NARA PREFECTURE, Japan — Only a month ago, Japan was still holding onto hopes of hosting the Olympics, as it had managed to keep coronavirus cases unusually low. But as cases started to spike, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pinned the blame on foreigners and banned travel from 73 countries — with devastating effects on the residents and businesses of Mt. Yoshino.
Normally packed every spring with tens of thousands of tourists taking in the sakura, or cherry blossoms, the area had a 90 percent drop-off in visitors.
“Honestly speaking, everyone is putting on a smile in public, but people are going through extreme hardship,” Junko Kato, an innkeeper on Mt. Yoshino, told VICE News, noting the generations-old family business has always depended on the seasonal boom to stay afloat. “I think we’ll [soon] start seeing shops in very difficult situations."
The sakura hold a profound cultural significance as a symbol of new beginnings in Japan, and it’s no coincidence that the start of the academic year is around the same time. While Abe hadn’t been able to reopen the economy, he hoped to get kids back to school on schedule.
The week classes started, however, Abe declared a state of emergency in some parts of the country, and as a result, only 38% of the nation's schools opened on time. The half-in-half-out response rattled parents like Yumi Kitano, whose 11-year-old son had to start the new school year in the midst of a pandemic.
“It’s possible it could spread at school, so I am worried,” Kitano told VICE News. “I’m also worried about him falling behind academically.”
A week after they opened, many of Japan’s school districts, including the Kitanos', took it upon themselves to shut down, even if they fell outside of the prefectures affected by the national emergency. As cases grow exponentially, parents like the Kitanos are trying to give their child some sense of normalcy.
“For kids that don’t understand that yet, it must be so hard to be at home all the time,” Hidekazu Kitani, Yumi’s husband, told VICE News. “We play whatever sports we can at home, but I don’t know how long this can go on for.”
Cover: Students in Japan made their way back to school after a month-long hiatus to control the coronavirus. (Kira Dane/VICE News.
Video produced by: David Caprara and Angad Singh
Filmed by: Kira Dane
Edited by: Adam Deniston