Mitsukoshi Ginza

TOKYOOn Monday evening, Japan’s prime minister Shinzo Abe announced an end to the state of emergency, which was initially put in place on April 7 and once covered all of Japan. The measure had been gradually lifted in various places around the country, and as of Monday morning it remained in place only for Tokyo, three other surrounding prefectures, and the northern island of Hokkaido.

The move will lead to a gradual reopening of retail establishments in Tokyo, which has been uncharacteristically quiet in recent weeks. While Japan’s state of emergency did not include an enforced lockdown, many businesses voluntarily closed temporarily, or shortened their opening hours. As of late last week, the main thoroughfare of Chuo Dori, which runs through the luxury shopping district of Ginza, was almost eerily devoid of shoppers. Department stores, brand boutiques, and large-scale shopping complexes alike were all shuttered.

When it was reported in Japanese media late last week that Abe would lift the state of emergency for the prefectures where it remained, some retailers didn’t waste any time in getting back to normal. Local brand Toga opened many of its stores with shortened hours last Thursday; White Mountaineering opened its Tokyo flagship on Friday; Kolor opened its doors in Tokyo’s Aoyama neighborhood on Saturday; and Mister Gentleman reopened on Monday. Visvim announced that it would resume operations at its stores across Japan on Tuesday. All of these stores say they are implementing certain measures to reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus, such as asking all customers to wear masks and use hand sanitizer upon entering.

But many larger retailers are taking a more gradual approach to their return to normalcy. Matsuya department store in Ginza reopened its food halls only starting from Monday. The remainder of the store will be open from June 1, but starting June 23 it will close every Tuesday. As of Monday night, many other department stores in Tokyo, as well as large shopping complexes, hadn’t yet announced plans for returning to normal.

A few companies had made the decision to reopen some stores even before the state of emergency was assumed to be lifted. Fast Retailing reopened its Uniqlo stores in Tokyo’s Shibuya, Shinjuku and Ikebukuro districts on May 7, and its Ginza flagship on May 11.

“The health and safety of our employees and customers has always been our top priority and continues to be today,” a spokesman for Fast Retailing said. “This includes, for example, ensuring that mask wearing and disinfecting with alcohol-based hand sanitizer are in place at our stores so that customers can shop with peace of mind. Uniqlo and GU chose to keep some of their stores open in Japan these past few months, with some operating on shortened times. The main reason is that both brands believe stores are necessary to help customers maintain normal lives, and Uniqlo and GU provide items of clothing that can help make the daily lives of people a little easier and more comfortable, especially during the period of lockdown.”

Retailers are hoping that the reopening of stores will lead to an uptick in sales, especially as the share of e-commerce sales in Japan tends to be lower than that of many Western countries.

In April, same-store sales from Uniqlo’s Japan operations, including online sales, decreased by 56.5 percent compared with the same month the previous year. The country’s largest department store operator, Isetan Mitsukoshi Holdings, said that April same-store sales for its stores in the Tokyo metropolitan area plummeted by 84.3 percent versus a year ago. Department stores in particular are being dealt a double blow: In addition to closures, a steep drop in the number of foreign tourists to Japan due to immigration restrictions has hit luxury retail hard.

But despite challenging business conditions, many larger Japanese companies have also stepped up to help those in need. Fast Retailing said Monday that it would donate a total of 5 million gowns and masks, as well as functional innerwear items, in order to help combat the virus in Japan. The move is the latest in a series of donations by the company, which previously announced that it would donate a total of 10 million masks to medical institutions around the world, and 200,000 isolation gowns and innerwear items to medical institutions in Japan.

“The unprecedented global crisis resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic means that countries and corporations like ours must work together beyond borders to identify and act on ways to best serve society,” Fast Retailing’s chairman, president and chief executive officer Tadashi Yanai was quoted as saying in a release. “It is in that spirit that companies from Japan, China and elsewhere have banded together to give support in the states of New York and New Jersey, where there have been so many COVID-19 cases, with their governors expressing gratitude for such assistance. We have drawn on our network as a global corporation to procure masks and gowns from manufacturing partners in China and provide them to frontline caregivers in Japan, the United States, and elsewhere around the world. We will keep striving as an apparel company to serve the social good.”

Japanese beauty and cosmetics companies have also used their expertise for the greater good. Shiseido has produced over 400,000 bottles of hand sanitizer per month, which it has donated to medical institutions in various regions across the globe. It also donated masks in China and Indonesia and face shields in Thailand. And its Relay of Love project included charitable donations in China totaling 10 million yuan, free haircuts for health-care professionals, and other initiatives.

From the second half of April, Kao Group increased its production of disinfectants by more than 20 times pre-pandemic levels, utilizing all factories where production is possible. It will also begin producing sanitizers outside of Japan, beginning in Germany, where the products will be donated to hospitals. The company said that from Germany, it plans to quickly expand production to other areas as well. Other initiatives that Kao has expanded include providing information on hand washing and hygiene via its web site and television advertisements.