JAPAN AND THE CORONAVIRUS: FIFTEEN MONTHS SINCE THE DIAMOND PRINCESS DOCKED IN YOKOHAMA BAY

Where to begin?

We are all sick of talking about it.

So move on and ignore this if you are tired of hearing and reading and talking and worrying about this virus.

It is hardly a new story.

And I am going to repeat myself.

It was just that it struck me, coming home last night, utterly exhausted from my pre-evaluation week of teaching avidly in masks, how unchanging it has all been, for so long (so sick of masks: those of you that were able to stay at home in lockdown or for self-protection will have only been using them for the rare occasions in which you went outside. In Japan, life is masked. Everywhere. All the time. All day long.It drags you down. You can’t breathe properly. You cannot see people’s features. It is going to be shocking to see faces again (sometimes I am amazed/horrified/enchanted/ mesmerized when someone pulls down their mask and reveals their true face. Their true face. It is fascinating how the features dissolve and rearrange themselves: you have seen only the eyes for so long and have only imagined what the rest of the face looks like- my students are 100% masked except for the odd moment when one of them might take a sip of water and then quickly put it back on again and there is an internal shock of the totally unexpected, as if you have never seen them before. It is deeply visually disturbing. As a lover of human faces – endlessly interesting – it seems to me that destiny or fairness has, on the whole, balanced things out in terms of symmetry or attractiveness though : those with beautiful eyes often have a less beautiful rest of face, and vice versa – the dull or averaged-eyed bloom when the rest of their features are revealed, but how strange to have only our eyes to communicate with. I can barely hear people talking through their masks. Voices are muffled. It is the eyes that say everything)).

Over the full trajectory, there is a very big difference in the way that the virus has transpired here compared to other countries (still very much continuing here, with only 3% fully vaccinated, according to today’s (admittedly tediously relentlessly negative Japan Times). Here it has been more of a continuous, business as normal ‘co-existing with the virus’ than the death drama and horror of the scenes that unfolded worldwide initially and even recently, from New York to London to Mumbai and Mexico City. We never had the images of hospital breakdown in Lombardy, the piled up corpses left in corridors and morgues; the draconian lockdown measures – in my company of around 780 employees, it was only I who insisted on staying home those initial three months from March once things started getting more drastic and the rest of the country were mainly staying in on government recommendations. Only me. Otherwise, it has been business as usual. A continuous, dragging, numbing, unbreathable molasses. With about 14,000 deaths in the meantime.

Most people reading this will have spent the majority of the last twelve to fifteen months either in isolation, or at least in very reduced mode, at home, doing everything by Zoom, the necessities bare minimum. Which I know has come with its own difficulties. My brother and sister were unemployed for a year, with stressful financial situations; the other main problem being how to fill up the day. Boredom. Repetition. Walking the empty streets. I know that in my own case, being furloughed for a year and having the space to just write and be ‘free’ would have been vastly less stressful than what I have had to put up with ie: always being in the full pack of it like sardines, the exasperation I have felt in so many situations; all I want and have wanted is just to be away from it all and at home because in truth, I don’t really get bored. If I could have been paid to stay at home here for a year, despite the odd moment of feeling a bit fed up maybe, especially on rainy days, it would, in all honesty, have essentially been bliss.

You in the UK, the US, Canada, Europe, have had the far more difficult and dramatic, wrenching chapters: the daily death tolls, the latest control measures; the Orwellian rules. The anti-vaxxers campaigning in the streets. The feral and beast-like, ripping their masks off in Trumpian rage against the infringements on their freedoms. The ravers, unwilling to stop the dance. The cretinous, convinced it is all a hoax. Just so many assholes marauding and rampaging and infecting each other, killing hundreds of thousands; it must have been traumatic, tumultuous – absolutely horrible. And I don’t envy any of that, nor the higher death tolls.

But then you have had the prophetic contrast and hope of the vaccinations. Your situation has been harder, but more Hollywoodesque. The sirens, the closed off streets. The denials. The proclamations. The fear of the spreading. But then the rapid turnaround with the vaccinations, the case numbers dropping, the joyous rushing into the crowded baseball stadiums, the ballooning economic confidence. The return to normality, or a semblance of it. Here, it would make a movie that was dull as hell. A stagnant pond of slow-flowing commuters, students, mothers shopping. The obedient populace, trudging along in masks (until they take them off to go inside to crowded cafes and talk to their friends at close range; just one of a million illogical exasperations that caused a kind of psychological polio for me: fifteen months of continuous low level fury). Compliance does not necessarily equate to rational intelligence. With mass obedience comes stupidity.

The experience in Japan has re-revealed both some of the good and the bad points of the culture. Which is certainly true for all other countries and their responses as well. The massive death tolls in the US and the UK, in my view, are an indictment of whole ideologies. In Brazil and India too, perfect text book examples of the damage that one narcissistic megalomaniac can inflict on an entire country. Here, there are no prime time players. No one saying the virus is ‘just a little cold’ or ‘it will disappear by April’. No one deliberately shaking hands to prove their message that the virus is ‘nothing to worry about’. Etc Etc etc. No one has even denied the severity of the situation here, even while doing virtually nothing about it. The good points here, in contrast: a determined, civil, sense of national co-operation. A spirit of patient endurance for the greater good. On the whole, anyway (restaurants and bars are bucking more and more now against the government’s recommendations to close early – because of the post-war constitution, legally binding edicts are not actually possible, you can feel a ‘we’ve had enough of this and need our incomes back ‘ tension slowly bursting under the ‘national state of emergency’ (don’t make me laugh; all this has meant in reality is closing shops and restaurants a little bit earlier, wow; how effective! )), but generally speaking, we have been as compliant as people possibly could be. Masked. Absolutely. Social distancing has not happened, though, especially not where I work – you have no idea, no idea what it has been like in that regard; continuous, low level fear as people physically brush or squeeze past you, breathing in your face, but that could also apply to the trains and buses as well; on a daily basis; never has my claustrophobic nature been more challenged; the fear of being infected constant seeing that the government is too cautious and useless to get us all vaccinated: a response that has been pathetic. Even with the knowledge that the biggest sporting event in the world is on its way, they were unable to sort out the logistics. Japan, FFS. There is so much you have to repress just to get through each day: 500 school children killed themselves last year, the highest number since 1978; mental health generally is pretty poor despite the brave face people put on at the start of work every time to support the general sense of social harmony; a majority are completely against holding the Olympics, which essentially are a business proposition that will cost too much in terms of broadcasting rights and sponsorship deals if cancelled, meaning that the powers that be, with their poor surveillance rights and coronatracking potential, are going to let 78,000 people into the country, with god knows how many undetectable variants, willing to let a potential superspreader event happen, ie. put their own people in genuine danger, rather than call it off. Japanese people on the whole are usually hesitant to express political opinions, but I have noticed how many students, teachers, and anyone else you talk to, have quite a glistening look of hatred in their eyes when the subject comes up and they are asked about it directly. I think people are furious.

So yes, we have just been ‘getting on with it’. For fifteen months straight. With seemingly almost no progress in sight. Vaccinations are starting, sites are being set up, old people are getting inoculated; I had a glimmer of hope the other day when I saw that companies were going to start vaccinating their employees on site, but saw that this rule applied only to those with over 1,000 employees. And would my company actually do that willingly anyway? I asked the teachers in my ‘teachers’ conversation class’. They looked doubtful. Samurai stamina, probably. Work your way through it; get your head down. And I doubt we would get the day off in case of side effects either (they agreed). ‘Fight through’. A fatalistic sense of ‘if my time comes, my time comes’ (a vacuous suicidality that makes me physically sick). When I get in on Tuesday mornings, in the school I am based in this year where there are windows I can open (last year…..I can’t even think about it. I am scarred if I let my mind go to those tiny cracks of air I was enduring)……..but what is the most insufferable thing for me is that if I didn’t go around opening the windows, teachers doing training or having meetings wouldn’t do it. They just wouldn’t. They would instead sit proudly in the room with the window closed, even if in their hearts and minds they realized that in all common sense they should have been opened. I know this for a fact. Because if I don’t, they are closed. And this is so guttingly irresponsible. They would literally, honestly, just sit in the room, with the air con on, the door shut, and no ventilation, probably because it makes them look as if they are concentrating on their work, and are thus ‘erai’, or respectable, rather than worrying about a virus that could potentially in the long term be devastating to their overall health for the rest of their lives or even kill them.

It is this, finally, that I will take with me the most when and if this nightmare is finally over. The sheer passivity. The getting onto a crowded commuter train, moist with warm breath, the virus definitely circulating (because we are going to and from Tokyo all day long, where it is concentrated; statistically speaking, this is certain), but in some carriages perfectly openable windows being left shut; dolts sitting like penguins in their masks staring forward, useless as dummies; no one having the wherewithal to open these vital sources of fresh air by themselves, in case they ‘stand out’ (oh you should see the faces when I thrust them open from outside while on the platform, completely abnormal, but something I have been doing throughout, sometimes aggressively, sometimes with just a sigh of oblivious resignation, knowing that I am categorically, 100% right to be doing so – can anyone argue with the logic of this?) No they can’t, which is why when the beleaguered teachers, hot from the sun, sit fanning themselves in the room they are in, won’t shut them either (of course they won’t – here, you just………accept). I was also supposed to accept the fact that when two teachers had come down with the virus (one with no symptoms, but the other suffering pretty badly); afterwards, when they returned, and we were all nervous, they still kept the windows closed in their classrooms (‘because we are not worried! But we sometimes do open them on Fridays when you come, because we know you are concerned about it’! ). This last conversation, I could not accept, not at all, and I can’t tell you how it made me feel; except that I felt like the last sane person in the entire world, and was shot through, throughout my entire bloodstream, with molten mercury.

And then I just opened them.

By myself.

22 Comments

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22 responses to “JAPAN AND THE CORONAVIRUS: FIFTEEN MONTHS SINCE THE DIAMOND PRINCESS DOCKED IN YOKOHAMA BAY

  1. Tara C

    I feel for you and everyone who has had to work in public throughout this pandemic, it makes me shudder to think of it. I get claustrophobic and anxious after 30 minutes in an office or store wearing the mask, can’t contemplate wearing it all day every day. I would have gone around opening windows too, I don’t care if people think I’m crazy. Here in BC we are at 75% vaccination for the first dose and restrictions are scheduled to start dropping Tuesday. I am so looking forward to it. I want to see peoples’ faces and not have people step away in fear. That is so depressing to me. I feel incredibly isolated and lonely.

  2. Brilliantly written. I really thought Japan would be one of the best nations to handle the Pandemic well.
    Nepal is also suffering from its narcissistic political leadership. Nepal was already struggling with the newness of democracy in a thoroughly undemocratic and hierarchical culture. The recently resigned former Prime Minister of Nepal Oli has finally given up trying to install himself as dictator after several votes of no confidence and dismissing the entire parliament. Nepal is now left with a caretaker government that seemingly does not care about anything until elections are to be held in November. That means local governments are left to deal with Covid however they can. Even remote villages high in the mountains are having to come up with funding to hire private helicopters to bring their critically ill down to hospital. Why isn’t the Nepali Army Air Service using its 11 helicopters to transport patients? Government hospitals are full to capacity and private hospitals are charging $5,000-$10,000 cash in advance before admitting Covid patients. The elderly are refusing to go to hospital out of fear of bankrupting their families. India has cut off supplies of PPE, oxygen, and vaccines to Nepal for its own use. The vaccination program limited to Kathmandu shut down indefinitely after only 2 days due to lack of vaccine. The death toll here is higher than India at a 5% case fatality rate.
    Hopefully, the world will realize that healhcare should not be politicized. But I doubt it. It is too powerful a tool for politics to give up.

    • My god. This is catastrophic. And makes me feel almost guilty for complaining (will you and yours be alright?). Terrible!

      At the same time, since the world’s attention is about to be turned towards Tokyo, I thought it might be interesting/ enlightening to see things from one foreign resident’s perspective who has lived here for a long time. The turgid acceptance, like algae on a pond; festering,dying.

      It makes me fucking sick.

      • Thank you for your concern. We are all healthy here in our household. We all had Covid last October and suffered only minor flu symptoms. I just found out that an entire family 3 houses down from us all passed away 2 days ago in a very $$$ private hospital. Father (50), mother (48), son (28), and son (20). The oldest son’s wife and children are the only survivors. They were very wealthy. The economic toll has been almost more devastating than the virus, there have been over 5,600 suicides in Nepal since the beginning of the year. Nepal relies heavily on tourism for its GDP, and there have been few tourists since March 2020. Most are growing gardens and keeping chickens, but I see Nepalis foraging for wild plants roadside daily now.
        I am totally interested in hearing about how Japan is dealing with Covid! Especially since my own native USA failed so badly public healthwise.I thought Japan would have a much more aggressive public health stance? I kind of expected the quiet resignation to the uncertainty and deaths due to the Buddhist influence in both Nepal and Bhutan. I don’t understand the Asian tolerance for lack of ventilation and windowless rooms. I see that here in Nepal and India too. Drives me bonkers and studies have shown your risk of catching Covid is less than 1% outdoors with lots of ventilation.

      • EXACTLY.

        There was a very trenchant article in the New York Times about precisely this point, which boiled down to the fact that ventilation is the key. And it makes perfect sense. It is obvious.

        Where it is not possible, fine (but people in truth shouldn’t be congregating there in that case). But where there is clearly an option of letting the air in, but no one will simply because they are too docile to do so: this is where I lose it.

        The situation where you are is far, far worse: horrifying. I do hope things get better soon (but how? Is the British government going to respond to the pleas I have been hearing about from the Nepalese authorities for all the years of Gurka service?).

        Here, it is slow and exasperating as poison. They take aeons to approve a vaccine; other countries would expedite the process; here, it is the Japanese equivalent of Old White Men deliberating for months with their academic qualifications and monocles and stuffy offices and churning through all the material and the cogs avoiding personal responsibility, doing everything ‘the right way’: similarly, the amount of air let in in the schools where there are windows is very polite, very ‘stylish’ not ‘overdone’; just ‘the right amount; ** starts chainsaw** – ie. the need for pleasantness overrides everything else and it has driven me, it goes without saying, INSANE.

        D and I were just talking about it. The need for vagueness and ambiguity is so great in this country – and probably the prime reason why I love it, ironically, contradictorily, I can’t live without it now – in culture, literature, art, atmosphere, this ‘aimai’ quality is generally exquisite – in a pandemic though,it is SHIT.

    • Tara C

      That’s horrible, I’m so sorry to hear you are stuck in the midst of such a situation. Meanwhile next door in Bhutan, a monarchy, I believe things are much better, low death rate and 60% vaccinated – is that correct? Just goes to show good government can come in many forms, not just democracy as the Americans would have you believe. My high school history teacher used to say the most efficient form of government was a benign dictatorship.

      • I don’t doubt there is some truth to that.
        I know that Bhutan, like Denmark, is said to be one of the happiest nations in the world – but who knows how much of that is state propaganda?

        We really enjoyed visiting Copenhagen, but felt more switched on when we went from there to Berlin.

      • Bhutan is doing really well, they have sealed themselves off from the world and utilized the help from the UN to the fullest. Shows what a benevolent monarchy is capable of. I know we Westerners have been practically brainwashed that democracy is the best form of government, but all that is happening here in Nepal is infighting of rival Communist cadres trying to achieve power at any cost.

      • Sounds familiar. Right or left, doesn’t really make any difference. I agree about brainwashing; this is why I love this blog and the people who respond on it: I get a real sense of people who actually THINK FOR THEMSELVES.

        Go Bhutan.

      • Another thing I just want to add is that although I might be wrong, I think a large majority of Japanese people reading this will probably agree with this – and will also give Suga a trouncing in the next election.

        He is basically banking on a post-Olympic feel good factor to keep him in power. If it all goes awry, though, and an imported delta variant floods the train systems, the fact that he was willing to risk people’s lives in this way just for international ‘prestige’ will make him an ultimate villain.

        People are essentially extremely vulnerable , day in day put, unvaccinated and in close proximity to others given that the Japanese work culture is hardly gong to take to working from home.

        Ultimately, it is all about caution, which is ingrained here; very deeply. Samurai who made mistakes sometimes had to commit seppuku. Kids are afraid to make mistakes in the classroom. They are desperately cautious about the vaccines; whether they are safe, and more importantly, who is qualified to administer them. It takes an eternity to get everything approved with the traditional hanko ivory ink stamp, passed from official to official: the slow spider’s web of bureaucracy.

        It is a nightmare.

  3. OnWingsofSaffron

    In Germany (80 million inhabitants) overall approx. 90.000 people have died due to Covid-19 related reasons. Today in Germany, the 7-day invidence rate is 18,3 per 1000.000 inhabitants. That is excellent news and life is reigniting again seeing we‘ve been in a sort of lockdown since last autumn. Now, bit by bit, everything is reopening again. Unfortunately, so far only 25% of the population has gotten their two shots. So everyone can get tested twice weekly for free (mostly in drugstores) and with your negative result, officially stamped, you can participate in everything like those people who have recovered from Corona or who have received their vaccination.

    • This sounds good: I would love everyone to get these tests, though I daren’t think how many would test positive…..

      Glad to hear that you are entering a more liberated phase though – and I hope the vaccine rollout continues smoothly.

      I will not be able to even vaguely properly relax until this thing recedes a bit.

    • OnWingsofSaffron

      … per 100.000 people (7-day incidence) not 1.000.000. Sorry!

  4. Robin

    I read this and could almost feel my molars grinding. I would have felt, would feel, exactly the same. Maybe worse. Japan is bad in its rather unique way. Other countries that have mishandled things have more in common, I think. My favourite country to have lived in through all this is New Zealand. Very calm, rational, effective.

    Coincidentally, on the way home just now I drove past a group on the beach road holding up a big banner proclaiming COVID IS A HOAX. This is on the Sunshine Coast, where most people have a New Zealand mindset. WT actual F??!!! My mind got so boggled — the idiocy — no, the lunacy — of that belief in the face of all the hard facts, I could hardly drive for a second or two. “It Takes All Kinds” has never seemed a more asinine saying. No it bloody well doesn’t.

    I get my second AstraZeneca shot on Monday, eight weeks to the day after my first, all very civilized at the local pharmacy. Yay, British Columbia.

    • Delighted to hear it. I can’t wait for mine – whenever it comes – even though I would much rather have Pfizer: I know too many people who have suffered from bad side effects.

      I wonder whether I am being fair about the whole J-situation, whether I am being too critical. I people are ‘doing their best’. As I said – cooperating with the mask unspoken rule etc (there is no law stating you have to have one outside like there is in Italy). And companies do what they can, with temperature measurers, sanitizer, etc, my own included, although social distancing is physically impossible to enforce as there simply isn’t the space. D has this every day where he is too.

      However, the window thing……..It will be obvious to anyone reading my blog that I am utterly OBSESSED with this point, being a claustrophobe to begin with, so it’s ok if people want to think I am just some gaijin hysteric, and that we should just ‘go with the flow’ and endure whatever situation is laid out for us (on the whole, the train carriages and buses have windows open to appropriate levels so as not to blow your bonnet off); but almost just as frequently, there are whole train carriages packed with people where they are shut, and the fact that people JUST SIT THERE EVEN THOUGH THEY MIGHT BE WORRIED ABOUT IT is as infuckingfURIATING as those turds on the beach with their COVID IS A HOAX placards. The idiocy. I lose my senses. I just can’t take it.

      Burning Burnt Out.

      • Bella Ciao

        such an interesting read&comments! Pfizer also has side effects, only they seem to be less advertised. I had my first shot with it 3 weeks ago and was tired for a week. Tired as in fatigued, not tired because of too much partying the night before…. So take whatever you can get! Italy has announced that they are vaccinating holiday makers. So may be you should aim for a little Rimini San Remo Lignano fly over. In any case I am keeping my fingers crossed for you!

  5. I do not know how you are able to do it? It would drive me out of my mind over there, especially the stupid acceptance of things and just continuing on consequences be damned. I am not thrilled with the way things were being handled here, but at least vaccines were rolled od pretty well where I live, which is saying a lot. I still feel New Zealand handled things the best out of almost any country, Bhutan as well.
    I am just so amazed at people’s ineptitude in even being able to open a window, without being prodded to do so by you. That shocks me most of all. That everyone there would just rather sit and suffer, than proactively do something to better the circumstances. I would have probably lashed out by now. You have great restraint.
    I really hope that you will get your vaccine sooner, rather than later.

    • It definitely isn’t everyone ; some people look as irritated as I do. Some open them very wide to make a point.

      But it would be interesting to do a social experiment with a hidden camera on an urban train to see or long it would take to open the window..

      The funny thing is, there are actually written requests on the trains by the companies that run them asking commuters to prioritize ventilation.
      I know I am ‘obsessed’ with this issue but not being vaccinated I can’t help it. Thank you for empathizing x

  6. JulienFromDijon

    Pénélope Bagieu has a special tip, for when the media repeat too much the same word. One private head bubble is so often invaded by some unwanted media news report.

    It was during the financial crisis. And she said to replace mentally every occurrences with “my ass”. Out of messages that are too serious and grinding, it yields some laugh and distance.

    https://www.penelope-jolicoeur.com/2008/10/overdose.html

    You can read French. But I translate to not outcast the other.

    1st case : “*sigh* I’m fed up, hearing only about the crisis!
    (On the newspaper : Special report THE CRISIS)

    2nd case : My advice? Replace “the crisis” by my ass. You’ll see, it’s much sillier.
    (On the newspaper : Special report MY ASS)

    3th case : (A newsflash on TV) Governments are helpless to contain my ass. Peoples are panicking.

    4th case : After New-York, London and Paris, it’s the turn of Tokyo to be hit by my ass, provoking a tidal wave.

    5th Case : (out of a small radio device) … at the counter of this little bank agency, there’s only on word on all the lips : …

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