The Vaccination Game: The Self-Defense Forces Vaccination Center was run smoothly but no-appointment days are over

6:50 a.m. June 26th

The large-scale Self-Defense Forces vaccination center near Otemachi, Tokyo, doesn’t open for another 70 minutes, and there is already a line of people looping around the large, brown, 16 story building. It is not only the elderly waiting for their first dose. The majority of people in the last section of the line are adults, ranging from their twenties to fifties. Most people are sitting on the ground or a chair they brought from home.

The sun, unobstructed in the cloudless morning sky, shines directly onto the line. Its rays are hot enough to irritate the exposed back of the neck in under a minute. Men and women take shelter under umbrellas and wide-brimmed hats as they check their phones, read a book, or doze off to pass the time. Some have pulled out their feet from their shoes and rest them on compact picnic tarps. 

“The people in line, please confirm that this is your first vaccination dose. If this is your second dose, we cannot vaccinate you at this facility today.”

A security officer reminded the queue through a megaphone so muted it was barely audible. 

In the past 20 minutes, three more adults join the back of the line with over one hundred waiting ahead of them. There’s no telling when the person at the very front arrived. 

A sign posted in front of the vaccination facility asks entrants whether they are over 18 years old, have a form of identification and their vaccine ticket with them. 

People with 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. reservations rest on chairs they brought to or borrowed from the facility. The sun feels warmer than the 23 degrees Celsius temperature, and queue use hats and umbrellas to keep cool. 

Officers begin to collect the chairs they lent to the line and place them back into an outdoor collection bin beside an entrance to the building. Everyone stands up, and the line begins to move. 

“The facility will momentarily open at 7:30. Please move slowly down the line while maintaining a distance with the person in front of you,” a security guard called out. 

“Be sure to check your belongings, so you don’t leave anything behind,” another guard said. 

The line moves forward in 10-meter increments as the clinic begins processing the first groups of people.

Around the corner at the back of the building, businesses, including the Nippon Travel Agency, are vaccinating their employees. 

At 7:30, a Self-Defense Forces truck pulls up and parks by the end of the line. It is rare to see a military-grade vehicle around civilians in a nation with no army and a small self-defense force. 

Two SDF soldiers get off the truck and walk toward the back of the building, away from the line.

The line moves for the second time, progressing less than 10 meters before halting. At this pace, it could be another hour before the last group step through the facility’s doors. 

“I got here before 7 a.m. But my husband arrived at a later time to get vaccinated two weeks ago, and he was further ahead in the line,” a woman in front of me said. “I saw on television that there are people who line up in the middle of the night to receive their shot as early as possible.” 

From the 28th, the center will switch to administering the second dose of the vaccine, making it nearly impossible for those seeking their first dose to reserve a slot online. Furthermore, this facility, which can administer up to 10,000 doses a day, and its sibling in Osaka, capped at 5,000 doses a day, will no longer administer doses meant for a canceled reserved patient to those who came without an appointment. 

In the beginning, a Ministry of Defense executive said the department “does not want to turn away senior citizens who came and waited in line,” even if they didn’t have a reservation. As Japan lowered the vaccine qualifying age to 18 and up, the younger demographic began to form lines throughout the night, hoping for a lucky shot. According to a report by Asahi Shinbun, this increased the number of repurposed doses from 100 up to 300 per day. In response, to complaints about people lining up late at night, disturbing the peace of his usually empty office building island, the ministry announced it would cease this no-appointment immunization process from the 28th. However, it appears this policy is already in practice at the Otemachi facility, as multiple signs in English and Japanese reminded those in line that they would not receive a shot if they didn’t present proof of reservation.  

The last group in line for the 8:00 to 10:00 a.m. slot arrived at the first checkpoint stationed within multiple outdoor tents. Inside, an extensive volunteer force patiently guided people through bag inspection, temperature checks, documentation review, and relocation to the next checkpoint facility inside the building.

 A freshly vaccinated woman passes the main sign in front of the first checkpoint reminding entrants that they need their vaccination ticket, photo ID and pre-screening form to receive their shot. The display screen on the left says the staff is currently seeing people reserved for the 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. slot.

Inside the first outdoor checkpoint, entrants are greeted with a sign saying their temperature and baggage will be checked. The male volunteer in the blue shirt, center, positions people in front of a screen that records and prints their temperatures. As far I could tell, everyone who had lined up got their shots.

“Everyone was just really wonderful, and that is one point I wanted to emphasize,” British reporter Phoebe Amoroso, who was vaccinated at the Otemachi facility on the 25th, said. “You went through many different stages, rooms and checkpoints. Up an elevator, down the elevator, honestly. And I was never once confused or uncertain about where to go, and I felt really completely welcome.” 

Amoroso arrived at the clinic at 3:45 a.m. the day after the ministry announced it would cease vaccinating on-the-day arrivals without reservation from the 28th. She said personal accounts posted on facebook’s COVID-19 Japan discussion group of people arriving hours before their appointment and still settling at the back of the line prompted her to go as quickly as possible. Despite her concerns about the facility’s staff not permitting early arrivals from forming a line, she said everyone waiting for the vaccine was treated with excellent care by the two security guards on duty. 

“The man was like, ‘oh, thank you, everyone, for your patience. If you want to go to the toilet,’ and periodically he’d be like, ‘let me tell you where the toilets are again everybody. You need to go out to the road and turn left for the public toilets. Be sure to tell the person behind you that you are going to the loo so they’ll save the spot for you,’” she said.  

Two volunteers wait to direct people who have received their shots to the shuttle bus headed for Tokyo station. 

Two volunteers wearing vests labeled “Free shuttle bus staff” wait for the next vaccinated group to exit the facility.

A female volunteer gives directions to people who just got off at a bus stop near the clinic.

“The government’s whole setup is crazy. A million shots a day? They should have done that sooner. There’s a lot of inefficiencies, but that’s a whole different conversation. The people on the ground were so wonderful,” Amoroso said. 

According to Amoroso, a volunteer checking her paperwork told her that all staff had been vaccinated. 

If you want to make a reservation for a vaccine dose at the Otemachi clinic, click here. Note that from today, the facility is only accepting people applying for their second shot.