Tokyo In The Time Of Corona

Tokyo In The Time Of Corona

There is no toilet paper in Tokyo.  We are living in the age of the global Covid 19 Pandemic.

When news first started spreading in January that there was a weird, new virus developing in China, I could not figure out if Japan was concerned.  Things seemed pretty normal.  And then…BAM!! Everything changed.  Facemasks sold out; sanitizing wipes gone; and yes, toilet paper stripped bare from the shelves.  With no warning, the Prime Minister announced the cancellation of school.  Millions of children — many of whom have working parents — were suddenly home-bound.  Cough on a train and witness ripples of movement, shifting bodies desperate to escape proximity.  Flights in and out of the country have been canceled; businesses dependent for years on Chinese tourism gone bankrupt.  In Kyoto, old-time residents whisper that “Kyoto is Kyoto again,” as the foreign hordes have disappeared.  One traveling salaryman, who infected his wife and children with the Corona, was forced to reveal that he picked up the virus in a brothel aka “soapland” while visiting Fukuoka.

I am completely uncertain how nervous to be.  On the one hand, there is a general level of good hygiene in Tokyo: 50% of commuters wear masks in normal times; hand-washing and sanitizing are par for the course.  There is not a whole lot of physical contact between people other than family — nods and bows before the handshakes and hugs of the US.  On the other hand, Tokyo is dense.  Packed trains, packed restaurants and all it takes is a wayward sneeze to make the virus spread out in waves.  It is very very likely that Covid 19 has infected many more people in Japan than has been reported.  I suspect a lot of sick people are at home, doors locked, trying to heal on their own.  Or, almost more scary, there are thousands of asymptomatic carriers.  Is the government doing a good job?  I have no clue.  These are uncharted waters and even the logistics of manufacturing millions and millions of test kits seems beyond difficult.  A cynical part of myself thinks…hmmm…maybe a viral epidemic that kills off Japan’s frighteningly old population is not the worst thing for those in charge.  I suspect the only way to really deal with a pandemic is to lock down the entire country for at least a month; everyone non-essential to the day-to-day survival of the country to be quarantined.  This is not going to happen.

I am ashamed to admit this but I grew up happily chomping down on my own body parts.  I chewed my nails ferociously. I ate my scabs.  I knocked off boogers by the dozens.  My darkest moment came when I, aiming to “gross-out” my older sister (as all little brothers do), ate a wart that she had cut off her foot.  Yup.  Really gross.  Having no sense of hand-related hygiene, this meant I ingested nearly every type of bacteria, virus, parasite, and amoeba that teemed in the urban jungle of New York City.  The benefit of this absolutely revolting behavior is that the flora and fauna of my gut bacteria flourishes and has given me ( please no Kinohura) a pretty strong immune system.  I am banking on those long-ago warts, scabs and fingernails that held a subway pole recently vacated by a cholera-ridden transient, to help me during this crisis.

Is Tokyo completely shut down?  Not precisely.  Overall, restaurants and entertainment venues have seen rapid declines in business.  One part has to do with fear, with reducing exposure; the other part has to do with the shaky economic footing of part-time workers who have been laid off work, or simply need to stay at home with their kids.  These people are on their own.  No one is paying them for missed days at work.  While some of my friend’s have canceled events or parties, others operate as if it is business as usual.  If you mention the virus, you get a wry look and the oft spoke phrase “Sho gai nai,” which roughly translates to “It can’t be helped” or more generally: Accept Your Fate.  This is a MAJOR element of Japanese thinking.

The other night I went out to Marco, one of my favorite Tokyo Izakaya.  It was as packed, as lively, as jovial and as delicious as it has always been.  I reveled in their luxurious guts stew (now with an egg!).  I marveled at their daily sashimi special, feeling especially invigorated by pieces of raw squid layered with tobiko; on the other hand, I was able to get a same-day reservation which has never happened before.  Sho gai nai.

So, basically, I am here in Tokyo and it seems, on some level, that the world is falling to pieces.  I see equal measures of bravery, foolishness, bigotry, deception, chaos, and fear ricocheting across every continent (bar Antarctica!).  I remember the days following 9/11, but never have I had a sense of uncertainty like the present.  My son, never a lover of school, cannot believe his good luck.  A month of freedom!  A month where, as he keeps reminding me, he is NOT SUPPOSED TO LEAVE THE HOUSE!  Therefore a month of watching TV, playing video games, face-timing with his old Brooklyn friends.  My wife has been laid off from work; my freelance writing jobs, which are dependent upon the Japanese tourist industry, have dried up.  What the hell are we supposed to do?  Again, no clue.  For now, we have toilet paper; I have stockpiled pasta, canned tomatoes and a large bag of garlic. It is nice to have the whole family together, the laughter of my wife and daughter ringing out through the house as they linger in the bathtub having an impromptu karaoke party; the sounds of my son banging out Stevie Wonder’s Master Blaster on the electric bass he got for his 13th birthday.  The free time to actually try and make bread.   The world may or may not collapse, but those sounds wouldn’t be so bad as the last things I ever heard.

In our local news there was a story about a young woman who found the last 20-pack of toilet paper at her local store.  As she was going to ring up her purchase, she overheard a young man asking the manager if they had any more TP.  She took pity on him and told him that he could have a few roles as she was single and would not need so much.  If he had a family she offered to split the whole thing.  He too was single and thanked her for her generosity.  They shared information as he wanted to be able to repay the favor if ever the need arose.  Later in the evening, she got a text from him asking if he could express his thanks by taking her out.  They went to an empty movie theater and later got dinner.  In short, they came together – Love in the time of Corona.



2 Replies to “Tokyo In The Time Of Corona”

  1. Beautiful writing and a description of the moment, Jeremy !!! I just read in an Israeli paper a great joke for our times. “The first Israeli man died of the Coronavirus. He got infected, and after 4 days of staying home he got strangled by his wife” ha …..
    Say hi to all, and hopefully good times would come soon.

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