Tokyo In The Time Of Corona: 15 Days Later

Tokyo In The Time Of Corona: 15 Days Later

It has been about three weeks since I posted about Tokyo in the time of Corona.  Like a living proof of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, it feels as if it has been a year.  The anti-Corona measures that Japan imposed seemed startling to some when I wrote my piece; those same measures are now drops in the bucket compared to what has been imposed in Europe and in the United States.  Reading the news every morning, seeing death rates rise, levels of infection balloon, grocery stores stripped of wares makes me feel like I am living in some strange, alternate universe here in Japan.

Simply put, life is pretty normal here.  People still go to restaurants; my friends are still playing records in bars; izakayas are full of drunkards; parents go shopping for food every day and take their kids to the park; office workers travel on crowded trains.  Even the toilet paper has come back (still hard to find masks and sanitizer).  But, there is an undercurrent of threat, a vibrating hum of menace.  Everything is about 1/3 more empty than normal, be it streets or shops.   Domestic tourism has dropped to catastrophic levels; the Chinese tourist trade has completely dried up.  Many, many freelance or part-time workers have been laid off.

I took my kids to the park the other day to stretch their legs, to kick the soccer ball my daughter got for her birthday.  The sky was blue, the sun bright and warming.  Magnolia and dogwood trees were in full bloom and some cherry blossoms were beginning to flower.  The park was not super crowded, but there were definitely people there.  Groups of middle-school girls played tag and volleyball with abandon, laughing and having a wonderful time in a manner that you never see with NYC girls of the same age.  Old people, backs bent nearly 45 degrees from osteoporosis, shuffled slowly on the outside track, getting their dose of daily exercise.  Looking at all of them, I felt like a French intelligence officer in an Alan Furst novel, sitting in a Paris cafe in 1939 watching all the beautiful people, knowing full well the world of Hell that was soon to arrive.  Like that fictional character, I felt an abyss of sadness well up in me — what would happen to all these people?   Those infectious laughs, silenced.  That wealth of stoic, hard-won knowledge and empathy that Japanese elders carry with them, all erased.

Or not.  I have no idea what the situation is here in Japan.  There has been very little testing.  In fact, like the US, it is hard to get tested.  The government has focused on clusters and tracking paths of infection.  Some people say that Prime Minister Abe is desperately trying to keep the numbers down to keep the dwindling dream of the 2020 Olympics alive.  That may very well be, but death rates remain low here, there has been no massive uptick in pneumonia-related deaths and hospitals are operating normally.  In fact, the normal seasonal rates of influenza have gone down some 30 to 40 percent due to increased vigilance and the early step of closing schools and large events.  Even if there was a massive conspiracy, there would be proof by now of deaths on a massive scale given the timeline of Coronavirus arriving in Japan.  I have no doubt that the basic rituals of Japanese hygiene — mask-wearing, hand washing before eating, no shoes in the house, bathing before bed, line drying clothes — have been helpful in slowing the rate of infection.  But more importantly, it seems that Japanese people have listened and acted upon self-quarantine if they become ill.  They have, for the most part, not gone to hospitals or doctors and instead suffered alone in their houses, healing themselves and not causing others, especially healthcare workers, to get ill.  Or maybe, the viral strain that is common here is less virulent than what arrived in Italy?  Or maybe it is something with the diet?  The air?  Genetics? Maybe.  Maybe. Maybe.  There is just no way to know now.

What I do know is that this vague sense of normalcy, whether illusory or not, has been helpful, healthful even.  When I speak to my friends in New York, I hear a sense of despair.  A sense that it is all over.  The world that they had known and worked for their whole lives is all finished.  From the US, I see reports of 2-hour lines at grocery stores stripped of stock; I read stories of Manhattan billionaires buying up deep freezers and burrowing away to Hamptons.  I watched a clip of some trashy women loading up a pickup truck with case after case of toilet paper. My mother in New Mexico could not find a package of pasta in any store.   Obviously, the US lockdowns were necessary, a step too late even as Trump blathered on about “democratic hoaxes” and such. But man, if you shut down every restaurant, every bar with no end in sight, those are millions and millions of people (with kids, with dependents) that are suddenly left with nothing.  To me, it seems like panic.  It may seem stupid, but given that the restaurant industry is staffed with literal experts in food-safety handling, couldn’t there have been a way to coordinate that labor force with the needs of a quarantined public?  As I said, it may be illusory, but there is something to be said for measured responses; or even the projection of consensus or a unified plan.  It leaves the door open for hope despite all the turmoil.  My kids seem scared enough as it is; without hope, it would be a disaster. The minute we can’t imagine the future, we are all very lost.

I don’t think this is the time or place for me to shit on Trump, or shit on capitalism or speak of blame. But, when Trump got elected, I felt in some vague, but very real way, that my family would be in danger under his leadership.  I wasn’t sure what form it would take — racist violence? Xenophobic attacks?  Whatever it might be, I did not feel we would be safe and so, we left.   If things continue in the way they are, it was the wisest move I ever made. Japan is just better prepared mentally for disaster.  They have experienced so many varied crises over the past century, that they just seem to understand how to keep things from descending into panic and hopelessness.

I can say all these things.  Express how grateful to be in Tokyo rather in the US.  But, the reality is that I am scared and confused and lost.  I have sick friends in America and I can’t be there.  I worry about my parents, my dad in particular (this virus seems built to take him out).  My sisters are both under tremendous, unbearable stress because of this outbreak, and I am here talking about some good ramen I had the other day.  Fucking stupid.

Sooo…deep breaths.  Spring, despite the agonies of the moment, is in bloom.  Every day, I chart on my google maps, a different shrine I can walk to.  I am neither Buddist nor Shinto nor even a spiritual person.  But, I walk to those shrines that eons ago some person, more attuned to nature or to a dimension that our modern world has blocked from my sight, deemed sacred or holy or possessing of unique force, and I toss in a few coins, clap my hands twice, bow twice and make a long prayer.  I ask, by name, that my friends are healed.  I ask that my family is protected.  I ask that the world is protected.  And lastly, I ask that a future can still be granted.  I am a powerless man with a historic wave crashing over my world and it is the only thing I can think to do.


19 Replies to “Tokyo In The Time Of Corona: 15 Days Later”

  1. Thank you for your perspective from the outside looking in. I’m glad to hear your family is faring so well in Tokyo!

  2. Hi Jeremy,that was a good interesting read. An American friend of mine who lives in Kyoto thinks the general use of face masks for colds along with less physical contact when greeting people (kissing on cheeks and shaking hands) might be a big factor. London is going into lockdown tonight. Stay safe. David

    1. I think there is a whole combination of things that have slowed down the infection rate. A bit nervous that Japan is still letting in people from around the world and not insisting on regulated quaratines. Those people are not wearing masks, etc..

  3. “experts in food-safety handling” yes! sigh! Thanks for your perspective. I’m glad for your move. I’m grateful Spring will still be here. I’m glad the environment and and wild animals get a good break. “a French intelligence officer in an Alan Furst novel” got a good chuckle in, now I’ll see who that is!

  4. I re-read this and I think I hear your updates as mentioned, regardless, this is an excellent second read.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *