As I write this, it is 9 May 2020. One month has passed since the Japanese government issued a request for voluntary restraint. While the crowds have all but disappeared from the huge train stations such as Tokyo, Shibuya, Shinjuku and Shinagawa, people wearing masks still come and go as usual in the local shopping streets and station squares. I find myself off balance, seduced into the illusion that it’s just another ordinary day in early summer.
Just as foreign media have criticized the Japanese government for its slow and ambiguous response, distrust and anger at the government have been erupting from within the country in recent months. The parliamentarians and bureaucrats who run the country are almost exclusively male, and when photographs of cabinet meetings lined up with men of similar age and appearance are distributed in the media, jokes such as ‘What happened to Japan, did the coronavirus kill off all the women?’ go viral on social media. This is a country where men, who are far removed from domestic life, make all the decisions regarding women’s bodies and children. They are second-generation lawmakers who cannot let go of their analog fax machines and personal seals (hanko). It goes without saying that their responses during the nation’s state of emergency have been incompetent, but what is even more troubling is how we are at a loss as to what to make of the current state of affairs in Japan.
Take the PCR test, for example. There is still controversy among experts whether testing should be increased, or if Japan should maintain the status quo. Some argue that infection numbers and death tolls here are much smaller than those in other countries, while others argue that this is only the result of a cover-up. In any case, what is clear is that even if the direct damage of Covid-19 is kept under control, the economic collapse that has already begun will result in huge casualties. Financial relief from the government is utterly inadequate and inefficient, requiring six hours to apply, and there’s little hope that we can expect more in the future. Japan is stuck holding the ticking bomb that is the Olympic Games, which is hell if it’s held and hell if it isn’t. Even without the pandemic, we were no longer a country that could have held such a grand international enterprise.
I feel that these cityscapes and developments are all too typical for Japan. Even the ‘voluntary restraint,’ for example, is a mere ‘request’ from the government, with no penalty or legal consequences. Most, including the oppositional Left, have obeyed the request without any specific promise of compensation. We have no desire for a strong leader who stands out and makes grand decisions. We are used to things unfolding and being decided naturally, and do not object to following with a kind of obedience. Instead of strong leadership, what functions in our society is the all-too-familiar pressure to conform. We are constantly scrutinizing each other’s actions, and monitoring whether we are in line ourselves. As if to say – who could dare to do something different from everyone else! So it goes that, naturally, infected persons are expected to apologize here in Japan. Online, people feel justified in exposing the personal information of those who don’t conform. And, however unbelievable it might seem, healthcare professionals are routinely being discriminated against. The comments section on news sites are filled with abusive rhetoric, shaming those who get into traffic accidents during this voluntary restraint period, claiming that they deserve to die for the inconvenience they’ve caused others. It’s hard to imagine a country where a lockdown would function perfectly, but in the case of Japan, which lacks basic individualism, the current situation has bred insidious hatred and division.
This is not a new problem. We saw something similar after the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011 and the Fukushima nuclear disaster. While radiation and virus are different in nature, information about both has spread primarily through the infrastructure of social media. What is happening now, happened then. In 2011 discrimination and exclusion was rampant, with radiation treated as defilement (kegare) before we even tried to understand what it was. The word ‘bond’ (kizuna) and the phrase ‘We will not forget’ were ubiquitous and shared throughout Japan. And now, these words ring hollow, as we realize that the most eloquent were the fortunate outsiders who have already forgotten, while those who remember are the ones directly affected, who are still struggling to put their grief and suffering into words.
Today, the Japanese media is full of competing discourses predicting the future, while newly coined phrases such as ‘post-corona’ and ‘with-corona’ make the rounds of magazines and the internet. There is a certain pessimism, indistinguishable from narcissism, that says we cannot go back to the way things were, that everything has been irrevocably lost. But in today’s Japan, where life seems indistinguishable from an ordinary spring day in any other year, is it possible for anything to really change? The lives and realities of those affected have, of course, changed drastically. The dead do not come back, and the everyday life of medical professionals and self-employed workers will never be the same. These are undeniable facts. But what about society as a whole? How can society absorb the pain and realities of these individuals into society’s experience as a whole – not just as a record, but as memory?
We are creatures of forgetting. If you imagine Japan as a single body, the Great East Japan Earthquake was like a major injury to one part of that body. The wound hasn’t fully healed, but the body narrowly survived and was able to retain consciousness. One look at the scars and we are reminded of those days. But the coronavirus pandemic leaves no scars that can be traced with the fingers. It’s like the cold you caught last year – you can’t remember when it started and when it went away. As unbelievable as it may seem to those in countries more severely affected, we in Japan may only have vague memories of the pandemic a few years from now.
In our society, there is an aspect of forgetting that functions as hope. This is why we are able to continue living in a country where a major earthquake like the Nankai megathrust could strike tomorrow, where the horrors of the tsunami that claimed so many lives and the earthquake that devastated so many cities are etched in our hearts. It is an amazing thing to consider. Skyscrapers and condominiums continue to be built on land where we know disaster may strike, and nuclear power plants have yet to be abolished. People’s lives are being built on the suspension of thought and the contradictions of survival.
The coronavirus pandemic will certainly cause concrete changes. A reconsideration of group learning, a revelation of the futility of test-focused education, and a questioning of the norms that govern working conditions. But all of that will soon become familiar – functioning like a religious system in which initiation requires the complete oblivion of all that preceded. We will even forget the fact that we have changed.
As we live under voluntary restraint, every day we think, ‘What a luxury it was to see our loved ones whenever we wanted,’ or ‘How wonderful the world was before all of this happened.’ There’s nothing wrong with that. But we should not forget that these are feelings. We tend to adapt to any problem or change, to bend to the general flow of things, and to forget. And this fact, we must not forget.
It is not a sin to feel, ‘The flowers look more beautiful now than ever.’ But flowers, in truth, were beautiful yesterday, last year, five years ago. And the same is true for the ugliness of the world. Most people now pray for vaccines, and few would doubt their value. But before the coronavirus pandemic, when rubella infection in pregnant women became a serious problem, how many middle-aged men responded to the call for free vaccination? What about the anti-vaccinationists? Has enough consideration been given to the fear that wearing masks can instill on those with hearing loss? We talk about voluntary restraint fatigue, without thinking of those who are never able to go outside.
What we must ask ourselves is – why have we been unable or unwilling to see the reality of the world until now? And what concrete actions will we take in our lives, now that it has been made visible? The only way to cope with forgetting, which has become so thoroughly integrated with Japanese life, is to keep thinking and to keep acting. We must rip hope away from the suspension of thought, and make it exist independently. To remember is to continue to think and to consciously change your behavior, even if only slightly.
Do not let this coronavirus pandemic be a mere paraphrase of the world in which we previously lived. We must be prepared, for disaster will always repeat itself. We exist perpetually in the day before – ignorant of the disaster that is to come.
Image © Sean Marshall