Cherry blossom festivals cancelled as Japan leaves lockdown

theguardian.com -- Mar 22
Japan will emerge from 10 weeks of coronavirus restrictions on Sunday, just in time for the peak of the annual cherry blossom viewing season.

In normal years, the appearance of the delicate pink flowers is the cue for friends to spread out picnic blankets and lose their inhibitions in a ritual that often involves copious quantities of food and drink, and a nodding recognition of the floral spectacular. But the lifting of the state of emergency, announced earlier this month by the prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, will not be celebrated beneath the sakura.

In Tokyo parks that would normally be filled with picnicking families, signs warn that flower-viewing parties are forbidden. Popular spots have been roped off and festivals cancelled or scaled down. Illuminations will not be switched on and security guards will be on the lookout for anyone grabbing a furtive beer and bento. Instead, blossom viewing will be restricted to masked strolls in designated areas.

And the end of the state of emergency in Tokyo and three neighbouring prefectures on Sunday will not be quite as liberating as it sounds – the ban on boozing beneath the blossoms is only one of several restrictions that will remain. Bars and restaurants that have been asked to close at 8pm will be allowed to stay open for one more hour, and residents are encouraged to avoid non-essential outings. Japan’s ban on virtually all inbound foreign travellers will stay.

While Suga said the improved availability of hospital beds had made it possible to ease restrictions, the governor of Tokyo, Yuriko Koike, warned that the overall situation in the capital remained severe and asked people to avoid non-essential outings.

While daily cases are much lower than in early January, the end of the emergency measures has drawn criticism for coming at a time when infections in Tokyo are creeping back up. Its daily tally remains far higher than Koike’s target of reducing the seven-day average by 70% or more than the preceding week. The city reported 342 cases on Saturday – compared with an all-time peak of 2,520 on 7 January – but this was higher than the previous four Saturdays.

- theguardian.com