Today I woke up to the news that the popular comedian Shimura Ken had become Japan’s first celebrity casualty to COVID-19; and to the word, spreading through social media, that the Japanese government would call for a lockdown at the close of the stock market on March 31. On my daily shopping trip, my greengrocer dismissed the prediction out of hand (“In any case, grocers will continue”), and a local restaurateur told me that he’d heard the rumors and was making plans to shift to take-out only. But, he also noted that in that case he’d need to ask his two or three part-time workers to stay home, without pay.
Later in the day, I saw that Prime Minister Abe dismissed the “false rumors” of an April 1 lockdown. It’s also now clearer how limited the national government’s power to call and enforce a lockdown in Japan are.
But we still tuned in anxiously when Governor Koike Yuriko called an emergency news conference for 8pm. She was late, and we watched the room slowly fill with journalists. When she did arrive, she reiterated the official cautions about the “three densities” (mitsu no mitsu): dense unventilated spaces, dense crowds, close talking at length. I suppose it is a testament to the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Labour’s slogan-making that I can recite this warning by heart now. It was disturbing when Koike called the much beloved Shimura’s death his “final accomplishment,” interpreting his tragedy as an important public service message about the danger of the disease.
However, the main takeaway message from Gov. Koike, which I stayed up far too late watching with a restless and cranky toddler, is that there is evidence of COVID-19 spread at spots for nightlife. She urged Tokyo residents to not go out in the evening, and to avoid bars and karaoke, nightclubs and cabaret clubs. This warning did not come with any plan to offset the financial cost to such businesses. Tokyo is filled with tiny watering holes run almost single-handedly by a “master” or a “mama.” One wonders if they can survive this.
Another concern is that drinking and dining establishments in Tokyo sometimes fill an essential social need. Regular customers feel emotional bonds to a proprietor and to each other. This kind of client loyalty may save some places from ruin, but where will these communities find comfort in the meantime? What will be the consequences of “social distancing” in Japan, a society that already reports struggles with social isolation, ranging from the “hikikomori” shut-in phenomenon to lonely senior citizens?
– 30 March 2020
Chelsea Szendi Schieder is a historian of contemporary Japan and an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Economics at Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo, Japan. Her book, Co-Ed Revolution: The Female Student in the Japanese New Left, is forthcoming on Duke University Press.
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The Teach311 + COVID-19 Collective began in 2011 as a joint project of the Forum for the History of Science in Asia and the Society for the History of Technology Asia Network and is currently expanded in collaboration with the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science(Artifacts, Action, Knowledge) and Nanyang Technological University-Singapore.