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.
And finally, as in any other developed country, many Japanese people already lead fairly atomised, isolated lives, spending all of their time either at work or at home in front of the telly (the Japanese consume more TV than almost anybody else on Earth). Refraining from socialising has, it’s sad to say, not been much of a hardship for many of them, just as in the U.K. or the U.S. a population which spends most of its free time at home watching Netflix or fiddling around on a smartphone saw little wrong with lockdowns and social distancing. A lot of people, in truth, just don’t seem to mind all of the Covid nonsense, and are actually quite relieved to get some validation for living a very passive, humdrum and boring life. This is as true in Tokyo as in London.
But on top of these factors, which Japan holds in common with the rest of the developed world, there are also unique features of life here which seemed to have put the pandemic response on steroids, and which mean that it’s going to be a very long time, if ever, before things get back to anything like the ‘old’ normal.
The first is the masks. Mask-wearing was already common in Japan before the pandemic. People would wear them, usually in winter, if they had a cold, or were especially worried about catching one. It was largely a mark of consideration for others that was highly valued in a very crowded country, and it was perfectly normal to see, say, around 10% of people wearing masks when out and about during the months of November-February. What happened when the pandemic struck was that, fearing ‘asymptomatic spread’, people just started wearing their masks all the time. And they’ve worn them ever since – because, of course, Covid has never gone away. It’s not quite true that everyone wears them (in Tokyo in particular there are enough eccentrics, individualists and ‘lone-wolves’, as the Japanese would call them, to see the occasional unmasked face), and those that do don’t wear them all the time (if they’re outside and they’re absolutely sure that nobody else is within, say, 100m, a largish minority of people will take them off). But basically most Japanese people wear masks all the time now when not at home, even when alone in a car, including the children, and no matter if anyone else is nearby. They’ve now been doing this for so long – almost three years, remember, and after all of the vaccinations and mutations of the virus to milder forms – that it’s really quite difficult to imagine circumstances in which they’ll stop, raising the question whether it will simply become yet another slightly odd thing that the Japanese do which sets them apart from other nations in perpetuity. (It’s worth bearing in mind that the mask-wearing is not and has never been due to a Government mandate, and the Government, indeed, has actually tried – tepidly – to encourage people to stop, beginning with the message that it is not necessary to wear masks outdoors. This has largely fallen on deaf ears.)
The second reason is related, and it is the Japanese people’s famous conformism. Non-Japanese people sometimes overestimate the extent of this phenomenon. Japanese society actually has a fairly high tolerance for weirdos, and conformity is only very rarely actually enforced, either verbally or physically. (The small minority of people who are non-mask wearers experience absolutely no negative consequences in doing so, for instance.) But it is a powerful force all the same. Japanese behaviour is dominated by unwritten customs that can baffle outsiders; I still to this day remain amazed that one can visit a beach in Japan in June or September in temperatures of 30 degrees and find not a single soul out swimming because Japanese people only go in the ocean in July and August. And most Japanese people are conditioned from an early age to, basically, do what everyone else is doing. It is perfectly normal, for instance, for the average Japanese person to decide to wear a coat when going out not on the basis of it being cold but because ‘everyone else’ is. This, of course, reinforces the mask-wearing tendency very strongly. The average Japanese person is not wearing a mask every moment from morning till night because they are scared of catching Covid or don’t want to spread it. And, indeed, the great majority are keen to drop the practice. (Anyone seeking visual evidence of this need only visit the departure gates for a JAL flight in any airport almost anywhere in the world outside Japan; the Japanese passengers, I guarantee, will almost all be unmasked and breathing the free air until the last possible moment before they have to mask up on boarding.) The masks are being worn for the most part because ‘everyone else’. And until everyone stops, nobody will.
The third reason is the Japanese obsession with health. We Brits are a notoriously unhealthy lot – eating nasty, oily, sugary beige foods; drinking too much; doing too little exercise; and engaging in all sorts of carcinogenic activities. In this regard we have a lot to learn from the Japanese, who generally eat wonderfully well, look after themselves, and avoid becoming a burden to the public purse through self-imposed illness or disability. It is undoubtedly the case that the relatively benign impact of the pandemic in Japan has been in part due to the Japanese habits of washing their hands and gargling when arriving home in the evening, and the very low rates of obesity and diabetes in the population. Yet any virtue taken to its extreme can become a vice, and the monomaniacal focus the Japanese apply to their physical health is no exception. When a Japanese person gets sick, they view it almost as a personal failing – or as the fault of some unconsiderate other person who themselves have failed in some important way. Avoiding catching a cold was always a significant feature of Japanese life, and Covid is no different. ‘Ripping off the plaster’, as happened in the U.K. in the summer of 2021, therefore just isn’t likely to happen in Japan, because people fundamentally don’t want to go through the experience of catching Covid if they can help it. ‘Stopping the spread’ really matters in Japan in a sense that it simply doesn’t elsewhere.
What, then, does the future hold? Covid has really put the Japanese establishment in a bind. Successive governments have made it a priority to boost tourism in an effort to help the economy to grow and finally dispel the doldrums the country has been in since the burst bubble of the early 90s – and you don’t need to be vaccinated to visit. At the same time, boosting the declining birth rate has been an obsessive focus of Prime Minister after Prime Minister. The ongoing pandemic mode, which long ago lifted in most countries, helps in neither respect. Tourists don’t want to get in a time-warp back to 2020. Most, particularly, don’t want to have to go around in a mask all the time. And it is clear from evidence all over the world that women don’t tend to want to have children when they are constantly reminded there is a pandemic on, for perfectly obvious reasons. The number of births registered in 2022 in Japan was the lowest on record. It seems highly unlikely to increase while Covid remains a concern.
The result of this is a strange, looking-glass version of what happened in the U.K. in 2020-21. Back then, our Government pulled out all the stops to make sure it was impossible to ever forget about Covid. The Japanese Government is in the strange reverse position of having to try to convince a recalcitrant population that the whole thing is over and life can go back to normal. Everything I’ve seen on this most recent visit suggests it’s going to have its work cut out in doing so – and one has to view the future of the country with concern as a result. This is a great shame, because for all that the Covid paraphernalia has annoyed me on this and previous visits, it still remains the case that Japan is a brilliant and beautiful place with lovely, polite, and considerate people. One can only hope that by some miracle the fog soon lifts and they are set free from the Covid obsession.
Dr. David McGrogan is Associate Professor of Law at Northumbria Law School.