Apologies I missed my Monday post – it was a travel day and things got away from me. I have to say it felt like I’d broken some sort of seal, because I haven’t missed a planned post since the pandemic started – but here we are. So, on to today’s topic!
I was born in Tokyo – my mother is Japanese, my father was American – and still have a huge family there. So it’s only natural for me to keep up with the news from across the Pacific. My preferred news outlet is NHK, which also has a huge library of on-demand content; for a soothing escape from our everyday woes, I suggest the slightly-hobbyist but always charming Japan Railway Journal.
I catch the news most mornings at the top of the hour, and of course it begins with the latest Covid update. Usually they announce the daily infection rate from the previous day. Yesterday’s new infections tallied up to 623.
To put this in perspective, in the US yesterday 62,751 new cases were reported.
The population of Japan is 126.5 million; the US, with a land mass that is nearly 26 times larger, has a population of 328.2 million. The larger metropolitan area of Tokyo has a population of over 37 million on its own.
To save you from doing the math, this means the infection rate per million is 4.9 for Japan, 191.2 for the US.
There are myriad theories surrounding Japan’s relative success in this pandemic, despite what should be strikes against it – crowded cities, the most elderly population per capita in the world. I won’t go into all of them, but for me two factors stand out; an extant culture of mask-wearing, and a tradition of valuing the good of the many above oneself.
I spent at least a month in Tokyo through my early childhood, up to my teens, and have visited at least once every few years throughout my life since then. And every winter, without fail, the masks come out.
It’s a given that you’ll wear a mask if you’re feeling even slightly under the weather and need to be out in the world. And it’s also common for healthy people to wear a mask when they know they’ll be in a crowd. Part of it is also an old-fashioned belief that a mask will prevent illness by keeping out the damp chill of winter air, but the end effect is the same. Despite the crush of humanity in Tokyo, people generally don’t get sick at nearly the rate one would assume, as has been the case with Covid.
Then there is the idea of valuing the greater good – one’s community – above oneself. This is tricky for Americans, with our emphasis on individual freedom and the advancement of self above others, to understand. I think it’s partially explained by the fact that Japan is a racially homogenous nation – less than 3 percent of citizens are not of direct Japanese descent. To be frank about basic human bias, it’s easier to care about the welfare of people who look like you. This is a whole other, very complicated and emotionally fraught topic that I’ll leave for now.
It is, however, also a culture of sacrifice, and of the idea that there is virtue in surrendering one’s wants in service of the need of the collective. There’s a strong notion of honor, and much of that honor is doing what needs to be done even if it is uncomfortable or difficult for the individual. That a mask might be vaguely annoying, or not a preferred fashion choice, or whatever, matters not, because it might help someone else.
While I would never want to give up that very American prerogative of self-determination, a little self-sacrifice goes a long way.
I’m frustrated. If nearly every scientist in nearly every country agrees that masking can help prevent the spread of a virus, it’s just common sense. I mean, if someone told you that taking a simple action would help the outcome by X%, even X% is better than nothing, yes? But for too many of the citizens of this country, no. And don’t even get me started about how this common sense is being senselessly politicized.
What I will say is that in Tokyo, life looks more like it did pre-Covid – the subways are crowded, the Kabuki theaters are welcoming audiences, there are (socially distanced) crowds at sporting events…
There are orchestra concerts.
In the US, most orchestras can’t play to any kind of audience. Many orchestras aren’t playing at all. Many musicians of all genres aren’t playing at all. The industry – and everyone in it – languishes. Because it would be irresponsible to create a gathering when things are still so out of control. Because we as a country are so behind the curve.
And yet, people crowd in bars, in rallies, in events on the White House lawn. And people get sick, and die.
It’s very unlike Americans to ever take a page from anyone else’s playbook (I mean we’re “the best” at everything, right?), but I wish we could look at those countries who took lead, who contact traced, who put in the work, who made the necessary sacrifices, who unified behind a common good. Because it’s never too late to learn. Because 223,000 is not just a number. Because we are nothing unless we look after each other.