Here is a report on Japanese people’s unique responses to the pandemic and insights into why the outbreak is kept relatively under control as of March 28, 2020.
Hello world, you are listening to the Metro-classic Japanese, a podcast to bring you insights into the unique and wondrous culture of Japan. My name is Kyota Ko.
Before I go into what I want to talk about today – the top 3 “Only in Japan” Coronavirus moments, I’d like to give you a quick overview of the situation here in Japan. There is no full lockdown as of yet, just guidance to stay at home, and despite being the first to be affected by the coronavirus outbreak in China, the number of cases and deaths seem to be kept relatively under control. So what’s life like in Japan, or more specifically Tokyo, where I live?
So we’re in March 2020, I’m recording this on March 28th to be more precise, and countries around the world are declaring war against the Coronavirus. There have been almost 600,000 confirmed cases around the world and 27,000 people have been killed by the virus. It was only half as bad a week ago.
It’s really serious in Europe with thousands of deaths every week, with death tolls now up to 9,000 just in Italy.
Here in Japan, the number of confirmed cases is now 1,500, and people are suspecting that it’s low because we just haven’t checked enough patients. There are several reasons for this. I’ll try to explain this later.
I live and work near the center of Tokyo, but as a matter of fact there wasn’t too drastic a difference from normal life here until a week ago. Most restaurants were operating as usual and many people were still commuting on the rush-hour trains. Of course major weekend attractions like Disney Land and Ueno Zoo, and indoor attractions like museums in the city have been totally closed, but most outdoor attractions like Japanese gardens and big parks had been accepting visitors as usual, but now there is a more serious call for people to quarantine themselves made by the municipal office of Tokyo, so I think all tourist attractions are closed.
I’d say 80% of people you see outdoors are wearing masks, and for the defense of those people who don’t wear masks, you have to be lucky to get a hold of masks at drug stores now – there is a shortage in supply. But more importantly, many people know that the common mask is not effective in preventing the coronavirus from entering your system. If you really want to shut out the virus, you will have to wear a hardcore surgical mask called the N95 mask, which is a mask that won’t allow you to breathe properly – you will suffocate if you try to wear it for over an hour. And they can cost you like 20 dollars each, so wearing a new one every day is just not practical.
It has become common knowledge that people who are coughing and sneezing are those who should wear masks so that they wouldn’t precipitate the virus onto other people. Restaurants are open, but almost every single one of them mandate its employees to wear masks in order to make customers feel secure about their food and drinks.
Now why are there not many confirmed cases in Japan? It’s related to how we have dealt with viruses every year since forever. The common flu is a serious concern every year in metropolitan areas of Japan, and thanks to dealing with it every year for decades, now everyone basically knows how best to deal with it and everyone cooperates to control it.
If you get a fever during the flu season, you put a mask on and go to a local clinic to check. Medical fees only cost you a few dollars a time in Japan. If the doctor tells you you’ve got the flu, you stay home and self-quarantine yourself for a week or so. You don’t go to work because if you do you will be spreading the virus not only to your colleagues but also to everyone you board the rush-hour train with.
Causing trouble onto others is so against Japanese cultural values and you’ll risk being socially outcast if you do, so everyone is super careful when it comes to viruses. So I believe one big factor of Japan being able to prevent a major outbreak without even issuing a formal lockdown at least as of now is due to this trait of Japanese culture. Many Japanese people are not really panicking because the coronavirus is a virus, just like the common flu. We know we can’t cure it immediately – we need to endure it until it’s gone, so I think there are many people who have been infected but didn’t visit a hospital and instead called the hospital, explained their symptoms, and were just instructed to stay home, and that’s what we’ve been doing. It’s best not to walk around if you have the virus, and most Japanese people have learned that by now. Therefore, there aren’t many confirmed cases, nor there is a big outbreak. At least up until this point.
Another potential reason the coronavirus is relatively under control is the BCG vaccine. If you’re born in Japan, you get the BCG vaccine. There’s no choice. It became mandatory and free of charge for all babies soon after birth to get a BCG stamp on your arm 69 years ago. So that is to say if you are a 70 year old Japanese person, you may not have been BCGed. There’s a 70 year old nation-wide famous comedian who got infected by the coronavirus and people are very worried about him.
I looked up a research paper found in the National Center for Biotechnology entitled Recommendations for pediatric tuberculosis vaccination in Italy, and basically in this paper, a group of Italian scientific societies suggests Italy take BCG seriously. This article was written in 2015. This paper gives a good overview of BCG vaccination in Europe, and basically it says that Italy, Denmark, Austria, Belgium and Spain do not include BCG in their normal vaccination schedule and that many other European countries recommend BCG vaccination instead of mandating it. In most Asian countries, BCG is mandatory. Vaccination rates are theoretically close to 100%. As of now, my guess is that the coronavirus is not that serious in Japan thanks to BCG, more specifically a kind of BCG called Tokyo 172, and thanks to the past decision made by the government to mandate it.
Anyway, now that we are more or less on the same page with what it’s like to be in Japan during times like these, let’s dive into our topic for today: The TOP 3 “Only in Japan” coronavirus moments.
Starting from number 3: “70 year old lady joins bus tour despite corona fever.” There’s a term often used in Japan to describe healthy and mobile retirees who socialize and exercise with their peers – they are called Active Seniors, and there are apparently many. Japanese people retire at the age of 60 or 65 and then live a healthy life independent of any help up to around 70 or 75, and ultimately live up to an average of 81 for men and 87 for women.
They are active, physically able and social, and they join different communities and groups of other seniors to go to the gym together, go on bus tours together, they do things in big groups, kinda like teenagers. I’ll need to age a few more dozens of years to understand why they do that and how they feel about it, but one guess is that this is their way of fighting loneliness. Perhaps some of them fear being detached from society because they hear a lot of news about elderly people dying without being found dead for days or weeks.
Anyway, so there was this 70 year old lady in Chiba prefecture, which is a prefecture adjacent to Tokyo, this Japanese lady had a fever of close to 39 degrees Celsius – that’s 102 degrees in Fahrenheit. She went to a local clinic to check if it was just the common cold or the flu. And the test said it was not the flu of course, because she would later be found that she had the coronavirus.
So this 70 year old lady went ahead with her plan to join the bus tour she probably was going with a bunch of friends, and she probably put on a mask and pretended to feel ok although she was panting hard and being absent minded, responding late in conversations. Why didn’t she stay home if she was that sick? Being Japanese, I can easily imagine she was more worried about missing out on what her group was going to do together.
Of course her friends wouldn’t have given her a hard time just because she couldn’t join a group event, but there is a cultural reason behind the lady thinking she must join no matter what. Traditionally, Japanese society was a collection of numerous small farming villages, and in each village, if you didn’t conform to the village’s rules and values, you were socially outcast. Being outcast meant you couldn’t trade your produce with other food or necessities and therefore being outcast practically meant slow death. It was so common there is even a term for this called “Mura Hachibu 村八分.” Basically, if you made an effort to fit in, your fellow villagers were the nicest people on earth, but if you didn’t, they became the biggest dicks just towards you.
So I think especially among elderly people who have lived most of their lives in communities that still remember horror stories of Mura-hachibu are less willing to risk missing out on group events. It is an ugly side of Japanese culture where for example company employees feel peer pressure to join company events although they have other things they would rather do. This way of thinking is becoming less prevalent thanks to Millennials and Gen Zs starting to take over the work force. They literally have a hundred other things they would rather do than to join company bowling contests.
So now whenever I get on the train around shopping areas designed for younger people like Shibuya, I often overhear conversations that go like “Hey are you going to the drinking party?” “I’m going to go to the first party but I’m going to go home before we hit the second place.” While younger generations still observe traditional values, they seem to be prioritizing their own individual values more.
Moving on to Only in Japan Coronavirus moments number 2: Badges that say “I don’t have Corona” fly off shelves.
Spring is such a beautiful time to be in Japan with the nice climate and cherry blossoms, but it’s not for everyone. Hay fever is a serious nuisance for many Japanese people. Their eyes itch, their noses get runny, they can’t stop sneezing. Government research says that approximately 30% of all Japanese people have hay fever. They hate spring to the core.
Now that anyone who sneezes or coughs on the train is a coronavirus suspect, hay fever patients, and also people with asthma or people with children with asthma don’t feel comfortable getting in trains or other densely populated indoor places. For Japanese people especially, being seen as a cause of social disruption is like flunking a test. It is best avoided.
But they are also not comfortable making a scene in public, so they’re not gonna announce “May I have your attention please *cough* I don’t have corona!” They’re not gonna do that on the train.
So there’s this small privately owned shop right outside Tokyo that makes hand-made stamps and other small items, and when they started making badges that say “I have hay fever” or “I have asthma” they realized they went out of stock super quickly. They found out there were many people fearing the eyes of others around them.
Years before this, something we call the “I have a baby” badge started to be distributed at hospitals to mothers during their pregnancy. This was made to serve a slightly similar purpose. So in metropolitan areas of Japan, people travel on trains more so than on cars. So trains are one of the most commonly visited public spaces. And on every other train car, there are these seats called priority seats. The seats are colored differently from the more abundant seats, and they can be used by anyone, but people who are seated there are asked to give up their seats to elderly passengers or pregnant ladies, basically anyone who needs a seat more badly than you do.
Now having an “I have a baby” badge is extremely helpful both for the pregnant lady and for people seated on trains. Let’s imagine a world without the “I have a baby badge.” So you’re seated in the priority seats, or a regular seat. It doesn’t matter. You see a lady come on the train and you notice her belly is rather round. So for a split second you think “Oh she must be pregnant. I should give her my seat.” But the next second, you think “But wait… What if she’s not pregnant. She’s just…. Plus-sized? Wouldn’t offering her my seat equate to insulting her?” So you can’t make the move. You can’t tell, you can’t move.
At the same time, the pregnant lady straight up telling the guy in the seat to move would go against the Japanese virtue of staying modest and being considerate of other people’s feelings. So she can’t request that she get a seat. So in comes the “I have a baby badge.” If you can’t say it, you make your badge say it. That’s the Japanese way to go, folks.
Moving on to Only in Japan Coronavirus moments number 1: Japanese people cheer for Corona infected British cruise ship passengers finding Japoanese food tasty.
So to give you a little background, a British cruise ship called the Diamond Princess which is operated by an American company Princess Cruises, left the port of Yokohama on January 20th this year. It had a Chinese passenger on board, who was already coughing during the trip, and this passenger disembarked the cruise in Hong Kong on the 25th. On February 1st, he was found to have been infected by the COVID-19 coronavirus.
Meanwhile, the Diamond Princess had stopped by Vietnam, Taiwan and Okinawa, and was already on its way to Tokyo. Hearing the news about the infected passenger, the ship changed routes and headed back towards Yokohama. Offshore Yokohama, it checked up on around 270 passengers and among them, 10 were found to have been infected by the coronavirus. So the 3700 crew members and passengers were to be quarantined for 14 days on the ship.
Now some passengers were reporting what was happening on the ship during the quarantine through social media, and one of them tweeted her dinner on Day 4, commenting that the Diamond Princess had stepped up their game and that she didn’t need a Trump rescue. And this tweet was retweeted several dozen times, I suspect mostly by Japanese people, and some Internet news claimed that the passengers were enjoying meals now that food made in Japan was being brought to their cabins.
While it seems to be true that the ingredients were in fact bought and brought onto the ship from Japan during the quarantine, it was still the chefs on the Diamond Princess who were doing the cooking. So I think much of the credit should go to the chefs of the cruise ship, but the Internet got excited about Japanese food shedding some positive light on the situation the passengers on the Diamond Princess was in.
Looking at the actual tweet, I feel the passenger meant to take initiative in finding room for positivity under the difficult situation and showing appreciation for the crew members who were doing their best to make the passengers’ experience less painful, more so than to give positive feedback on the taste of the food ingredients made in Japan.
But quite a number of Japanese people seemed to have interpreted her tweet as positive commentary on Japanese food. I think this suggests two things: Our strong pride with our food, and also our craving for positive news. Japan used to be the second biggest economy in the world, but now, obviously China has seriously outperformed us and the economy has not grown as fast as it used to in the 70s and 80s. We used to drive the economy with technology, but now, Japanese technology is lagging behind the West and China.
So the media likes to feature news and TV programs that might help Japan to regain some self esteem. The 2020 Tokyo Olympic was a way to boost the economy once again, but it has been postponed to 2021, and at least people in Tokyo are happy about it. General people understand that yes, the Olympic would have helped the Japanese economy, but people don’t really care about the money now. We’d rather have health and safety.
I want our people and therefore our culture to be protected, and yes money is crucial to do that, but let’s not confuse the purpose and the means. We are not going to sacrifice lives to protect money. We are going to sacrifice money to protect people. And the beautiful culture of every country and community, please.
So thanks for listening. I know I went off many tangents. Stay safe because you are an important successor of the culture you live in, and without you, there is one less perspective to help the world understand and appreciate the culture or cultures you represent. And that’s sad.