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.