Observations by a Canadian Expat on Japan’s Response to the Covid-19 Pandemic, from the Ground Up.
By Edward Iwaskow, Smith’s School of English Otsu Owner.
It is difficult to see the outside of your house, from the inside. Imagine you had never been outside. How would you know what your house looks like?
A lot of students ask me questions about Canada, but also questions about Japan. As an outsider I have a unique perspective on many aspects of Japan. Students often ask me comparative questions. For example: What is the difference between Japanese comedy and Canadian comedy? What is the difference between Christmas in Canada and Christmas in Japan? These are always interesting conversations, and I hope our students enjoy them.
Recently many students have been asking me “Why” questions. The answers also tend to be comparative. The most common questions around the end of 2020 was: Why is Japan doing so well during the pandemic? Why is Canada not doing well? What is the big difference? Many students can’t understand, but as an outsider who has lived in 2 countries and 2 cultures, many points stand out. Japan is an amazing country, but those on the inside have a hard time understanding why.
My personal opinion is that Japan was already prepared for this type of disaster. A lot of the reasons Japan has done so well: systems and concepts which were already in place. There is no one thing to point at, but rather a whole spectrum of actions, infrastructures and cultural points which, when added together make for a solid defense against an airborne virus. The following points are simply my observations, having lived in Canada and Japan and lived through this pandemic.
Hand Washing & Sanitizing
Long before the Covid-19 pandemic, hand-washing was already solidly embedded in Japanese daily life. School children learn from the first day of kindergarten to always wash hands and gargle upon arriving at school, and again upon arriving at home. This is a habit drilled into every person in Japan by 11 years of public school.
On top of that, every major shopping center has alcohol hand spray at the entrances of the shops. Most restaurants have a hand-washing sink located near the entrance. In restrooms, public and private, toilets and hand-washing sinks are often in separate spaces. This means anyone can wash their hands, regardless of whether another person is using the restroom, and also the sink area is more sanitary as it is separated from the toilet. All of these systems were in place before the pandemic broke out in early 2020. Affordable pocket-size hand gels? We have those too!
Mask wearing has been common in Japan for years. People have used masks for a variety of reasons, and though many criticize how masks are used in Japan, the results speak for themselves. Why do so many people in Japan wear masks regularly? Previous outbreaks of SARS and MERS and Bird Flu have taught Japanese people to wear masks to prevent viral spread. Hay fever is another reason. During flu season people are encouraged to wear masks. Some people even wear masks because they don’t have time to put on make-up! Mask culture is accepted, encouraged and even praised.
Automation & Escalators
To many people around the world, Japan is seen as a futuristic society. Think robots and Gundam suits and Nintendo and conveyor belt sushi. But in many other ways, Japan is also highly advanced. With regards to viral spread, I think nothing is more helpful than automatic technology: automatic doors, self-dispensing soap, touch-less payment systems. I am absolutely serious when I say that most shops in Japan have automatic doors, most public toilets have automatic flushing and automatic sinks, and most multi-floor buildings have escalators. Many people are surprised when I tell them that my hometown in Canada has only 2 escalators. In the whole city!
Even more impressive to me? Self-lifting toilet seats. Imagine going into a public restroom and being able to use the facilities and wash hands, without having to touch anything! This is common across the country. Even before automation, the traditional Japanese squat toilet has no seat and everyone carries their own hand towel.
Lawfulness & Social Harmony
This point falls under the category of cultural and social reasons. In general, Japan is a safe country. The concept of social harmony is central to Japanese culture and beliefs. When the national government recommends mask wearing, everyone does it. When companies are asked to allow employees to work from home, it is done. The government rarely has to mandate these changes- in order to maintain social harmony people will comply. Don’t rock the boat is a national pastime. Though this is not always deemed a good thing, in the case of a viral pandemic it is very helpful!
House Parties and the Concept of Public/Private
In 2020 people were encouraged to stay home. Stop gathering in large groups. Stop hosting events. In Japan there are no house parties so this was not a big thing to ask. Weddings were scaled down or postponed. Sports events as well. The Olympics were postponed for a year. People in Japan have a strong sense of 2 separate spheres of life: the public sphere and the private sphere. It is understood that it is improper to enter the private sphere without invite. Lockdown was not such a bad thing here, as it was already uncommon to visit another person’s home, or demand to join a private events. Family only wedding? No problem. Only 1 attendee at school graduation? OK. Life in Japan did not change too much in 2020 and much of that is due to the separation of the public and private spheres.
The New Norm
This is a newly-coined term: the new norm. What does it mean? A new lifestyle in which we all must adapt to new habits in order to keep everyone safe. Hand-sanitizer at every entrance and exit. Mask wearing when going into crowded places. Touch-less systems to stop germs from spreading. No more house parties, no more handshakes or hugging in public. The interesting thing is that this is not much of a change in Japan. Most of these changes are not changes here: rather than being new habits, current systems were simply expanded. Is Japan perfect? Of course not. But the combinations of these cultural, educational and technological system has made Japan uniquely prepared for this, and many other types of disasters. I feel incredibly lucky to live here.