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Pressure not to be the 1st infected person mounts in Japan's only virus-free prefecture

A color-coded map of the total number of recorded new coronavirus infections by prefecture in Japan as of July 24, 2020, is seen with Iwate, highlighted in grey, showing 0 patients. (Mainichi)

OSHU, Iwate -- With the government's domestic "Go To Travel" promotion campaign underway, the northeast Japan prefecture of Iwate appears to be under mounting pressure to maintain its status as the only coronavirus-free prefecture in the country.

For more than three months, the fear of being named as the first person infected with the virus or the person who spread it has hung heavily over Iwate's residents. At a news conference, Iwate Gov. Takuya Tasso issued a rare call to residents, saying, "Even if a first case does emerge, we won't blame them." At the same time, it appears that some residents are taking excessive measures out of fear.

In late June, a 26-year-old man who lives in Tokyo and grew up in Iwate texted his father in his home prefecture's capital Morioka using the messaging app Line. He was so surprised by the direction their conversation took that he posted the exchange to his Twitter account. When he wrote to his dad asking, "Would it be alright if I came back home soon," his father rebuked him, writing, "The first case (of viral infection) in Iwate won't end with it just being on the news."

The man's tweet garnered a huge response, and it was retweeted more than 40,000 times. One person commented, "My younger sister is living in Iwate Prefecture. She says that if she became the first case, she wouldn't be able to live anymore." Another wrote, "My family in Iwate told me not to come to a relative's funeral there."

The man later asked his dad what he had meant by saying the case would not stop at making the news, and his father said, "If a child coming home is infected, rumors about it would soon spread in this rural area, and I thought there was no telling what could happen next."

Speaking to the Mainichi Shimbun, the man who posted the initial tweet said, "Through that post I put up, I was shocked to learn that there have been cases of infected people and their families who've had stones thrown at them and messages put up blaming them." In the end, he gave up on the idea of returning home.

Since Tottori Prefecture in southwestern Japan reported its first novel coronavirus case on April 10, Iwate has been the only prefecture in the country yet to confirm a single case. It boasts the greatest area of any prefecture on Japan's main island of Honshu, and its low population density is second only to Hokkaido in the country's far north.

Such environmental influences that limit people's chances of encountering the "three Cs" of confined spaces, crowded places and close contact settings allow for speculation as to why no infections have occurred in Iwate. But there is still no clear reason explaining how the prefecture has yet to produce even one case when the country's total infections are bearing down on 30,000.

As the period of zero infections has grown longer, the heightened sense of precaution has become more conspicuous. A number of restaurants and bars in Morioka still had signs up saying "no customers from outside the prefecture" until around June.

In the prefectural city of Ofunato, which sits close to the border with Miyagi Prefecture, some hotels and other accommodation facilities were checking the number plates of vehicles registered outside the prefecture, and confirming where the owners had come from. Explaining why they had been asking customers for the information, a person in charge at one of the hotels said, "We've had complaints from local residents who saw the cars, saying, 'Why are customers from outside Iwate here?'"

From July, the Iwate Prefectural Government's coronavirus-related help desk has seen an uptick in questions about whether residents can allow family members living outside the prefecture to come and visit them. On one day there were reportedly as many as 20 consultations on the issue. Nearby Fukushima Prefecture, which has a population about 1.5 times that of Iwate, offers a similar help desk service, but it reportedly receives only a few consultations of this kind a day.

Iwate Gov. Tasso is continuing to call for calm at his press conferences. In May, one journalist asked him, "Does the strong emphasis on this prefecture being 'a region with no confirmed infections' have the negative effect of putting pressure on residents?" Tasso responded by saying, "It's preferable that cases of infection don't arise, but even if a first person does emerge, we shouldn't blame them. I also want the residents of Iwate to be kind in their interactions with them." In June too, he said, "We won't criticize the first infected person. Please don't think of this as a cause for guilt."

The man who shared his conversation with his father on Twitter said, "I think for people in Iwate, that there are no confirmed infections is why they are stressed. I'd like them to overcome this without losing their kindness toward the people around them."

(Japanese original by Tomoe Sanpei, Oshu Local Bureau)

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