Japanese children wearing masks walk to school. Since the start of the pandemic, government officials announced that schools would not close, citing the positive impacts of education on the mind and body.

(This is the first in a series of articles produced in partnership with journalists from Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle in collaboration with the nonprofit Solutions Journalism Network.)

By TOMOKO NAGAI, Rafu Staff Writer

As children in Japan arrive for school, they routinely remove their shoes and don slippers. The principal speaks to the children through closed-circuit television in each classroom followed by the playing of the school anthem.

“Sing quietly in your hearts,” the principal instructs. After all, singing out loud could spread COVID-19. “The recent (pandemic) has resulted the fewer hospital beds. Let’s avoid injuries that can be prevented,” the principal notes.

Beginning in late February 2020, then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe ordered nationwide school closures. The closures continued for about three months, and schools reopened in early June. Abe resigned in August 2020, citing health reasons.
A survey conducted in late March by Save the Children Japan targeted students from elementary school age to around age 18 and received 1,422 verified responses. “I would like to hear an expert seriously examine whether the educational opportunities that were sacrificed were actually beneficial (to curbing the spread of infection),” commented a second-year high school student in Kagoshima.
Elementary school children said they felt confusion and anger and wanted a clear explanation as to where the coronavirus came from.  While American schools recently began reopening under newly issued Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance after a year-long lockdown, Japan’s schools have been functioning since June of 2020. The contrast is prompting educational experts to ask, “How did Japan do it?”
Following a short winter break, Japan’s elementary schools are back in session as of Jan. 7.
The crowded entrance hall is a typical morning scene at elementary school. However, to avoid such crowding, some schools divided children into three groups to show up at school with a time lag. Both the Japanese government and America’s CDC follow similar infection control protocols — avoid the three C’s (contact, crowds, and confined spaces), wear a mask, wash your hands, and disinfect frequently.
Japanese schools, noted for providing children with nourishing lunches, no longer allow students to sit in groups at lunchtime. Everyone must face in the same direction and eat quietly without talking to one another.
According to Kyodo News, the number of children in elementary, junior high, high schools, and schools for special-needs children infected from June to the end of November was 3,303, an increase of 2,137 from the end of August. Contact tracing revealed that 1,824 infections were linked to the home, 445 at school, and 320 non-home/non-school. Fortunately, no one became seriously ill.
While each school has the authority to decide to close on its own, a ministry directive states that school closures should be avoided if possible.
Last December, 6,159 school children in Japan tested positive for the coronavirus. In the U.S., by comparison, the number of children testing positive around the same time was a staggering 3 million, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Two days before declaring a state of emergency in the first week of January 2021, Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Koichi Hagiuda announced that the government would not close schools, including universities. Healthy learning and its effect on the mind and body were given as reasons. In addition, the national common college entrance exam proceeded as scheduled.
On Dec. 3, the ministry updated its hygiene management manual for schools recommending that windows on both sides of the classroom be open four to eight inches and that a ventilation fan be in use as all times. If it’s too cold, windows are opened every 30 minutes, and children are instructed to wear warm clothes indoors.
Children returning from winter recess for the third and final semester of the school year found it more difficult to adhere to mandated guidelines in the colder weather. To avoid crowding the entrance hall, children at a Tokyo school had to gaman (endure) the cold while waiting in line for their turn to enter. In fact, the whole country was expected to gaman.
Wearing face shields, children study in a classroom in Nikko. (Photo courtesy U.S. News & World Report)

As of Feb. 27, 2021, Japan, with a population of 126.5 million, reports 7,807 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. The U.S., with a population of 326.7 million, lists 509,000 deaths.

Theories about why Japan’s numbers are significantly lower than other industrialized countries suggest that the Japanese custom of bowing rather than hugging, kissing, or shaking hands may have inhibited the spread of the disease. Another theory points to Japan’s customary mask-wearing, frequent hand washing, and the lifelong habit of removing shoes indoors as contributing factors to Japan’s low infection rate.
The customs are carried on in the school curriculum itself. Manners, hygiene, discipline, sweeping classroom floors, even cooking are basics taught from elementary school in Japan, in addition to academic study.
While Japan is setting the pace where education is concerned, the government only recently decided to roll out a vaccine, becoming the last G7 country to do so. Japan’s Health Ministry said it has approved the vaccine co-developed and supplied by Pfizer Inc.
Currently in the U.S., 41 percent of elementary and high school students are already back in school, receiving traditional in-person instruction every day, according to Burbio, a K-12 school opening tracker. About 25 percent are doing a hybrid of in-person and virtual education, and 34 percent of K-12 students are still getting a virtual-only education.
Parent groups across America are clamoring for schools to reopen, while teachers are holding out for vaccinations and tougher protocols before going back to work. Once again, the U.S. finds itself in the middle of disparate pressures. Still, no one doubts that American classes will be back in session at some point … somehow.
Children in Fukuoka after schools reopened in 2020. (Photo courtesy Jakarta Post)

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