Can you remember the last time you wore a mask in a shop? Had to have your temperature checked before entering a facility of any kind? Were urged by a Government minister to help ‘stop the spread’ of Covid?
It’s taken a while, but much of the world seems to have caught up with us lockdown sceptics, at least insofar as people have realised that Covid is here to stay, that ‘stopping the spread’ in the long run is impossible, and ultimately that getting rid of what one might call the Covid paraphernalia – masks, social-distancing markers, perspex screens, etc. – is really just like ripping off a plaster. It might hurt for a moment, but once it’s done, it’s done, and the whole sordid business can then finally be forgotten.
Well, in Japan, at the dawn of 2023, they are still only tentatively picking away at the very corner of that plaster. Almost everywhere you go, almost everyone still wears a mask. You still have to have your temperature checked to enter a local council office, a police station, or even that holiest-of-holies, a karaoke parlour. Perspex screens are all over the place, even between the tables in restaurants, because of course the only time most people take off their masks when out and about is while eating. The daily news still features charts showing the numbers of infections and vaccinations including for the latest booster (millions of people are already on their 5th shot at the time of writing). And politicians still appear on the TV routinely to urge everybody to do their bit in fighting Covid, stopping the spread, keeping us all safe, and so on and so forth – you remember the drill. The Japanese have now been doing this for almost three years, with absolutely no end in sight. The ‘new normal’ never really caught on in Britain; in Japan, on the other hand, it appears to have well and truly taken root. What explains this bizarre phenomenon?
I can’t claim to be an academic expert on Japanese culture and society, but did live in Japan for almost a decade, speak the language fluently, and visit regularly – one trip in fact being in the winter of 2019-2020, just before Covid itself began to spread around the world. (I still remember watching the news reports coming out of China with my Japanese in-laws and us all looking at each other in mystified horror at what the authorities there were up to, without the slightest suspicion that anything similar might happen anywhere else.) I currently write these words sitting in the Japanese countryside, having arrived earlier this month for a few weeks’ stay. So I can at least provide some insights into what is going on and what on Earth the future holds for this wonderful country.
The first thing to say is that the same confluence of factors that drove most other developed nations crazy with panic in March 2020 are present in Japan, and in accentuated form. Japan is not so much an ageing population as an old one: almost 30% of the population is aged 65 or older, compared with just 12% aged 14 or below. The kind of struldbrugism that prioritised the needs of the old over the young is therefore as much, if not more, of a feature here than it is in a country like the U.K.
Japanese society had also long before the pandemic become dominated by a creeping, nannyish safetyism akin to that which we Brits experience – albeit one that tends to emphasise avoiding physical risks rather than medical or dietary ones. To live in Japan is constantly to be cajoled at every turn to be aware of potential dangers lurking just around the corner; visitors are often charmed by the brightly coloured signs and posters which festoon every corner of Japanese cities, but the truth is that many of them are there to remind people to look both ways when crossing the road, beware of thieves, remember one’s umbrella, watch out for lightning strikes, be careful not to trip when putting one foot in front of the other, and so on. The Japanese people were therefore in a sense already perfectly primed, as we were in Britain, for the ‘stop the spread’ message.