Setouchi Islands and Covid-19 – an Update

I don’t know if many foreign residents of Japan read my blog, but this post is mostly for you. And I wrote it especially with residents of Kagawa Prefecture in mind.

It’s an update of the situation of the Setouchi Islands regarding the Covid-19 pandemic.

In short, since the pandemic became a serious issue in Japan last March, the consensus from everyone and anyone knowing and caring about the islands has been that visitors should avoid going to the islands if they didn’t have to go.

The reason is simple: access to doctors and hospitals is very limited from the islands, and on the other hand, most of the population is very old. If the virus were to arrive on one island it could wipe out most of its population.

 

 

Where are we a few months later?

Well, as you know, it seems that Japan seriously dodged a bullet with the coronavirus. No one really knows why. Theories go from the most ludicrous, borderline racist and xenophobic (hello Taro Aso) to societal ones (Japanese people have much less physical contact with each other), to unexpected medical ones (the BCG vaccine trend that is prevalent in the country may provide some sort of immunity) and more.

So, the good news is that things didn’t end up being as bad as feared.

The bad news is that this is not over yet, and there is still a chance things could become bad again, even worse than they’ve been. However, a lot of people here seem to be under the impression that the epidemic is behind us. Especially in Kagawa where we were mostly spared.
As an example, the campus where I work reopened to students two days ago and respect for social distancing rules seems optional if I am to believe the behavior from a good number of students (spoiler alert: rules are not optional).

And what made me want to write this post is concerning news I got a couple of weeks ago. A somewhat large group of Westerners went to Megijima and had a lot of fun there, with a total disregard for social distancing.

I’m not going to spend time here discussing the fact that whether you like it or not, when you’re a foreigner, you are an ambassador of your country (and in Japan, you really are an ambassador of all the countries where people look like you) and when you act like an idiot, it shines a bad light on all of us.
And, please don’t come to talk to me about “your freedom”, it doesn’t trump everything, especially not in Japan. Please, keep your misplaced ideas about this badly mistreated concept back at home.
But this is not today’s topic.

Beyond being shocked, and greatly displeased by their behavior, it also made me wonder what was acceptable or not to do on the islands at the moment.

It’s true that Kagawa Prefecture hasn’t had a new case of Covid-19 in several weeks now. It is also true that because of the weird testing rules in Japan, nobody knows how spread out the virus really is. A large part of the population could be a healthy carrier, the virus only showing its face when it jumps onto someone who’s unlucky enough to get sick from it.

A second wave could start at any time, it may have already started in Tokyo as in the past few days where the number of infected people started to rise again.

However, instead of just wondering what should or should not be done about the islands, I decided to ask some islanders among my friends and contacts.

Because, at the end of the day, it’s not for you or me to decide whether we can go to the islands or not, but rather the islanders themselves.

Of course, they’re not official words, only some people’s thoughts, but they all tried to convey what seems to be the consensus on each island.

Let’s see what they all had to say.

 

Naoshima

Naoshima, from Takamatsu

The three big museums reopened a couple of weeks ago and most of the rest of the art sites are re-opening today, but with restrictions (reservations, a limited number of visitors, etc).

I asked my friend Andrew McCormick from Art Island Center about the situation on Naoshima and here is what he had to say:

There has been a modest number of tourists here recently. Enough of them to notice, but no crowds and the folks I have seen have seemed respectful. (…)

I don’t know that I have any particular advice for potential visitors. I don’t expect we will have many for quite some time, as most of the country seems to be very cautious still.
Compared to other islands, Naoshima has a lot of capacity to absorb tourists and still maintain distancing: a friend with a guesthouse got one guest the other weekend, in a place that sleeps up to 20. Benesse has slashed their hotel rates by 50%, although that may only be for Kagawa residents. (…)

Basically, things are very slow to resume here, and while many small businesses here may have put away some savings from the big crowds last year, that’s not gonna last forever.

Nobody here is pushing for reopening but neither is there a real “stay away” sentiment. People don’t really know what to do, I think. So while I personally think it’s best for folks to stay put if they can, it’s not easy for me to give advice.

 

Teshima

When the epidemic started to become serious, many residents of Teshima campaigned to “close” the islands to tourism and it has worked for the most part. None of the art sites are open at the moment (the Benesse art sites are scheduled to reopen in July, but it could change depending on the evolution of the situation).

I contacted Shinichi Hirai from Usaginingen and here is his answer:

I think Teshima is still not welcome for visitors. Medical section, islanders, Fukutake and government office have been talking about the emergency case and it hasn’t been cleared yet. Now it is becoming really complicated.
Some of the self-employed, like we are, have started new challenges with being online.
And of course, we are waiting for the time when we can say “welcome to Teshima” with big smiles.

 

Inujima

Unfortunately, I don’t know anybody on Inujima. All of the art sites have recently reopened, but with the small influx of tourists on Naoshima, there will be an even smaller one on Inujima. Also, the local population is so small that contact with outsiders is likely to be minimal, and social distancing rules easy to respect.

 

Ogijima

As you know, I have the most contact with Ogijima and count many of its residents as my friends, so I could speak with more people. Before reading their words, know that none of the art is open and that it will remain closed for the time being.

Junko Fukui-Nukaga, web designer and librarian of the island:

Covid-19 hasn’t occurred in Kagawa Prefecture for a while, so I think it’s a no problem that people in Kagawa will come to Ogijima. However, there are some areas that have not yet subsided, so tourists from those places will not be welcome. The problem lies in the fact that we don’t know where the tourists are coming from.

There are also people on the island who make a career out of tourism. I can’t say to starve to those people.

The Library is not my money-making job. So I use maximum risk management. It won’t be open to off-island audiences for a while yet. Many people on the island are afraid of people coming from the outside. I find it a very difficult issue.

 

Another resident had this to say:

My general feeling is that it’s okay to come to Ogi as long as you wear a mask and practice social distancing. (Especially on the ferry.) Also to keep in mind that most, if not all, shops and cafés are still closed.

Also though, it’s not like I want to advertise that Ogi is “open” to visitors. I don’t want a flood of tourists walking everywhere. The small amounts that have been coming are fine.

 

And I also asked Kaisho Damonte, co-owner of Damonte & Co and Ogijima’s own Renaissance man (he’s a self-taught baker, farmer, hunter and much more):

Well, it’s hard to answer the question. You know, there is not one single guideline to follow. No one can say that this is right, this is wrong.

So in fact, the number of tourists is increasing little by little but still much fewer than usual. Like 2-3 groups a day in the weekdays, and 6-10 groups a day on the weekends these days.

Islanders don’t use masks except when they go to Takamatsu. They don’t care about social distancing when they are on the island. I know they underestimate the risk but this is the way they’ve lived for like over 70 years. How would I change their mind easily?

(…)

So I would say that people don’t have to avoid coming to the islands. But they need to find something fun for them by themselves because we have no place welcome them. They can enjoy taking walks, seeing nature and cats or playing on the beach. That’s all. For Islanders feeling, it’s okay to come (I’m not a representative of the island though). But we just wonder if the tourists can enjoy their time on the island.

He also added that his café won’t reopen just yet; he’s been busy aplenty with new projects, doesn’t want to have to reshape his café to abide by social distancing rules, and his online shop (linked above) is doing well. And as a Frenchman, I’m telling you, his bread is the best bread I’ve eaten outside of France (even better than some I’ve eaten in France), so you should try it.

I haven’t spoken directly with Kentaro Yamaguchi of Zō to Taiyō, but he posted similar thoughts on social media. His new café will be open on weekends, but only for take-out, and he will provide a map of the islands advising some places where people can have picnics and such outside of the village. He also advises people to not hang around the village much and to wear masks at all times.

Also, Ogijima’s summer matsuri has been canceled this year, and the beach will not be open to outsiders of the island this summer (to my own great sadness).

 

As you know, I care deeply about Ogijima, so I’m adding my two cents.
I usually go to Ogijima on average twice a month, but I haven’t been since early March. You can’t imagine how sad it makes me and how difficult it is for me, as this island really is the place where I go to when I need to relax, be in nature, rejuvenate myself, go for a walk far from the city and much much more.

I’ve made this decision out of respect and love for the islanders. I don’t know how “safe” I am, especially seeing how lax a lot of people are with social distancing rules on campus (I have told off some students about it already, it will certainly happen again, and I have been tempted to do the same with some colleagues too), not mentioning my four-year-old son who is quite against this whole idea of washing his hands regularly and wearing a mask for longer than two minutes, but who has returned to preschool (where I assume all kids have the same feelings on these issues).

In other words, I will stay away from Ogijima for as long as it takes, and you can imagine how that makes me feel. If I can do that, I’m sure you can do it too.

 

Megijima

I haven’t spoken to anyone on Megijima, but know that all the art is closed there for the time being. However, it seems that most other things are open, and the island plans to open its beaches mid-July as usual.

As usual, Megijima seems to be walking to the beat of its own drum, and unfortunately, its own drum seems to revolve a lot around getting visitors’ money. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure that not everyone is like this on Megijima, but it’s unfortunately been my experience more often than not. I find it very worrisome this time around.
More than the beaches themselves, a packed ferry could be very bad if some beachgoers were to be carrying the virus. It could have some devastating effects, not only for Megijima but for Ogijima too (remember that they share the same ferry), as well as for Takamatsu, it could create several clusters over the city. Let’s hope the situation gets much better by mid-July or that Megijima’s authorities come to their senses. Some other people I talked with share the same feeling about Megijima’s beaches opening this summer.

I’ll keep you informed of any major changes.

Once again, my own two cents on the issue. If you’re a resident of Kagawa, especially a young Westerner more or less recently arrived from your country, I fully understand your desire to have fun, but is your own fun really worth running the risk of wrecking some small communities? Remember, it’s not always about ourselves.

 

Shodoshima

Shodoshima in the background, with Oshima in front of it.

 

Shodoshima’s situation is a bit unique because of its size. The island is not as isolated, a lot of people commute back and forth to Takamatsu or Okayama every day, and life there sometimes feels more similar to the rest of small-town or rural Japan than to life on one of the smaller islands.

All of the art managed by the Setouchi Triennale Executive Committee is closed for now. I don’t know about privately owned and managed sites (Georges Gallery and Fukutake House seem to be open).

Here are some general thoughts from some islanders collected by a friend:

They say that people are concerned but they need people visiting the island to keep the economy afloat. One thing they all say in common was that they don’t want to be the first person to bring the virus to the island…

 

The other islands

I don’t really have much information about the other islands.

Oshima seems somewhat open, but it rarely gets visitors in regular times, and contact with the islanders is always minimal.

I know that the city of Mitoyo had closed access to Awashima and Shishijima for outsiders at the height of the epidemic (to my knowledge, the only city to officially do it). Access is allowed again, but visitors are kindly advised to think twice if they really need to go right now (my own words, but that’s the idea).

I don’t have any information about the other islands, but they rarely get visitors outside of the Setouchi Triennale (maybe with the exception of Honjima). I don’t know any residents there and official websites (when they exist) haven’t been updated.

 

That is all for today. I hope this helps.
And whatever you decide to do regarding visiting the islands, please be safe, and always respect the local communities.
The islands may be your playground for a few hours, but they’re the entire lives of the people who live there. Please, never forget that.

Take care.

 

 

 

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