As novel coronavirus cases surge once more, the Japanese government has called for people to be careful to take proper anti-transmission measures if they head back to their family homes during this month's Obon holiday season. However, an expert advisory subcommittee on virus policy was not set to meet until Aug. 7, meaning there would be no indication of which direction the government may go on travel guidance until right before the start of the Obon period. There is no denying this is too late.
The Obon tradition, an annual chance for extended families to come together, is deeply rooted in Japanese culture. It is different from run-of-the-mill tourism. However, it also increases the risk of infecting grandparents and elderly parents at family meals and other gatherings.
Government disunity on the question of whether people should head home during the COVID-19 crisis is also now on full display. Economic revitalization minister Yasutoshi Nishimura, who is in charge of the administration's coronavirus policy, has said that people "must think very carefully about" any plans to head back to their family homes. However, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, who places importance on resuming economic activities, then stated that "we are not saying people should refrain (from Obon trips) across the board."
And so the government is calling for caution, but not uniform self-restraint. As an example of how to apply its advice, it stated that people unable to take sufficient anti-infection measures should consider putting off Obon trips. This could be taken to mean both that one can head home, or that one shouldn't, and may invite serious confusion.
We are also shocked to see no reference to considering the state of the health systems in different parts of Japan. Obon trips often mean traveling over prefectural boundaries, which risks bringing the virus into regional parts of the country.
For example, the southernmost prefecture of Okinawa is already facing a hospital bed crunch, and the governor has expressed serious worries that the local health system will collapse. People from places with high infection numbers planning trips to areas with already fragile health care infrastructure should think especially carefully about whether they really should go.
It would be much easier to decide whether or not to head home for Obon if there was an easily understood presentation of the infection and medical system conditions in each part of Japan. An index for that very purpose is finally being released on Aug. 7.
Meanwhile, a number of prefectural governors have not bothered to wait for the national government to take the lead, and have issued their own advisories against Obon homecoming from other prefectures. We would like to give these decisions, made based on local conditions, proper consideration.
In metropolitan Tokyo, where COVID-19 cases are running relatively high, there are a notable number of transmissions among family members. We would like people traveling for Obon to think about ways to prevent infection when staying in the family home or going places in the same car with elderly relatives.
Of course, there are some people who have to go home, for family reasons or due to older relatives' health problems. Relatives in areas hit by last month's torrential rain disasters are probably in particular need of a helping hand right now. We must avoid creating a situation where people who do go home for Obon face discrimination upon their return.