The cherry blossoms are back, but is Tokyo?

Gearoid Reidy

Tokyoites are getting back into a pre-COVID-19 tradition.
This month sees the return of hanami, the cherry-blossom viewing parties that are part of a tradition dating back to the Heian Period of 1,200 years ago, before being cruelly interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Each spring heralds the spectacular-but-short-lived bloom of the flowers that coincides with the end of Japan’s fiscal and school years, and becomes a time of partings, new beginnings — and an excuse for raucous drinking parties beneath the petals.
This will be the first year since the coronavirus first surfaced in Wuhan that authorities aren’t cautioning against holding such celebrations. Three years ago, as millions across the globe bedded into lockdowns, hanami parties were (unfairly) blamed for seeding the virus and causing the state of emergency that rocked the economy the following month. While such revelry was officially discouraged, with COVID-19 yet to really hit Japan, some still felt free to enjoy themselves.
Tokyo soon became much more cautious toward the virus — so much so that authorities continued to discourage hanami, a largely outdoor activity, last year, taping off picnic areas in parks across the city. The nation’s wariness, which has helped keep deaths from the pandemic low even without a lockdown, is still on display in the masses who choose to continue masking, even after the government finally dropped recommendations on face coverings.
Mask-wearing may change gradually. But other aspects of the capital might not return. One of the most palpable is that Tokyo is going to bed a little earlier these days: Data show footfall in the busiest nightlife districts remains down nearly 50% from the pre-COVID-19 norm, even as other areas have largely recovered. The last trains on the extensive (but not 24-hour) subway and train network, run 30 minutes earlier than before the pandemic, as more head straight back from the office or work from home.
Tokyoites are easing off the famed hard-drinking nightlife: While the food and beverage industry as a whole has recovered past its 2019 levels, much of that is on the back of takeout and fast food; sales at bars and izakaya restaurants in January across the country were still down 42% from the same month in 2019.
“The Japanese are a very cautious people and some are avoiding staying out too late or getting rowdy,” Mitsuo Kaku, the chairman of the Tokyo Center for Infectious Disease Control and Prevention, said. “Unless there’s a medicine developed you can take as soon as you get COVID-19, things might still stay like this.”
From taxi drivers to travel writers, many have lamented this shift. But it’s not due just to the pandemic — attitudes are changing too. Gen Z workers, already less likely to drink than their elders, say they have little desire to join in after-work parties once considered mandatory. Some 40% of employees say they don’t want to take part in such events with their bosses or company seniors, and when such gatherings happen, they’re increasingly in smaller groups.
COVID-19 has amplified trends that were already emerging before the pandemic. For decades, the central government has been trying to convince people to spend less time at the office and more with their families. The Work Style Reform Bill passed in 2018 limited overtime for many professions to 45 hours a month — and added powerful penalties to encourage employers to obey.
That was already impacting how late people stayed out; the pandemic, coming so soon after, may have sealed those lifestyle changes in a way that decades of nudging could not.
The country’s hard-work-at-all-costs culture, which served it so well in the post-war boom, is being worn down, too. For one of the most under-slept countries in the world, that might not be all bad. One survey found that people in their 20s and early 30s are getting 10% more sleep than the same age group a decade ago. Work from home will also help push what was already an increase in people actually taking their paid work leave.
Of course, the changes COVID-19 has wrought aren’t all desirable. Fewer people staying out late hurts the bottom line in the service sector, already suffering from the effects of inflation. Many businesses will go under. With fewer commuters, train lines may have to review their profitability.
And not every change has been voluntary: Some places, including hospitals, have banned employees from socializing outside of work, a move which hasn’t been sustainable over the last three years, even if it helped reduce clusters among the vulnerable.
Tokyo might now be less interesting to the 2 a.m. tourist — but its residents may exit COVID-19 in some ways better off than when they went in. A less breakneck city might be an easier one to live in. The ephemeral, fluid nature of life is what the cherry blossoms represent — the coming revelry is a good chance for residents to think about such changes.