The school holidays are a time of childhood delight and parental dread but for Tomoyo Koike, a 40-year-old single mother of three children, every day is now a holiday as Japan begins an unprecedented school shutdown.
Ms Koike has been left with just days to organise childcare after prime minister Shinzo Abe called on every elementary, middle and high school across the country to close from Monday until April to reduce social contact and the spread of coronavirus.
The decision comes as the virus, which seems to be about 20 times as deadly as the seasonal flu, is spreading faster outside China where it originated, causing alarm and triggering quarantines, transport and manufacturing disruptions in Europe, Asia and the Middle East.
Schools in Hong Kong have been shut since January because of the coronavirus and the government has extended those closures to April. South Korea has postponed the start of the new school year by a week to March 9.
In Japan, the measure has fuelled parental desperation in a country with little culture of nannies and babysitters, exposing inflexible work practices and gender inequality, as well as social gaps created by the rise of single parents and families with two earners.
Experts have decried the decision as politically motivated and some municipalities have refused to close their schools after the sudden move by Mr Abe, who is desperate to stave off any threat to the Tokyo Olympics, and has come under criticism for his handling of the coronavirus.
Ms Koike’s job at a non-profit organisation does not offer remote working and she has no relatives nearby to help look after her children. “My two kids in elementary school will stay home on their own and I’ve told them not to go out,” Ms Koike said. “On the educational front, I’m worried they’ll just spend the entire day playing games.”
She plans to set a study schedule and will ask her children to send photos of their homework through a messaging app while she is at work until 5.30pm. If the shutdown is prolonged, she worries about nutrition, because her children will be eating frozen food if she cannot prepare lunch boxes.
Even greater chaos awaits if the day care facility for her four-year-old daughter shuts down as well. In that scenario, Ms Koike is considering hiring a babysitter or taking time off work to avoid the expense.
“If my two kids stay at home and my youngest goes to day care, I’m not sure the government measure will be effective,” Ms Koike said. “The risk is also higher for me to become infected by going to work so I feel like I’m the biggest danger in my household.”
So far, Japan’s government has urged day care centres to stay open, giving hope to parents of small children. After-school clubs will also continue at some schools, helping parents who work late, but also raising questions about the purpose of the shutdown as children will continue to mix in enclosed spaces.
Mr Abe’s decision has triggered a backlash. Nobuhiko Okabe, director of the Kawasaki City Institute for Public Health and a member of Japan’s expert panel on the coronavirus, said the group was not consulted on school closures. “We have to think about the balance of daily life,” he said, noting that Covid-19 appeared to affect adults more than children. “My opinion is to limit school closures to specific areas.”
The mayor of Kanazawa in central Japan refused to follow the prime minister’s request, saying the economic impact was too large. Renho Murata, deputy leader of the opposition Constitutional Democratic party, said: “To say ‘just leave the children at home’ when there’s no change in their parent’s work situation . . . is the worst kind of grandstanding.”
According to an online poll by Yahoo Japan, 49 per cent of parents say they will leave their children home alone, 20 per cent will take time off work and 14 per cent will ask grandparents to take care of them.
In the hours that followed Mr Abe’s demand for school closures Amazon’s Japanese website received a flurry of orders as families sought to prepare their homes for a prolonged stint of child-minding. Orders for maps, foldable homework-tables, Play-Doh and Lego soared by between 300 and 800 per cent from the previous day.
A workbook with 366 facts that primary school children should know saw orders climb almost 13,000 per cent. Devices such as miniature trampolines and ping-pong sets that can be attached to dining tables surged more than sixfold.
Erika Yokokawa, an employee at a trading house in Tokyo’s Shinjuku area, was dropping her five-year-old son at a primary school in Hatsudai on Friday. “The first thing we did last night after we heard the prime minister’s words was call my mother in Sendai,” she said.
“If she cannot come down to help us, then we have a problem in my home because my husband and I both work and neither of us has been told that we can work from home yet. My company is not very flexible.”
She added: “It might be that my mother just tells me to stop working. She doesn’t understand the situation well.”