Japan Diary

Social Distancing. Non-Existencing.

By March 21, 2020May 9th, 20203 Comments
Social Distancing. Non-Existencing.

I’m a middle of the road kinda guy so this is strange what I am about to write. Many people from doctors to my Mom who live outside of Japan, the country where I have resided for more than twelve years, are texting and asking the question,”Why does Japan have so few coronavirus infections?” This is an interesting question and one in which I have been pondering for over a week. With things changing so rapidly by the hour in other countries, Japan life goes on for the most part relatively normal. And yet at the time of this writing the number of infected is under 1,000.

Don’t get me wrong there has been some societal changes, such as elementary to high school closings going on two weeks. Many businesses are requiring employees for the first time ever to telecommute, which has also been going on for two weeks. Events across all industries have been canceled as well. However, businesses have remain open and people are freely moving about. There is no quarantine of any kind required, unless having tested positive or showing symptoms.

With people moving about freely this also means that trains are still crowded during morning and evening rush hours. This also means that “Social Distancing” is “Non-Existencing.” People stand and sit next to one another on the train with no problem whatsoever. The only difference, instead of 70% of the population wearing masks it is now 95% and coughing and touching one’s face is no longer done publicly.

This leads me to a theory as to why there are so few infected in Japan. I am no scientist of course, so what I am about to say is really my own opinion based upon years of living in Japan as well as impromptu interviews, observation and conversations with Japanese and non-Japanese alike.

Some liken Italy’s demographics to Japan’s as an aging population. I have not spent time in Italy for quite some time, but I can say with certainty that the elderly make up about one third of the population and increasing every year in Japan. As we know, this is the highest at risk group when it comes to the coronavirus. Yet Italy has been ravaged and Japan has not. It is in my opinion that reason is, for the most part it all comes down to cultural mores.

Japan is a collective culture, one in which the group takes precedence over the individual. This is one reason why Japan is such a safe country. This way of thinking in essence is, if the group is taken care of first then the individual is taken care of. On a personal note, I struggled with this change for the first five year of living here. An American “me first,” entitled attitude is deeply rooted and one that would not be serving me well during times like this in Japan.

The result of a collective culture, rather than having to enforce requirements, government officials make announcements and suggestions and people simply adhere to them.

Mask wearing is a part of the culture. If you have ever visited Japan the first thing you notice, Japanese wear masks year round depending upon whether for flu, colds and hay fever seasons.

Japan is already an impeccably clean and hygienic country. It is one of the first things people comment on when they visit. Everything from hand washing, to alcohol disinfecting, something that is being asked of everyone after entering a restaurant or business these days.

After spending the day outside, showers and baths are done in the evenings before going to bed.

Japanese remove their shoes at the “genkan” or front entrance before entering the house. Shoes are never worn in the house.

Physical contact has always been limited in Japan, bowing instead of handshaking.

Japanese are active and healthy comparatively speaking. Japanese are not overweight, tend to eat healthy and are active, whether exercising or simply riding bikes or walking. This makes them less prone to pre-existing conditions.

I will say after the fact that some of this is generalizations, but when it comes to something like this, it’s difficult to drill down to specific details.

I hope we have dodged the bullet in Japan despite the fact that we had a large Chinese and Korean tourist population in the country a few months back and left the borders open for a period of time.

If these cultural mores indeed are part of the reason there are so few infections we are fortunate. The other possible scenario is that Japan is in store for a big explosion. The good news if that were to happen, the health care system is equipped to handle it, Japan can learn from the other countries dealing with it now and because of the collective society we will all listen and do what needs to be done.

Be safe, practice hygiene, think of others and please don’t hoard.