The day finally came yesterday and I went back to work. The Japanese government has lifted the state of emergency, and students have returned to their schools, meaning that there is no ‘legitimate’ reason to be refusing to go into the company buildings, even if the coronavirus is of course present (since the lifting of certain restrictions in Tokyo, there have already been new spikes this week). In truth, I feel far more compromised in terms of safety – we were so much better off being isolated here at home in Kamakura! – but a person needs to make a living. I sense that it would be futile to argue. I have good instincts about these things – usually I know how far I can push it. I have already had three months off, paid, albeit at reduced salary – but I am extraordinarily lucky compare to all those millions of people laid off around the world worrying about how to put food on the table – and I am grateful that they were flexible enough to let me go my own way by recording lessons at home which, one of the Japanese managers told me yesterday, many students had found enjoyable. Phew.
The day yesterday was fraught, hectic, and exhausting, but I have woken up today feeling revitalised. Something about just mingling with people, interacting, laughing, communicating and sounding off each other is energising for the human spirit even when there is concurrently a constant possibility of infection from a horrendous disease. Speaking Japanese again stimulated the brain; young people are automatically refreshing with their eagerness and energy; both lessons (90/100 minutes) got off to slow starts but were relatively ok by the end, even if I rushed outside at the earliest opportunity in order to rip off my mask and take a full breath. Panting at the exertion and the reduced intake of oxygen.
- Precautions were definitely being taken. Although I do worry a lot about the proximity of students in some classrooms, they are still further apart than they usually would be. That aside, EVERYONE is wearing masks. Everyone. On the streets, in shops – all students must wear them, and teachers have to have THIS ensemble:
…obviously beyond uncool – try this with glasses; mine steamed up immediately; I couldn’t see, hear or respire at all and I had to rip it off like a panic stricken dork. Given the current circumstances, it is probably unwise to be talking about being unable to breathe – but – I literally couldn’t breathe. As a claustrophe, this get up is simply not possible for me; like some other teachers, I wore it more as a bib around the neck which defeats the purpose really, maybe better than nothing but unfortunately, I simply won’t be able to teach like this, possibly putting myself at risk.
Still, everyone’s temperature is checked, both teachers’ and students’, the moment they set foot in the school with a temperature gun – which looks very odd at first, like a horror movie; : who is that about to be shot in the head over there? but I was impressed that such a contraption can register your temperature so quickly (how?). Mine was 36.3. Normal (though warm for me – I tend to be more lizard-like, around 35.5). Anything 37 or over and you are not allowed to teach or attend lessons. Obviously, this doesn’t mean that there will not be asymptomatic carries, but thus far there have been no cases of any students or teachers being infected in the entire organisation – that is thousands of people if you think of all the schools – so it does at least give a small level of reassurance. Students disinfect their hands; there are plastic sheets over the teachers’ rooms windows where the students come to ask questions; no eating is now allowed in the school; lessons are temporarily slightly shorter.
2. I am delighted to have had my desk moved to its new location, which is a sociophobe self-isolator’s dream. I don’t have to stare uncomfortably into anyone’s face, awkwardly avoiding their gaze all day – Japanese workers are usually placed opposite each other at a common table- , something that for me is akin to mild torture – as I am sat in the corner facing the wall (honestly, that might sound weird, but I find personally that even if you like someone, if they are facing you all day it is incredibly exhausting to the human spirit; conspicuously avoiding looking at someone, trying to get exactly the right balance of politeness but not intruding on them, is more fatiguing to me than I can even express here; I am so relieved I can sit where I sit now). There are empty classrooms I can go off to in that newer building where I can go and prepare and eat with the windows open when the mask wearing gets too much (my god it really does, doesn’t it? very quickly). My colleagues there are people I like and who understand me ; no one was even slightly off with me among those I get on well with; I have a coterie of perhaps six or seven Japanese teachers I have socialised with in the past and got to know; we are all eccentric and actively like that aspect of each other so there is no pretending; I was having a laugh – thankfully, these people have a gallows humour so dark jokes about imminent death and so on are perfectly fine; my psychology needs that – I can’t do the ‘smile and pretend everything is happy’ thing as it alienates my consciousness- so that was a huge relief. . Admittedly, those people aside, some others in higher positions gave me a slightly condescending smile (Oh, you are back….), but who can blame them when I got special treatment and they had to toil at the height of the initial crisis trying to put lessons online and scrambling to make lessons there when I had the luxury of swanning about my bohemian house drenched in perfume in Kitakamakura.
3. It is bizarre. The strict environment you probably imagined Japan might have created straight away after the realisation that a pandemic was coming -: stringent controls, social distancing, all those drastic countermeasures, HAS come into effect, yet only now. ‘Social distance’ has become a word that everyone suddenly knows. At the beginning of June. There is plastic everywhere, alcohol sanitiser. The streets, I would say, are 80-90% reduced in foot traffic compared to usual. Coming back to Ofuna station last night I was amazed by how empty it was. It felt like the aftermath of the earthquake again, most shops and restaurants already closed. This does make me feel less nervous in many ways, as at least the policy of ‘jishuku’,or self restraint, is obviously being taken up by the people, which should help to keep huge levels of new infections at bay, and hopefully it also means that more of the students’ parents are telecommuting from home and the population generally is being very cautious (what is weird is: both the UK and the US took measures like these earlier, with much more strictly enforced lockdowns, and yet the deaths are incomparable. Japan has about a fiftieth of the number of deaths as the UK, with twice the population). Yes, I am naturally skeptical about all ‘facts and figures’ from any official governmental organisation, and there are different theories about possible cover ups and so on as there seem to be in every country, but the mortality rate has not increased; in fact some sources say it has decreased because the almost mandatory usage of masks has even had an effect on other illnesses such as seasonal influenza. Why then, are the numbers so much worse in the UK? I think we will be pondering this for some time. As for America……..I don’t know where to start and don’t even know whether I should. The Devil is obviously trying to start a civil war in his own country. His response to every crisis, particularly the coronavirus, has been disastrous. He has policitized a virus. The last thing the country needed, with all the mortalities and the rising risk of new infections was riots on the streets, but when people are so incensed by injustice they will react. He has made no effort to calm the country but has deliberately gone out of his way to do precisely the opposite. To deliberately pour gasoline onto the fire. All he had to do was say that the death of George Floyd was wrong and unacceptable (because it was; there is no excuse for a person being treated like that; I thought of him yesterday when I felt I couldn’t breathe; what if you literally couldn’t) ; that he understood the pain of the people, that measures would be taken to prevent this from happening any more and then you would not have the horrific conflagrations that are currently taking place. And what is all of it going to do for the coronavirus?….I will leave it there, suffice it to say that the situation is desperately worrying. It also made me realise yesterday that, yes, while Japanese people do suppress things for the greater good – the harmony of the whole – and that can definitely have a detrimental effect on one’s mental health at times, in other ways, the wonderfully civilized nature of the society; the graciousness, means that you are never going to have human rottweilers barking and gnashing their teeth and refusing to wear masks because they want to be ‘free’; people are extremely cooperative generally here right now; everyone has their mask on, head down, and is trying to get through the situation. America seems to just want to burn itself to the ground. Or at least a certain individual wants it to. There are no words.
- Despite all the extra precautions, the fact is, students are physically coming together again after three months stuck at home. This is guaranteed to bring more virus into the shared space. I felt worried for them. I felt worried for me.
2. The classroom I was in yesterday was in the biggest one in the entire company because I wanted the students to be able to talk to each other, but safely, so I was given the ‘VIP’ treatment with the biggest conference room upstairs. . We had all the windows open (plus air conditioning; not good environmentally but at this stage it can’t be helped). I was at an acceptable distance from the students, and they from each other.
3. The school I am in today, however, has no windows. Teachers are cheek by jowl in the teachers’ room. It is an epidemiological disaster zone. I am going to go there as late as possible to avoid having to be overly doused in the shared air, but god knows what is going to happen in the classroom today. I then have to get a guaranteed-to-be crowded – even if less so than usual – train back, commuters returning to their houses from downtown Tokyo in the direction of Kamakura. I have decided to go back home up the hill by bike, because I just can’t then face a crowded bus (last night I took a taxi, but it won’t be financially viable every night), even if my knee situation may not be able to take pushing my bike up the very steep part of hill after an exhausting day on a regular basis.
4. If I am honest with you, having read about how horrific some of the symptoms of this illness are, and that it is not ‘merely’ a respiratory disease but also a vascular disease that affects blood flow, vessels and veins, from head to toe, destroying internal organs, and having heard about how long it can take to recover from it – a friend of mine who always works in Fujisawa has had it and is now recuperating at home, very slowly (his university allows him to teache his lessons online – on the train coming home last night, though slightly exhilarated by the sheer energy required on my part to get lessons going – I felt all revved up -this is always the good part of teaching for me, the mutually energizing currents – I also thought to myself: I am guaranteed to get this virus now. Am I going to die? Unless I just refuse to go to work and give up my job. And have no money (there are no jobs available here). And then what?
So, despite my renewed sense of vigour, a feeling of coming back into the world again, a reconnection, I can’t deny that at the same time, in truth I also feel an apprehensive, quite fatalistic sense of pure terror.