookout for anyone grabbing a furtive beer and bento. Instead, blossom viewing will be restricted to masked strolls in designated areas.

And the end of the state of emergency in Tokyo and three neighbouring prefectures on Sunday will not be quite as liberating as it sounds – the ban on boozing beneath the blossoms is only one of several restrictions that will remain. Bars and restaurants that have been asked to close at 8pm will be allowed to stay open for one more hour, and residents are encouraged to avoid non-essential outings. Japan’s ban on virtually all inbound foreign travellers will stay.

While Suga said the improved availability of hospital beds had made it possible to ease restrictions, the governor of Tokyo, Yuriko Koike, warned that the overall situation in the capital remained severe and asked people to avoid non-essential outings.

While daily cases are much lower than in early January, the end of the emergency measures has drawn criticism for coming at a time when infections in Tokyo are creeping back up. Its daily tally remains far higher than Koike’s target of reducing the seven-day average by 70% or more than the preceding week. The city reported 342 cases on Saturday – compared with an all-time peak of 2,520 on 7 January – but this was higher than the previous four Saturdays.

“The first drop of vaccines for Tokyo’s 14 million has only just begun, and until we’re done, we have to fight with our bare hands,” Koike said, in reference to the government’s slow rollout of Covid jabs.

Experts have warned of an all-but-inevitable rebound in infections now that warmer weather is making social gatherings harder to resist. One survey showed that the number of people dining out in the greater Tokyo area during the week to last Thursday rose by almost 70% from the same period through to 14 January – the first week of the state of emergency.

There has been criticism of the decision to ease measures just four days before the Tokyo 2020 Olympic torch relay is due to start in Fukushima, 150 miles north of the capital. Tomoaki Iwai, a professor of political science at Nihon University, said Suga’s move may have been influenced by the timing of the relay – the precursor to the opening ceremony of the Games on 23 July. “Unless he lifts the state of emergency now, it will raise questions about whether Japan can really host the Olympics this summer,” Iwai said.

On Saturday the Olympic organisers announced that the Games would go ahead but overseas fans would be banned from entering the country.

Short of an outbreak of civil disobedience, this year’s hanami parties could prove a largely virtual affair. Local governments are livestreaming trees, which are expected to reach full bloom on Tuesday, and posting archived images of the petals in their prime. Florists are attempting to fill the aesthetic gap with sakura-inspired flower arrangements.

Last spring, as the coronavirus began its surge across the globe, Koike had said preventing the Japanese people from getting together beneath the blossoms was like “taking hugs away from Italians”. But with the virus showing no sign of retreating, Japan’s embrace of its celebrated rite of spring will again remain elusive.

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