I’m a recent MA graduate from University of Chicago, attending the Inter-University Center for Japanese Studies. To put it shortly, it’s a school based in Yokohama dedicated to professional language training. Geographically, Yokohama is just a bit south of Tokyo, about a 30-minute train ride to Shibuya to be exact. An eagle eye might recognize the name Yokohama: it’s where the Diamond Princess was docked for those agonizing two weeks. Yokohama is a port city, with the largest Chinatown in Japan. When the Diamond Princess first arrived to Yokohama with the news of the quarantined passengers, teachers and students alike ran to the windows to watch the docking. There the ship sat, casting a shadow of unease, clearly visible from the few windows of our spartan school/office quarters.
The IUC announced it would switch to virtual classes the final week of our 3rd term (March 2). Final presentations, exams, and class meetings were all thrown aside in the name of student and faculty safety. Following increasingly tense emails from our Director, many students decided to just pack everything up and fly home, whether that be Canada, the US, or wherever home was. For me however, I decided to stay until my scheduled return mid-June. A big part of why I wanted to study in Japan was to be able to access local libraries and museums to follow up on my master’s thesis. Despite the majority of museums being closed until April with the possibilities of extensions looming on the horizon, I can still access some library materials online and through limited library hours.
Which leads into a broader view of the situation in Japan. As of March 17, a lot of things are closed, even before the United States saw shuttering of stores and museums across the board this past week. Japanese museums for the most part have been closed since February 29. Schools closed even earlier. Movie theatres have reduced showtimes, and even convenience stores, the bastion of Japanese modern life, have reduced operation hours. Restaurants and stores have yet to follow, and a part of me suspects they will not close.
When schools across Japan closed, it quickly became apparent that students, especially high school students were not practicing self-quarantining. They were spending their days in crowded arcades and shopping centers in trendy neighborhoods like Shibuya or Shinjuku, and that was just in the Tokyo areas. The same is true of Yokohama, as I saw enormous crowds of high schoolers flooding the streets, not unlike a busy day at Disney (which has also been closed). Unlike many of the adults still forced to commute to work, many of these students did not wear masks or seem concerned with infection. They were making the most of this surprise break from an arduous school life.
It is here I must confess I have not been the best at practicing self-quarantine either. I have medical appointments, but I have also taken the opportunity to go to parks. It’s the famous cherry blossom season, who wouldn’t want to see those pink hues? Apparently, the majority of Japanese are still going out too. A recent survey revealed only 40% of people plan to let the virus keep them from attending an ever-popular hanami, a flower viewing picnic party which sees droves flock to a single park or spot. However, this was before prefectural governments like Ehime called for complete cancellation of hanami parties.
Reading news surrounding the handling of the virus during the Diamond Princess days, and continued observation of the people around me, it’s hard not to suspect that a great deal of the population has already been infected. While testing is not as astronomically expensive as it is in the States, it’s still difficult to be tested. Moreover, many companies seem unwilling to switch to virtual work. Many citizens have taken to Twitter wondering why schools were made such a priority when it’s the elderly population that is in peril. The government’s recent plan of banning and cancelling of visas for Chinese and South Korean nationals only reveal a shallow understanding of the situation, fueled by xenophobia. The virus is already in Japan and it doesn’t care about race or ethnicity.
Despite everything, an atmosphere of “business as usual” seems to be the norm (minus the toilet paper and mask deficit). How this will play out into the summer months will no doubt play heavily into the Olympics, and future pandemic responses.
By Megan Beckerich