You don’t have to be infected to be affected by COVID-19. It affects everybody. It is dislocating, disorienting, destabilizing, derailing. If it doesn’t kill you or sicken you, it upends you economically; if not that, emotionally; and though Japan has relaxed its state of emergency and may be edging its way back to some semblance of normality, “normality” as we once knew it remains a long way off.
We’ll have to adapt to stresses and strains we’re ill-prepared for. Spa! (May 19) shows us ordinary people coping as best they can – not terribly well, the reader concludes. The three sketches that follow show three perspectives. In the first, a man goes crazy in the bosom of his family. In the second, a man goes crazy alone. In the third, a man fights what looks like a losing battle to retain custody of their small child, claimed now by his ex-wife.
Family life and home life are wonderful – except when there’s no escape from them, as “Fumio Takeda” (a pseudonym, like all the names in this story) discovers. He’s 37, a company employee teleworking at home like so many others. He and his wife have two boys, 7 and 1. Try telling children that age, “Daddy has to work and needs quiet.” Admonitions only fuel rambunctiousness.
It doesn’t help that Mrs Takeda is pregnant and out of sorts. Her unappeasable bad temper aside, “We’re living on take-out,” grumbles her husband. It’s insipid and less than nutritious – making them more vulnerable to infection? He fears so.
Thinking to keep at least the older boy distracted, he ordered a trampoline from Amazon. To his dismay, it proved bigger than he’d thought; it takes up practically all the free space in the house. That problem at least soon solved itself. The child got tired of the tramp, and things are back where they started. For how much longer?
“Shuji Nagano,” 44, might envy Takeda. He’s living apart from his family, having been transferred by his Tokyo-based auto industry company to a branch office in Hokkaido. He’s teleworking too but hasn’t been home since February, when Hokkaido became the nation’s first prefecture to declare a state of emergency. Even if his work would permit it, his wife is against his coming home, fearing infection. “I eat alone, work alone sleep alone,” he says. “I have no friends here. ‘Going out’ means shopping or taking out the garbage. I sit home and talk out loud to myself. I can’t even go home for my daughter’s birthday.”
“Ko Hirano,” 37, raises his 2-year-old son as a single father. He and his wife divorced last year. Teleworking, at least, is not new to him. He earned a somewhat precarious living as a day-trader. Until recently, his income was 100,000 yen a month – barely sufficient when eked out by a government child-rearing allowance. Somehow he managed. But COVID-19 flattened business, and his income plummeted. “I’d better get a regular job,” he thought, and turned to the government’s Hello Work employment agency.
It’s hopeless. No one’s hiring. Feeling himself on the verge of breakdown, he got a call one day from the child’s daycare center. The boy was feverish. Hirano raced to the center, took the child to a hospital and heard the diagnosis: flu. Not serious, but he’d have to be kept home for a while. Papa needed help. In desperation he turned to his ex-wife.
She answered the call – and concluded, as she nursed the boy, that a child that age needs a mother more than a father. She wants the child. “Well,” said the husband, “should we get back together?” No, said the wife, who has plans to remarry.
Where things go from here may be decided in court. “If I lose the child,” Hirano says – “it’s terrifying to even think of it.”© Japan Today