I’ve been in Japan, more or less, since 2004. As I look at my calendar, I realize that’s almost two decades ago. So, I’m well outside that honeymoon phase — when fresh sushi, people in bathrobes in public, and robotic AI toilets all seem so neat and exotic.
When I rolled up onto this place back in aught four, I had already lived in a number of countries (other than my own), and was *very* familiar with dealing with foreign cultures and languages. Habits, histories, customs, quirks… I noticed them and catalogued them (even if only for my personal situational awareness).
Several unhealthy societal norms notwithstanding, the Japanese — when I got here — were already doing stuff that global health organizations are currently telling us we should be doing in order to help protect ourselves from (while also stifling the spread of) COVID-19. There are exceptions to these rules, and I’m only speaking generally, despite that generality being vastly societally pervasive.
There are more things that I have seen in specific situations, but I’m trying to keep it to things that I’ve seen on a national level. (Hence the generalities…)
- The masks. This one probably hit me the hardest, in terms of things I thought were just plain weird. Whether you are sick and trying to not get others sick, or are just trying to not get sick, on any average day anywhere I’ve ever been in this country (aside from the deep countryside), about half the people you meet will have a mask on. On a busy train car in the middle of whichever urban sprawl, or on a domestic flight, you may not be able to see *anyone’s* face.
- The distancing. We’ve all seen Karate Kid, or Rising Sun, or any number of other Japan-centric movies. The Japanese bow; handshaking is completely infrequent, and in my experience only has to do with the fact that someone wants to “play Western” and do it. In fact, touching at all is just not something that is done outside of sports or personal interaction. (And even with the latter, I’d say it’s limited.) I mean, sure, the Japanese will pack into a train like clowns in a clowncar. Sometimes it’s so tight people cannot even breathe. (Which I guess is also a default protection from a virus?)
- The monitoring. In the first year I was in this country, I personally witnessed more temperature taking done than I had seen in all of my other decades combined. It’s just a thing the Japanese do. Parents have to actually note their kid’s temp every morning in this little book each student gives the teachers every day. (Along with stuff like what they ate for dinner and breakfast, how long they slept, etc.) Grown adult professionals also do this temp thing on the regular. And when they pop hot, they go to…
- The hospitals. (I’m absolutely not going to get into a conversation about insurance or socialized medicine or any of that.) The Japanese, in my pre-COVID opinion, tended to go to the hospital for no good reason. You got a temp, you take some fever reducer and monitor (in my experience). You got a sniffle, you chug some chicken soup and daytime cold/flu and drive on (in my experience). Not here. At the first sign of any medical or health-related abnormality — even something as mundane as a slight fever — you go directly to the hospital. Do not pass GO. Do not collect $200. Furthermore, if you are sick, you don’t go to work — you avoid social interaction.
- The sanitizer. At every external threshold (and most internal ones, depending on what kind of building you are in) there is a dispenser (often automated) with hand sanitizer (or straight up alcohol). There is an entire aisle of various alcohol wipes in the Japanese “dollar” stores. And, on top of that, people have always tended to wash their hands an awful lot here. I’ve never been much of a hand sanitizer person, myself. But I do tend to keep alcohol wipes on-hand (in my desk, in my car, in my ruck, etc.). And I’ve constantly seen the Japanese using these wipes on phones, keyboards, doorknobs, steering wheels, bus seats, etc. Even before COVID reared its ugly head, it was a common site to see gas station attendants disinfecting the little self-service panels before a new customer pulled up to the pump.
- The mouthwash. The average Japanese person in my little corner of The Matrix here brushes *at least* three times a day. Mouthwash follows each brushing. Along with flossing. But… in most of the offices I’ve worked in, very often there are mouthwashings exclusive of brushing/flossings. Some folks, I’ve noticed, will rinse after each cup of coffee, for example. This is one of those things that is doubly beneficial for everyone, given that people eat some pretty gnarly stuff around here sometimes (not bats or snakes, though, thankfully).
- The money. The second thing on my list here that really hit me as out-of-the-ordinary. By and large, when you go to pay for something at a Japanese shop no one touches your money. At every register in the country, there is a little plate you put you money in. The clerk then dumps the money into some part of the register that then counts your money and dumps out your change. No physical contact was made by the clerk with either you or your money. At some convenience stores, for example, you drop your money into said slot, and then scoop up your change once the robo-register spits it out. Even before this current viral unpleasantness, many shop clerks never even touch the items you brought to the register. They use the bag to bag your items. And… there’s sanitizer in use at dang near every transaction.
- The guiltings. This is probably what underpins all of the other items on this list. The things like the doc visits and the isolation, or the masks and hand-washing, are all reasonably socially enforced. If a parent sends an obviously sick kid to school, not only will that kid’s parents get called by the school to come and get them… but there’s a very good chance that another parent will contact the parent, as well. (This won’t be a rude call. It will be very polite. But both parties will know what the underlying tone of and reason for the call is: Be more considerate; everyone’s kids are at stake here.) I think the Japanese do genuinely want to be healthy and not spread germs or sickness. The motivation to do those things or be that way is the driving force behind all these actions and activities — this paradigm. But the nation-wide guilt-/shame-culture is what nails all of it to the average citizen’s forehead.
Sure, experiences are going to vary, here. Whether you’ve been here on vacation or short orders, been stationed here, or live here full-time like I do, you have no doubt noticed at least one of these things. And I’m not saying that anyone’s habits are better than anyone else’s, or even that the Japanese have it right.
What I *am* saying is that in my experience, the stuff the world is being told to do right now to protect themselves and others, is stuff that has been pretty much common practice in this part of the world for as long as I’ve been here (which is a few hot minutes). That — that “common practiceness” — means that no one here is having to amp up to new or odd actions or tactics. Which means that the overall stress level of a life-altering pandemic is far less because it’s far less life-altering. At least in terms of clenliness and public health.
There doesn’t have to be a virus ravaging across the planet in order for people (both persons and populations) to maintain some procedures at personal or public health. Prevention is the key, here. Prior planning prevents… a whole lot of things. And, of late, those things being prevented can be fatal.