Tokyo is not buzzing with tourists, but commuters are still packing trains

Staying away from crowds, avoiding events and generally keeping your distance from others is hard anywhere. When you’re nearly 7,000 miles from home and gorgeous flowers are blooming all around you, it’s even harder.

That’s the situation right now at Temple University Japan, the university’s Tokyo campus, as students there try to do their part to help reduce the spread of COVID-19.

As the city records its earliest ever start to cherry blossom season, Philly students are departing in droves. Of 144 students who started their spring semester in Tokyo this January, not nearly as many remain.

“I’m graduating this May,” said Jovan Suvira, a senior actuarial science major who departed Tokyo on Mar. 12, explaining he wanted to give himself time to deal with a potential quarantine.

India has barred all Japanese travelers from entering, but the United States has not yet placed any restrictions on American citizens returning from Japan.

Temple first offered Tokyo students the option to return home starting Feb. 28, when it announced study abroad classes would go online for at least two weeks, and some left right away. Then came the university’s decision to switch all classes to online for the rest of the semester — whether in Philadelphia or abroad — prompting a cascade of additional departures.

Temple announced its first positive-testing student on Sunday, a student who traveled to Spain over spring break and is showing light symptoms in isolation. The student has not been at the North Philly campus since Wednesday, the university said in a statement.

All Philadelphia dorm residents have been asked to vacate, and programs in Europe and the U.K. have also been suspended, so it’s remote learning for all Temple students right now.

The lunchroom at Temple University Japan is empty Credit: Alesia Bani for Billy Penn

Staying in Tokyo, where daily life continues

Those who have stayed in Japan say they’re joining in solidarity to continue exploring.

The campus lunchroom remains open — though it’s relatively quiet. On Sunday, the large communal space had just three people in it.

“Since I only have a month left, I might as well see it through the end and experience as much of it as I can,” said Issalina Sagad, a sophomore political science major who is remaining in Japan with one of her close friends from Philly.

For most Tokyo residents, the pandemic has not yet majorly disrupted daily life.

Supermarkets, pharmacies and convenience stores around the city have put up signs informing customers they’re out of hygienic products such as toilet paper and masks, but they’re still open for business.

While tourism is suffering — attractions like Universal Studios Japan, Tokyo Disneyland, and national museums have temporarily closed, and the infamous streets of popular areas like Shibuya and Ginza aren’t buzzing with the typical amount of people on weekends — trains are still congested with daily commuters.

Globally, Japan has not been one of the hardest-hit by the virus, with about 675 reported COVID-19 cases (not including cases from the Diamond Princess, a cruise ship that was docked off Yokohama) and around 30 deaths.

For comparison, China has reported more than 80k cases and South Korea 8k. Italy, where Temple’s Rome campus was completely shuttered back on Feb. 29, has exploded with more than 15k cases, according to the latest World Health Organization Situation Report.

Some shelves at Tokyo supermarkets have gone empty Credit: Alesia Bani for Billy Penn

Getting back to a not-normal life

TUJ students did not report difficulties getting back into the U.S.

Temple sophomore Layla Kasymov, a marketing major who flew back to Furlong, Pa. on Mar. 6, said she had to sign a document on her return flight, but it did not include any questions pertaining to her stay in Japan.

“The media made it seem like they were implementing screenings that everyone [had to] go through to determine if they can pass or not,” Kasymov said. “Instead they looked at my passport and let me go.”

Those who have returned home are joining their U.S. classmates in figuring out how to navigate college remotely.

Camryn Sheasley, a sophomore graphic design major who flew from Tokyo to Lansdale, Pa., on Mar. 1, said studio classes that require physical project submissions have been a challenge for both her and her professors.

“I’m very afraid my grades will suffer as a result since my teacher won’t be able to actually see my work,” Sheasley said.

Meanwhile in Tokyo, the government has urged people to refrain from holding cherry blossom parties known as hanami as the delicate blooms continue their spread — in this case, a welcome one — across the region.