Shinzo Abe, Japan's prime minister, said yesterday that the "Japan model" has effectively beaten coronavirus, as he lifted a nationwide state of emergency after seven weeks.
He described how the "uniquely Japanese way" in which the country confronted the pandemic - unusually not including strict lockdown - had allowed it to escape the numerous outbreaks and high death tolls seen in several European countries and the US.
Japan has had about 17,000 confirmed cases and 850 deaths, but has not implemented widespread testing.
At a press conference yesterday, Mr Abe lifted the state of emergency in Tokyo, three surrounding prefectures and the northern island of Hokkaido, bringing those areas into line with other parts of Japan.
He said: "We were able to bring the outbreak nearly under control in just a month and a half in a uniquely Japanese way. We demonstrated the power of the 'Japan model'."
However, experts have struggled to specify what that model is or why it appears to have been so successful in this congested nation of 126.5 million people, which has the oldest population in the world.
Mask-wearing, home-working and social distancing were all advised, but Japan's constitution prohibits a mandatory lockdown.
Businesses, including restaurants, were allowed to choose whether they remained open or shut down, and only 0.2pc of the population were tested for the virus.
"It is a mystery to everybody," said Tasuku Honjo, professor of immunology at Kyoto University and winner of the 2018 Nobel Prize for medicine, adding that there were "several theories" as to the reason for Japan's success.
"One is that people in this country like to be clean. They wash their hands frequently and they do not kiss and hug", he said.
Prof Honjo added that other suggestions were that the widespread BCG vaccination boosted Japanese people's immunity.
And it was also possible that the genes of Asian people were more resistant to the virus than those of Caucasians.
Another hypothesis was that Japan was hit by an early, weaker strain of the novel coronavirus before it was able to mutate.
Other experts have suggested that Japanese authorities learnt their lesson after being criticised for a slow response to the outbreak on the Diamond Princess cruise liner, docked in Yokohama, which infected 712 passengers and crew, with 14 dying.
Dr Kazuto Suzuki, professor of public policy at Hokkaido University, credited an early grassroots response to the outbreak with being a factor in Japan's relative success. Some 50,000 public health nurses trained to trace infections of tuberculosis or influenza were quickly mobilised to track coronavirus infections, allowing the authorities to isolate people who had the illness and halt its spread.
"It's very analogue. It's not an app-based system like Singapore," Prof Suzuki said. "But it has been very useful."
Prof Honjo still believes the government has been remiss in not carrying out large-scale testing to determine the number of people with the virus but not presenting symptoms.
"The number of cases is falling, but we have to think a second or third wave will come, and we have to be prepared for that scenario," he said.
Mr Abe said he would not hesitate to reimpose the state of emergency if that did happen. He also applauded the efforts of the public so far, asking for continued vigilance, and announced plans for a second extra budget to support businesses.
Despite Japan's apparent success, Mr Abe's approval ratings have nosedived. And the lack of lockdown has not saved the Japanese economy, which is now in recession. (© Daily Telegraph, London)