Does Japan Need to Chill Out About its Response to the Coronavirus?
Japan, the country which I have lived in since summer 2004, is panicking itself into a tailspin.
In the past few days, this usually idyllic country has been rattled by the following:
School closures nationwide for the month of March, cancellations of public events, including that ever-so-sublimely-Japanese cultural tradition, cherry blossom viewing parties in Japan’s two largest cities with more likely to come; crowd-less baseball games; shutting down Tokyo Disneyland for two weeks; mass runs on toilet and tissue paper because their beloved, unnecessary-according-to-the-CDC face masks are sold out and last, and definitely the worst news yet:
Shutting down my favorite free outdoor foot bath!
But wait. I have good news.
Turns out the foot bath closure was a false alarm on my part. Pipe is merely backed up. Or so they say…
But nah, for now, we’ll save the conspiracy theories about Coronavirus, er, COVID-19 (how come official scientific names lack even a modicum of poetry?).
In this case, I trust the source who I’ve known for three years. He owns the park golf course located at the hot springs resort that has the foot bath. The guy ain’t gonna lie, right?
No, we’ll leave the lying to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who, like his orange-wigged buddy in the States, has a history of silly lies and has been embroiled in a scandal over a downright stupid one in early 2020.
Regarding the Coronavirus, though, it wasn’t that he lied, but it does seem he wanted to turn around his nosediving approval ratings and perceptions he wasn’t doing enough about the virus.
Because as though he were a bosozoku, those annoyingly-loud Japanese motorcycle gangstahs, he kick-started the pandemic panic with his abrupt announcement in a press conference late last Thursday afternoon to request all public schools shut their doors for the rest of the school year.
And that was when, as a teacher of 15 years, it all became clear to me:
Coronavirus had arrived in the Land of the Rising Sun.
Class Dismissed? WTF! Is Van Halen in Town?
It’s Friday February 28 just past 9:35 a.m. when I get the news:
“Bryan, sorry, the English classes are cancelled today,” the second-grade teacher tells me matter of factly.
And just like that, 15 years of teaching English in the public schools of Japan is over.
No ceremonial good-byes, not even a chance for me to go through that feeling of closure one has at the end of a long chapter in one’s life.
Nope, it was over, and though I don’t usually use the word, it was a shocking end to my career. (Though a co-worker had it a lot worse, having been at the job for 38 years!)
Let’s start from the beginning, shall we?
But before we do…
There is a message to this post: Be Stoic. Don’t panic. Take care of your health. Help and Love each other.
Take that to heart and you can skip the rest. Though I think you’ll find the rest of the post informative and entertaining. Besides, what else are you going to do as the Apocalypse arrives, play a fiddle?
One more thing: This post may be a bit critical of the various responses over the weekend. I admit it, I’m human and also susceptible to the panic. I may be panicking about the panic. Perhaps these moves the government has made are smart ones and Japan will, with the hindsight of history, look very smart for having made them. I promise to remain open to that possibility.
Now, as I was saying, let’s flashback to the beginning …
Thursday evening: Prime Minister Shinzo Abe Requests All Schools Close Nationwide
I’m eating dinner with my family when we hear the news about Abe’s request to shut down the schools. My wife says it is not an order, more of a request.
The word yousei the prime minister uses is a very convenient one for a Japanese politician as it is somewhat ambiguous, so he can take credit if the move works and deny responsibility if it doesn’t. In English, the word has both “demand” and “request” as definitions. Rather different, right?
To tell you the truth, my wife is correct in criticizing me for not paying enough attention to news in Japan. For the most part, I’d rather follow and write about the insane shit in my home country, such as the U.S. Democratic Primaries, or involve myself in one of my various hobbies, like listening to my favorite band roll through four nights in Mexico, than follow Japanese news.
Super Tuesday Progressive Warren Backers, Please Join US Behind Bernie!
(Or Convince Warren to Drop Out Now!)
In other words, when I hear the news about the schools, I don’t really think much of it.
Early Friday morning, I’m making the case to a friend why she should change her vote from Elizabeth Warren to Bernie Sanders in the Super Tuesday primary (see above), when I see this message on my screen:
I go to the website and sure enough, there it is:
Japan to close all schools until early April to control spread of virus
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe asked all elementary, middle and high schools nationwide on Thursday to close until…
Are they freakin’ serious?
I really don’t believe it. On the other hand, I want to believe it because it’ll mean…
And now, a few days later, with some time to sit with the news and after watching the various ways the country has responded which I listed only a portion of in that second paragraph, well, much as I am happy to be able to spend the next month focusing on building my new career as a journalist/artist, it’s hard for me to feel like the country is responding correctly.
Then again, I need to admit something. Until four days ago, I wasn’t really following this story all that closely. So while I’ve done my best to educate myself about what Coronavirus is, the long and short of it is: most of us, including me, don’t know what we have on our hands here.
And uncertainty can be very scary, especially when it comes to life-or-death matters.
Poor Timing of Major Decisions Has Consequences
In spite of my criticisms, I recognize that leaders are making difficult decisions and often without a lot of information on which to base those decisions. I don’t envy them. Nobody wants the virus to claim the thousands of lives it has already in China.
In a country where people don’t openly dissent against leadership as much as in the West, I couldn’t find any teacher or administrator on Friday or Monday who wasn’t shocked by the suddenness of Abe’s request, not to mention the seriously poor sense of timing.
We were all in a daze on Friday but, unlike me who had nothing to do, the teachers had to prepare and pass out all the end-of-term paperwork and homework in just that one day. It was a ridiculous situation that could have been handled so much better, with just a little more planning and communication between Abe and educators who work for his government.
It seems as though Abe was warned by top education officials, but he went ahead with the decision. It’s certainly going to be a challenge for parents.
In my situation, we are lucky in that my son is already a stay-at-home teenager and my daughter can just go with her mom to the family-owned company and stay at the office or with her grandparents.
This brings up a difference between Japan and the U.S., which is that while there are certainly a fair number of single parents or parents without relatives, Japan does have a lot more of an infrastructure of extended families than in the U.S., so I’m sure there will be plenty of grandpas and grandmas who aren’t totally upset about getting extra time with their grandkids, who are often very busy with school and after-school activities.
So I want to finish with a few other personal observations that might help explain some of the news you may be seeing out of Japan. Because much as Japan has similarities to my native America (though the 7–11s here are much better!), it is also very different and can be hard to understand. Even as a veteran ex-pat of this amazing country, I still struggle.
With that all said, let’s dig into some of these news stories, okay?
Masks Are Commonly Worn in Japan, But This is Ridiculous
So perhaps you are aware of this fact: people in Asian countries tend to wear lots of masks in the winter. Around 400 million are made in a normal month in Japan, according to this article.
Most of those wearing them aren’t sick; they are trying to prevent themselves from getting sick.
Now, I’ve read different things from doctors about the efficacy of this behavior. But speaking from personal experience, I find wearing them not only a pain in the ass, but they make me feel hot and make me think I must be unhealthy. And believe it or not, what we think has a pretty big impact on how our bodies feel (I’ll save further explanation for some of my personal growth posts in the future, okay?).
In addition, during the winter here, the interiors of buildings often feel like a sauna to me.
Seriously. Setting temperatures to 27 C (81 F) when it is 10 C (50 F) outside is not uncommon and, man, it is not healthy.
Nor is this:
I mean, really going for a bike ride and wearing a mask? I don’t know, it just seems to defeat the purpose to me, but then again, I love doing this Wim Hof breathing exercise and taking ice cold showers. What do I know, right?
What I know is I am super healthy. And when you are outside, breathing fresh air is good for you. Right?
Many cherry blossom festivals canceled as virus fears grow
Major cherry blossom festivals in Japan have been cancelled due to the deadly new coronavirus, the latest in a growing…
Does Canceling Cherry Blossom Viewing Parties Make Sense?
When I read this news on Sunday, I had this thought: Umm, the trees are outside so how can the events be canceled?
I’m not really sure because I don’t live in Tokyo or Osaka. I suppose it means no public food booths which are a frequent companion to the parties.
Still, are they going to close the parks themselves? Not allow people to bring a blanket or tarp and food and drink from home?
Because if they do…
Well, I’m clearly getting ahead of myself. But this question leads me to the final point I want to make, which is about one of the biggest cultural differences between Japan and America.
And I want to illustrate it by bringing you back three years ago when I did the most embarrassing thing I’ve ever done here. I still feel some shame about this.
That said, if I had a time machine and went back to that cold, rainy April morning even armed with the knowledge of how I feel now, sitting in a junior high school teacher’s room three years later, well, I might do the same thing again.
A Real Jackass or a Hero to Children?
My son was on his elementary school baseball team and they’d never won a tournament game in 10 tries in his final year.
Our team made a valiant comeback and was on the verge of winning when a strange play too confusing to explain here occurred. Now, the fathers who were the umpires for the game didn’t understand what to do and there was much confusion.
The other team claimed the game should be over.
I can assure you, as a baseball geek all my life and younger brother of a guy who was a very good umpire for a decade, the game should not have been over.
And all the fathers on my team as well as the manager and coaches agreed. None seemed too concerned that the call would result in the game being over.
At first, after a lengthy discussion, that was the result. We still had one out to go.
But then the other team started hollering about how it was wrong, another conference was convened and, being a person who can smell an injustice stew when it is brewing, I was becoming more and more agitated that we were re-litigating things.
What the fuck was going on? Let’s play ball!
The fathers on my team said to calm down, that it would work out when suddenly, the head umpire said, that’s it, game over!
Now, at this point I assumed there’d be another meeting.
But as my college journalism professor used to tell me, “Never assume anything.” Something to do with donkeys and not wanting to be one.
Instead of another meeting, all of the fathers and mothers calmly began packing up the gear and as I was getting more and more shrill in my protestations, well, they all told me, “It’s over, Bryan, the umpire has decided.”
I put that paragraph breaker in there not because the story is over (almost!) but because I wanted to give you a chance to consider your own reaction.
I am reasonably sure any American who had any knowledge of baseball would have felt as bonkers as I did. I wanted to grab every father around me by the scruff of their …
Anyway, I melted down.
I’m not going to relate the whole thing, but the short of it is I was going to the bathroom to go to a toilet stall and … I don’t know scream or something in private … when I saw the other team, celebrating as though they’d just won the game on a last-minute home run!
I confronted the fathers, claiming they’d bullied and cheated their way to a win, they didn’t understand my English, I said they should have studied English harder, etc., etc.
In short I was a jack-ass and one of their fathers grabbed me from behind and with a little help from his friends, they tossed me to the ground.
It was embarrassing, but according to my kids (my daughter was also on the team), most of the team was talking about how much of a hero I was for standing up for them.
Are We Headed Into Dangerous Territory?
I was thinking about that experience on the way home yesterday as I pondered the way that the prime minister could just suddenly make a decision that massively uproots the lives of millions across the nation and yet, in spite of grumbling under some breaths, the order will be carried out.
Not only doesn’t the president in America have this kind of power over the education system (thank God!), can you imagine schools and parents all just going along with it without some sort of serious trouble? At the very least protests?
I really can’t. And, to me, that is a very troubling thing about the culture here:
Japan Seems Perched One Crisis Away From Authoritarianism
Think I am overstating it? Maybe so. But read on and I’ll try to make the case.
Being a homogeneous culture which values the group over the individual, as just one guy who isn’t even a Japanese national, much as I may want to defy a crazy rule, I’d likely not have a choice.
For example, what if we are told we are not to go outside except for work or to buy food? Maybe it wouldn’t get that bad, but on the northern island of Hokkaido where the Coronavirus so far has had the most cases, the governor there urged precisely that over the weekend.
No, not an order.
Rules here aren’t always enforced by an order.
Social Stigma Enforces the “Rules”
This gets to the final distinction between a culture like America or Japan. Japan is still a culture which has as many unwritten rules as it does written ones. In some ways, I like this about the culture, because many of those are rules that they don’t expect foreigners to follow.
In the case of a pandemic, though, that would likely not be the case.
In closing, I want to ask something, though:
How dangerous is the Coronavirus?
The most recent information I could find reports that through Saturday, February 29, there were 242 cases of the virus and 6 deaths in Japan. That’s in a population of 128 million. Are those numbers really worth the sort of reaction we are seeing?
Again, I don’t know but I don’t really think so.
Now, I want to write about some of the positive things that are coming from this, notably that Japanese kids are way overworked and scheduled and this is giving them a chance to just chill out for once. But I’ll save further comments for a future post because this has gone on long enough.
Ultimately, I am just concerned that that the panic may actually cause more problems than the pandemic itself.
And while I recommend paying attention to doctors, being extra mindful of hygiene and such, I want to close the same way I closed last Friday’s emergency episode of The B&P Realm Podcast, my podcast which I just started in January:
Do some self-care, turn off the media if you are feeling overwhelmed by it all, take a walk, enjoy a mango, make love to someone, kiss a child, hug a tree and generally do your best to:
KEEP CALM, LOVE EACH OTHER. AND GET SOME FRESH AIR! NATURE IS NOT OUR ENEMY, SHE IS OUR FRIEND!
Thanks for reading! I’m in the process of getting my independent media career up and running, so this will be updated as I go, but for now you can support me simply by sharing my stuff, by linking to me on Twitter, by checking out my old blog which has lots of good stuff, including a series on climate change (part 1, part 2 and part 3), or by checking out my new podcast, The B&P Realm Podcast. (It’s a super wide-ranging podcast, though has been politics heavy in its first 10 episodes, but I also cover music, philosophy, bike rides, park golf, crap, you don’t know what that is (listen to episode 4 or read this blog post), and yeah, just a lot of cool shit. Also, each of the first 40 episodes will contain two chapters from my 2015 novel, “The Teacher and the Tree Man.” You can also find that book in full here, or you can find it broken down into four shorter books (book 1, book 2, book 3 and book 4). And if all that doesn’t get enough BW into your life, well, all I can say is stick around! Plenty more coming in 2020 and beyond!