But unlike many other countries, neither Japan nor South Korea imposed a full lockdown and have been trying to coexist with the virus all along.
They pursued a middle ground — consider it lockdown lite — that relied on the cooperation of citizens already accustomed to mask-wearing and social distancing in response to previous respiratory epidemics. Businesses, more or less, voluntarily closed early to help keep the virus at bay.
The approach hasn’t been perfect, and both countries have faced waves of cases, especially with the delta variant.
With infections ebbing and a majority of the population fully vaccinated, both Japan and South Korea are now easing their limits on social gatherings and exploring vaccine passports and other initiatives to encourage economic activity.
Beginning this week, South Korea will slightly raise its cap on the number of people who can congregate in private from six to eight. Cafes, movie theaters, concert venues and restaurants will be allowed to stay open later than they had been in recent months as officials clamped down when cases began spiking in July.
These changes come as South Korean health officials prepare for a switch to their “living with covid-19” strategy in November. Officials said they view the final two weeks of October as a “steppingstone” to a “step-by-step recovery of daily life.”
Last week, the South Korean government launched the Recovery of Daily Life Support Committee of 40 advisers from public and private industries to plan a gradual return to normalcy, including vaccine passports.
“We will turn covid-19 into a controlled infectious disease and no longer a fear of the unknown, and return a complete routine to the citizens,” said South Korean Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum, who co-chairs the panel.
The goal is to relax limits on those fully vaccinated, ask asymptomatic people and patients under 70 with mild symptoms to stay at home, and focus government tracking of cases to fatalities and severe infections, officials said. There are no plans yet to remove mask requirements.
By November, South Korea expects 70 percent of its 52 million residents to be fully vaccinated. As of Tuesday, about 66 percent of its population was fully vaccinated and 79 percent had received at least one dose.
Since Feb. 29, 2020, South Korea reported five coronavirus-related deaths per 100,000 people and Japan reported 14 deaths per 100,000 people, according to data compiled by The Washington Post. In comparison, the United States has reported 222 deaths per 100,000 people.
South Korean health officials said despite not ordering a full lockdown, the country has managed itself through widespread testing, contact tracing and treatments. Its residents, for the most part, kept in line with social-distancing protocols, they said.
In Tokyo, life is returning to normal after nearly six months of a coronavirus “state of emergency” status. There was no widespread lockdown, and the designation was largely a suggestion. Still, some businesses shuttered early as a result. Residents strictly wore masks, kept distance, sanitized their hands and willingly got their temperature checked when asked.
Now, those bars and restaurants are staying open late into the night. The infamous five-way Shibuya crossing is once again filled with huge crowds of people.
After peaking in late July and early August, especially due to the delta variant, positive cases have plummeted. And now, the government is gradually expanding services to encourage people to travel and spend money.
In Tokyo alone, the number of daily positive cases has dropped dramatically, from its peak of more than 4,000 in August to just 36 on Tuesday.
Vaccinations have picked up rapidly in recent months, and more than 67 percent of the Japanese population is fully vaccinated. The elderly population is nearly all vaccinated.
The trend has experts hypothesizing about factors that may be at play in bringing down the cases, besides vaccination.
Kenji Shibuya, epidemiology expert and the research director at the Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research, said the decrease in cases showed him that the virus may be moving in a cyclical pattern of a roughly two-month period of peaking and ebbing.
“In terms of lockdown or state of emergency or draconian measures, it’s quite different by cultures. Compared to the U.K. or European countries, East Asia, particularly, they are very strict about wearing masks and social distancing,” Shibuya said. “Season factor, human factor and viral factor: I think that seems to be a very complicated interactional role.”
There also may be an unknown characteristic about the virus that led to the decrease in Japan, he said, given that social interactions never quite stopped. He warned that another wave may be on its way, especially in the winter months.
“We need to look into the endemic phase of covid now,” he said.
On Oct. 15, Japan’s new prime minister, Fumio Kishida, announced measures to help corporations recover revenue streams, using vaccination certificates and negative tests to allow residents to enter restaurants and other establishments, and stimulate consumer spending through launching campaigns that encourage domestic travel.
“We must do all we can to fight the coronavirus and get the economy back on track. We also have to build a new social economic system for the post-corona era,” Kishida said at a news conference.
Julia Mio Inuma contributed to this report.