Yet the curve has been flattened, with deaths well below 1,000, by far the fewest among the Group of Seven developed nations. In Tokyo, its dense center, cases have dropped to single digits on most days. While the possibility of a more severe second wave of infection is ever-present, Japan has entered and is set to leave its emergency in just weeks, with the status lifted already for most of the country and Tokyo and the remaining four other regions set to exit Monday.
Analyzing just how Japan defied the odds and contained the virus while disregarding the playbook used by other successful countries has become a national conversation. Only one thing is agreed upon: that there was no silver bullet, no one factor that made the difference.
“Just by looking at death numbers, you can say Japan was successful,” said Mikihito Tanaka, a professor at Waseda University specializing in science communication, and a member of a public advisory group of experts on the virus. “But even experts don’t know the reason.”
One widely shared list assembled 43 possible reasons cited in media reports, ranging from a culture of mask-wearing and a famously low obesity rate to the relatively early decision to close schools. Among the more fanciful suggestions include a claim Japanese speakers emit fewer potentially virus-laden droplets when talking compared to other languages.