"While the number of new daily cases of coronavirus is up in recent days, they remain enviably low compared to other countries at the moment. It wasn’t supposed to be like this — or was it?"
Wednesday would have been the first day of spring break for the kids in Japan, but thanks to the coronavirus, their break was extended by 24 days. For the time being, at least, schools here will reopen on schedule — Tuesday, April 7 —meaning we still have two more weeks of “family quality time” on our well-washed hands.
To be honest, I have been enjoying the past several weeks. I’m not getting much done, mind you, but every day has felt like Sunday — quiet, lazy mornings, afternoons spent outside hiking, riding bikes, or, more recently, hanging out at the beach now that it has warmed up. (The fights and tantrums, I could do with less of.)
Thanks to the closures and cancellations, we have also been able to make quite a bit of progress on their English reading skills, which makes me happy... and relieved.
In three short weeks, the university will start up again — knock on wood — and this lull in our normally frenetic lives will become a memory. Gotta make the most of it.
I doubt people in America will be able to say the same thing.
There, the situation has gone from bad to worse pell-mell and it’s anyone’s guess when things will return to normal, if ever. For starters, a number of municipalities and states have passed ordinances to “shelter-in-place.” Some have also ordered the shuttering of all so-called “non-essential” businesses, the daily reality of which is something I find hard to envision. I suspect that similar orders will be passed down in other areas as the virus continues its inevitable spread throughout America. Many schools in the U.S. have been closed indefinitely, meaning they may not reopen until next fall. Unbelievable.
How has that been allowed to happen and — more importantly — how has it not happened here in Japan? Here life has quickly returned to something approaching normal, and it’s something that’s been on my mind a lot lately.
I don’t remember exactly, but I believe it was in mid-January that I first started hearing of a new virus spreading in China. Perhaps it was one of my more “in-tune” students who mentioned it. At any rate, it wasn’t the first time a deadly epidemic originated in China, so I didn’t pay much heed to it initially. On Jan 16, though, a man who had visited Wuhan became Japan’s first confirmed case. Not long thereafter — on Jan 23 to be precise — there were reports of an emergency field hospital being constructed in Wuhan. The whole of Hubei Province with a population of some 50 million people was quarantined. That caught my attention.
Then the first cases among people who hadn’t personally traveled to China — including a bus driver and tour guide — started to appear in Japan (Jan 28).
Japanese nationals traveling or residing in Wuhan were repatriated at the end of the month and told to self-isolate. It was also at this time that the mayor of Fukuoka made headlines when he said cruise ships coming from mainland China should be turned away. While it may have sounded strident and paranoid, in hindsight, he was right: especially in light of what would happen on another cruise ship a few weeks later.
So, from quite early on, the concern was out there and palpable.
By early the following month, any non-citizen with a history of traveling to or from Hubei Province was not allowed into Japan. A similar restriction was imposed in the U.S. on Jan 31, but by then the first case of the virus had already been confirmed in Washington (Jan 20).
Further restrictions on travel from the coastal province of Zhejiang were then announced in Japan. It’s interesting to note that, although the virus spread to America at about the same time as it did in Japan, the response by the government — and more crucially by the people themselves — to the new infection has been different.
By Feb 21, there were reports in Japan that public fear of the coronavirus had caused people to be more serious about taking measures to prevent infection, such as hand washing, gargling, wearing masks and avoiding crowded places. As a result, cases of influenza plunged by 60%. This was achieved not through government mandated shut downs and hygiene guidelines, but by people merely taking responsibility for their own well-being as well as for those around them. It’s also worth noting that pollen masks and hand sanitizer were already selling out by the end of January. When I asked family back in the States if they could find N95 masks and hand sanitizer for us, they laughed at me first, then said: yes, the stores were fully stocked.
That was early February right at the time that the Diamond Princess became Japan’s first cluster.
By mid-month, Japan had the third-highest number of cases after Mainland China and the doomed cruise ship. Closer to home, Fukuoka Prefecture announced its first case on Feb 20, a man in his 60s with no known travel history overseas. His wife would be hospitalized soon thereafter.
By the middle of February, companies in Japan were already starting to switch to telecommuting or staggered work schedules. People wearing masks, always a common sight during the flu and hay fever season, became ubiquitous. On one train I calculated that almost 90% of the passengers were wearing masks.
"My pet theory is that rates of infection come down to national characteristics and culture."
Now masks, some might argue, are next to useless in preventing one from catching the virus, especially the flimsy ones so many Japanese people wear.
I will counter, though, that people wearing masks are most likely doing other things to protect themselves. Just like being able to do 20 push-ups is linked to fewer heart attacks. It’s not the push-ups that are preventing heart attacks, but rather the push ups as an indicator of a healthy lifestyle that also includes a nutritious diet and regular exercise. Masks were indicating a heightened awareness and precaution.
Compare that with what was going on in the U.S. By late February, the virus was being politicized. Trump downplayed the severity of it, calling it the Democrat’s newest hoax.
“By a margin of 10 percent, Republicans are less likely to say that they are ‘washing my hands or using disinfectant more frequently,’” reported the Washingtonian, unsurprisingly. “Republicans were also less likely to avoid physical contact that might transmit the virus, such as handshakes.”
Only in America could something like hand washing become a partisan issue.
And so, in the U.S., for instance, there are now 64,765 cases, 910 deaths and 393 recoveries. There were over 11,000 new cases of Covid-19 (the virus that causes the novel coronavirus) on March 24. Tomorrow there will most likely be more. New York continues to be the hardest hit with 30,811 cases, followed by New Jersey (4,402), California (2,853), Washington (2,469), Michigan (2,295) and Illinois (1,865). New York has had the most deaths from the virus (285), Washington has the second most (123), Louisiana has the third (65) and California the fourth (64). Across America, there were 130 new fatalities from Covid-19 on Tuesday.
In stark contrast to what is going on in America and several European countries, we have in Japan 1,193-1,299 confirmed cases in Japan (as of March 25), 98 more than yesterday, of which 865-983 are active, 54-57 are critical or serious, 272-285 have recovered and 43-44 are know to have died from Covid-19. Between 23,521-24,430 have been tested. (Ranges reflect the different stats reported by a number of sites, including Johns Hopkins' interactive dashboard, Worldometer and covid19japan.com.)
While the number of new daily cases is up in recent days, they remain enviably low compared to other countries at the moment. It wasn’t supposed to be like this, was it? Japan’s proximity to China, her overdependence on the country as a manufacturer and market for Japanese products, her sluice gates wide open to the influx of Chinese tourists, all meant that Japan, too, would become the next hot spot for the virus. And yet it didn’t happen. Why not?
My pet theory is that rates of infection come down to national characteristics and culture.
The first one being reserve and self-restraint. While the American is pounding his chest and shouting, “You can’t tell me what to do! This is a free country!” the Japanese merely shrugs, “Shikata ga nai (It can’t be helped.)” and complies quietly. Some will argue that this ungrudging conformity is the result of Japan being a society based on rice farming where cooperation was vital for a village to survive. I only need to point to another rice-dependent, yet rambunctious society — China — to suggest that there might be more to it than that.
Gaman, or forbearance, has a lot to do with it, too. The Japanese are taught to gaman or be patient or endure from a very young age. As I was walking my eight-year-old son to school one hot day, I suggested he take a sip of water from his thermos. I can’t be replied. Why not? Because we’re not allowed to. But you’re hot and thirsty, right? Yes, but I can’t. Okay, suit yourself.
It’s often like that here: there is a proper way to do things and there can be no exceptions. The only time that seems to work in America is boot camp.
So many little implicit and explicit rules that control how the Japanese act in society — what language must be used in which circumstances, how to hold something, how to point, how to stand, how to bow, how to pretend to be putting forth utmost effort and so on. Americans would bristle at all the micro regulations, as did I when I first got here, and still do from time to time two decades later.
The Japanese are also better at being mindful of others, what is called kio tsukau. Because of this, they will, again, gaman for the benefit of the team and gaman for the sake of strangers. Similarly, one of the Venial Sins in Japan is causing trouble for others, or meiwakuo kaku. And so, people will wear masks and wash their hands not so much with their own health in mind, but with that of others. If a Japanese is running a fever or has a bad cough, he will wear a mask so as to not spread germs or make others feel uncomfortable.
There is also the habit of jishuku, or self-control and self-restraint, which is different from gaman in that Japanese will jishuku in times of crisis or disaster. When the Tohoku region was hit by a massive earthquake and tsunami in March 2011, many people in unaffected areas stayed home. Why? Because it wouldn’t have been appropriate to go out and have fun while others were suffering so much. Thanks to all that jishuku-ing, the economy took a hit and everyone felt the pain. Now, contrast that with what George W. Bush said after the 9/11 attacks: “And I encourage you all to go shopping more… " And even more memorably: "Get down to Disney World in Florida. Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.”
And because Japan is a land of disasters — earthquakes, tsunami, typhoons, landslides, volcanoes, and occasionally attacks from kaiju such as Godzilla — shikata ga nai, or it can’t be helped, ought to be printed on the currency as the nation’s motto. Submission to — even reverence of — uncontrollable forces be they natural or man-made, has been the oft-repeated refrain to the epic poem that is Japanese history.
Now, add to all that, a generally healthy populous with good access to affordable and quality healthcare, a fairly competent and well-educated bureaucracy, built-in social distancing thanks to bowing instead of handshakes or hugs, an obsessive-compulsive attitude towards cleanliness and handwashing, removing shoes at the entrance of one’s home, and it’s little wonder that the country has been able to keep Covid-19 at bay.
Knock on wood.© Japan Today