While Japan has kept COVID-19 casualties minimal, its culture has been taking damage slowly. How will Japanese culture be expressed now that it cannot be in traditional manners? 

Show host Kyota Ko explains the effects of the virus on the country’s culture and business culture.

Our cultural identities are at risk too

Hello world, you are listening to the Metro-classic Japanese, bringing you a podcast that’s all about sharing Japanese culture with you, the listener. My name is Kyota Ko, and today, I’d like to point out a type of damage from the virus we’re experiencing on our culture here in Japan, which I think is similarly happening to any other country. 

Lately, we’re under attack by the COVID-19 virus, and I feel everyone’s cultural identity is threatened. While some cultural traditions are widely popularized and commercialized like Halloween and Christmas of the west and Lunar New Years of the east, local traditions and rituals are not really written down anywhere. They’re typically learnt from other members of the local community, or at school. 

You may have been able to know that mashed potatoes are commonly made in Thanksgiving through watching TV shows or looking at online content, but you would have never picked up your preference for extra chunky mashed potatoes or extra creamy mashed potatoes if it wasn’t for having interaction with your family or relatives or neighbors – your preferences will be different depending on which community you grew up in. And that partly shapes your cultural identity.

And then your preferences or traditions and rituals you have inherited from those who were around you may influence your kids or your neighbors’ kids. And that’s how culture is formed everywhere around the world, and therefore we have diversity. But diversity is going to get harder to maintain, at least in the more traditional way of mingling within the community you are physically in. If all of us around the world need to stay home, we’ll have less opportunities to learn about our own cultures. 

Childhood memories are at risk too

I was never the sociable type and I had never felt a strong desire to participate actively in local festivals, but now that I have a son and he’s only 5, by the time I realized, I had been taking him to a bunch of local festivals. In Japan, local festivals are called Omatsuri, and they’re held at Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples around the country, annually or monthly depending on the shrine or temple. I think most Japanese people would associate Omatsuri with the summer season.

When you enter the premises of a shrine or temple, there’s almost always a stone pavement that leads to the main building, and during Omatsuri, which usually lasts one weekend, there are food vendors and game booths set up for children to play on both sides of the stone pavement. In the evening, those red and orange lanterns with Japanese characters written on are lit everywhere and some people would be dressed in traditional Japanese kimonos – they wear the casual type of kimono called Yukata. 

So when you arrive at an Omatsuri your kid would be so excited to see and try junk food like chocolate banana sticks and cotton candy or play games at stuffed animal shooting galleries and catch live goldfish with these scoops made of paper – it’s a classic Japanese Omatsuri game. So an Omatsuri is pretty much the Japanese version of a local town fair in the United States, for example. 

So as you can imagine, these trips to Omatsuri stick as childhood memories and you’ll always vaguely remember them. And if you were born in the country side, there’s a good chance you moved to the city for college and for work but you would come back every year to your local town in time for Omatsuri. So you would see your old school friends there and catch up with them. So there’s that nostalgia-aspect to Omatsuri. 

Geographic identity is at risk too

And even if you are a non-Japanese national, of course you are more than welcome to join these festivities. A highlight of summertime Omatsuri is the parade of these glamorously designed portable shrines. There would be a couple dozen of people wearing Omatsuri uniforms carrying one of these portable shrines on their shoulders and they would parade around the neighborhood shouting out a nonsensical chant that hypes up the mood.

And recently, I see a mix of races among the members of the parade, at least in Tokyo. It touches my heart when I see various ethnicities represented in parades. It shows that our town is our town now thanks to all these people of different backgrounds playing various roles in shaping our community. 

So in so many ways, these traditional events have helped people to come together and confirm a part of their geographical, ethnic or religious identity. But it’s gonna be mighty hard to maintain such occasions if we need to keep socially distancing ourselves to slow the spread of the coronavirus. 

Of course life is extremely important for all of us. But what if we need to sacrifice our identity in order to keep our lives? I think elderly people who unfortunately are deprived of physical or mental capabilities may have asked this question to themselves. If they are prohibited from doing what they loved doing because they have to stay in bed in order to elongate life, do they really want longer lives? 

I’m not trying to say that we should go against the guidelines to stay home because the situation we’re in now is a completely different story. You may be risking not just your life, but also lives of countless others by going out to do what you loved doing. So the groups of people in some southern States of the US protesting about directives to keep their businesses closed is not plausible in my humble opinion, although I do understand that for them, their idea of the American identity of having rights and freedom may be more valuable than living a life in which they cannot feel they are living their identity. 

For us Japanese people, generally, we have this idea that we cannot survive on our own. We have lived with natural disasters such as earthquakes and typhoons all along and our way of dealing with them has been to maintain social order so that we are ready to help each other in times of needs. But then in the city, people would go panic-grocery shopping and hoard toilet paper or other goods that are in risk of shortage, so I don’t think we can really say much about problems in the US. It’s a difficult problem. 

The Japanese business culture is at risk too

Here in Japan, losing our jobs and businesses are a primary concern for many of us, but at the same time, I think many subconsciously feel that our traditional cultural identity, which is closely linked to the Japanese way of living, is being threatened by the coronavirus. 

Many businesspeople had a weekly routine of going out for a drink with their colleagues after work. This is an integral part of business for Japanese people because in the workplace, it’s a virtue to be as selfless as a human being could ever be. They stick to being a part of the whole without openly complaining about anything because if you had the time to complain you might as well get some work done and make yourself useful so that your organization would continue to function without delay.

They are selfless during work, but of course they accumulate stress and frustration, so they go out with their colleagues for a drink – this is called Nomikai, which translates to drinking party – and let out all their negative thoughts about work, and also have a chance to share their real feelings and discuss things that are unrelated to work. 

And then there are Izakaya restaurants which are basically eateries focusing on providing a place for all this to happen. They do their best to provide alcoholic beverages as quickly and stress-freely as possible so that Japanese businesspeople can have a good time there. When you order drinks or food at some Izakaya restaurants, you’ll notice that the waiters and waitresses, instead of replying just “OK” or “In a minute” they shout out よろこんで! Which means “My pleasure!” So it’s common for Izakaya restaurants to really try to create a lively vibe for their customers. 

Izakaya or not, any kind of restaurant would do its best to invent and provide a variety of dishes that go best with alcohol and other social occasions. And to do that, owner chefs would find wholesalers or farmers who they think make the best vegetables, meat and fish. 

And then Japanese farmers would go the extra mile to produce safe and tasty vegetables and meat because they cannot compete with import produce in terms of price. They need to be chosen for their quality. And all this is just a glimpse of the Japanese ecosystem in the area of food and dining, but I think you can see that it’s not just about food and dining. Good food elevates dining experiences and good dining experiences elevate social activities, and good social activities support economic activities. 

So us not being able to gather will force us to change how we maintain mental well-being and our culture. And the quality of the Japanese dining experience that we have brought to a great height is being set back because there will be many restaurants that will go out of business. Many restaurants have started offering take-out food, but it’s clear that they are not able to provide the value they used to provide in full. It’s not just food that they were offering. They were offering a Japanese dining experience, which is an integral part of our culture. 

How many cultural heritages are we going to lose with this pandemic? It worries me, but I’m sure we’ll see birth of yet another set of new Japanese cultural traditions as we make our way through this disaster. We are already witnessing new kinds of social activities like the Online Nomikai. Colleagues would connect on Zoom and chat over a drink from home. I don’t know if Online Nomikais are here to stay, but we are the human race and it is in our nature to make an effort to adapt to the environment. So we’ll see how we deal with the damage the COVID-19 virus has inflicted on our culture. 

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this episode. それでは、またお会いしましょう。