When I last checked in here one month ago, Japan was staring down the barrel of the coronavirus, and the United States was relatively unscathed. Times have changed.
Back in February, in the days of the Diamond Princess, Japan was the second most infected country in the world behind China. Large events were being canceled, schools were beginning to close, and toilet paper had gone missing. The U.S. was reading about the virus in the international news section as something happening “over there.”
Then March brought The Great Leapfrogging. The number of infections in the U.S. blew past Japan’s total so fast that I felt like Linda Blair in a poorly wired house. (My head was spinning, and I was shocked. Letters of complaint to the editor.)
As of this writing (Monday, March 23), Japan has had just over 1,100 COVID-19 cases (down to 25th in the world), while the U.S. has passed 35,000. You, reading this on March 29, will no doubt look at that 35,000 with a sense of nostalgia for a simpler time.
But we’ve been infected longer than you have. Why was Japan spared the insane escalation? What separates this country from an America?
There aren’t firm answers to those questions. What we do have is a number of theories circulating in the Japanese media and around the Japanese dinner table.
Theory 1 — Japan doesn’t do physical contact, and it’s paying off. The Japanese don’t shake hands, hug casually, or greet each other with a kiss on the cheek. They bow. All of those elbow touches and foot-shakes that Americans are trying out now are still closer than two Japanese acquaintances will ever come to one another. Japan sees America trying to reduce physical contact, and they say, “Hold my beer.” Actually, they don’t say that at all. They know that handing off a beer might involve physical contact, so they hold their own beers.
This must count for something when it comes to limiting the spread of a virus, but surely a lack of physical contact can’t be the only thing saving Japan. Handshakes or not, they still have huge, densely populated cities where people’s personal space can’t help but overlap. What keeps Tokyo from turning into New York City?
Theory 2 — The Japanese are benefiting from their decades-old habit of wearing surgical masks. Culturally, it’s commonplace for any sick person in Japan to wear a mask in the hopes of protecting others. Masks have long been a staple of the medicine cabinet in Japan, and their early and sustained use may have buoyed the country.
Theory 3 — This is just an idea of mine, but I chalk some of Japan’s fortune up to good old-fashioned collectivism. Japanese society loves to follow the rules, and this is a moment when lots of new rules are thrust upon us. In the west, where individual freedom is valued above all, new rules are processed through the lens of “What is this doing for me?” Japan’s default has always been, “What is this doing for us?” In times when entire populations need to act in unison to solve a problem, the independent mindset doesn’t pay dividends. You need people to fall in line, and that’s what Japan does.
The theories, though, could all be meaningless.
Japan may still be in a lot of trouble, but they just don’t know it yet. Many have pointed out that Japan could be wildly underestimating the infection rate because of its low COVID-19 testing numbers. Business Insider reported on March 20 that Japan had tested only around 16,000 people for the virus, compared to the 270,000 tested in South Korea at that point. Reuters reported on March 18 that Japan was using only a sixth of its testing capacity, despite the World Health Organization’s advice on March 16 that countries “test, test, test.”
But under-testing doesn’t explain Japan’s relatively good health, either. With or without testing, the hospitals in a highly infected area would be packed with pneumonia sufferers, and there would be, of course, the associated deaths. Japan hasn’t experienced either at the crisis levels seen elsewhere.
So has Japan successfully contained it? Or are there major outbreaks lurking just beneath the surface? “Both are reasonable,” says Kenji Shibuya, former chief of health policy at the World Health Organization, in an interview with Bloomberg. “But my guess is that Japan is about to see the explosion and will inevitably shift from containment to delay-the-peak phase very soon.”
Maybe all of the theories — the natural social distancing, the face masks, the swift collective action — haven’t been stopping the major crisis so much as stalling it. But I’ll take stalling. Stalling is good. In fact, that’s kind of the whole point of what the world is doing right now.
The worry, though, is that after its run of good luck, Japan seems to be thinking it has this thing totally beat. Schools are already opening back up. Professional sports are coming back online in fits and starts. Japan is now reading about COVID-19 in the international news section as something that’s happening “over there.”
And you know how that turns out.
Justin Whittinghill is an Owensboro native who works as an assistant professor of English at Kanazawa Institute of Technology in Kanazawa, Ishikawa, Japan. His column runs on the last Sunday of the month in Lifestyle. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.