A culture of collective responsibility: How Japan has kept COVID-19 numbers relatively low

by Jan 25, 2022Featured Article, News

TOKYO: On Jan 1 at a shrine in the leafy suburb of Asagaya in west Tokyo, Michiko Kubo and her husband, each wearing two face masks, joined a long line of worshippers all standing a metre apart to welcome 2022.

“Last year we stayed at home following official guidelines to avoid crowded places. But this time, we feel protected as we are vaccinated and wearing masks all the time,” Kubo, 45, said. Volunteers also walked through the crowd that had gathered under the winter sun, politely reminding everyone to practise safe distancing.

Despite a resurgence of cases driven by the Omicron variant, coronavirus numbers are still low compared to most Western nations. As of mid-January, Japan has reported around 1.9 million COVID-19 cases and close to 18,500 deaths. On the other hand, the United Kingdom – which has a population half of Japan’s – has reported more than 15 million cases with 152,000 fatalities.



Several reasons have been suggested for Japan’s ability to keep COVID-19 relatively under control. One factor, experts told CNA, is the likes of the Kubos themselves, for whom mask-wearing is second nature.

“Japanese people are comfortable wearing masks and washing their hands, two crucial factors in virus mitigation. They also tend to follow the rules,” said Professor Yoshiaki Katsuda of Kansai University of Social Welfare in Osaka.

“Overall, these habits, ingrained since childhood in schools and at home, have been highly effective.”

Katsuda, an expert in travel medicine, added that wearing medical masks when one has the common cold or cough is viewed as good etiquette in Japanese society.

“As children we are taught to protect others from catching our diseases by keeping a social distance. It is almost equated to a civic duty,” he explained.

The World Health Organization describes masks as a key measure to reduce transmission and save lives, and that masks should be used as “part of a comprehensive strategy of measures” against COVID-19.


While long-held social habits have played a part, the role of the government has also been key. For example, the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare set up a toll-free number to answer queries from the public and has also been promoting a “new lifestyle” to reduce infections.

On the ministry website, people are urged to wear masks as part of three basic preventative measures; the other two being social distancing and frequent handwashing. Government employees at local municipalities have also linked up with medical experts to inform and encourage residents to follow safety precautions.

When Japan experienced a surge in infections involving the Delta variant last year, teams walked through high-risk areas such as shopping streets and red-light districts, urging people to protect themselves by going home.