And then suddenly there was no toilet paper. I first knew things were heating up when the girls at Starbucks all started wearing face masks. It’s not uncommon for people to wear them on the street or in the train, but to see service staff looking like hospital orderlies was a bit disturbing. Of course, I had on a mask too, so our interaction went something like,
“Wrrcome tr Srbucks, mray I trk yr rrrder?”
“Mray I trk yr rrrder?”
“Grrrnde crrffee prrease.”
I also discovered it’s pretty hard to drink coffee while wearing a mask and without touching the cup. So I bought a bag of beans and resolved to start brewing up at home.
Coronavirus Japan, Sayonara Groceries
Then Friday at the supermarket, well, good thing I’d stocked up on toilet paper during the last typhoon, because the aisle was vaporized of all tissue. And when I went back Saturday for Asahi and some chips, there was a woman at the entrance, in a mask, literally wiping down every shopping basket with alcohol and a rag. I could barely get through the door. A million Japanese folk were rushing hither and thither, pushing carts piled high with meat, noodles, vegetables, canned goods, just anything they could get their hands on. Granted, a Japanese shopping cart wouldn’t even fit an American box of cereal and gallon of milk, but still the scene was enough to induce me to panic-buy three six-packs and all the remaining Doritos. Ah, set for life.
I’m not sure how well alcohol actually kills viruses, but anyway that’s not what this is about. It really speaks to the depths of Japanese culture.
Because make no mistake—Japanese folks positively love this pandemic. Coronapocalypse is their dream come true for living out the five sacred Japanese values: distrust of foreigners, particular hatred of China, neurotic germaphobia slash OCD cleanliness, righteous whining of See?-I-told-ya-so, and complete batshit overreaction. Finally, a reason to stockpile Kleenex. All your wishes, fulfilled.
The Japanese Response to Coronavirus
Which isn’t to say a response to COVID-19 isn’t justified. Sure, life’s all about managing risk. It’s just that, while you’re running to the store for N95 masks, well, try not to get flattened by a gang of Japanese teenagers on tiny motorcycles. Truth is, this coronavirus taps into something peculiar within the Japanese psyche, because the population has been conditioned—trained, actually—to freak out over anything and everything. Earthquakes, fires, tsunamis, landslides, typhoons, floods, nuclear war, gas attack, plague of locusts, whatever, Japan’s had it. So you’re probably not gonna see Ken Seeroi’s winning design for a tourism poster any time soon. Come to Japan for a visit, stay forever! Yeah, good choice to hold the Olympics in Tokyo. What could possibly go wrong?
Coronavirus Japan, Hello Izakaya
So Friday evening, my girlfriend and I were at an izakaya, drinking a couple of malt liquors. And just to pass the time, I started giving her a ballpoint pen tattoo. Hey, I was all out of card tricks and sometimes it’s just easier than making conversation.
“So on your right knuckles, we write L-O-V-E,” I said, inking in the letters.
“That’s sweet,” she replied.
“But on your left knuckles is H-A . . .,” I continued with the pen.
And just then, the waitress came by wearing a mask and carrying a spray bottle of hand sanitizer. “For safety,” she said. So we dutifully held out our hands as she sprayed what felt like a mixture of alcohol and baby oil. After which it became impossible to continue writing letters.
My girlfriend looked at her hands. “LOVE and HAT?” she said.
“Yeah,” I replied, “The two great forces of the universe.”
“I don’t understand,” she said.
“We better order more drinks,” I answered.
Coronavirus Japan, Karaoke Anyone?
Then on Sunday, fortunately or unfortunately, I’d scheduled to meet some friends for beer and karaoke. My old buddy The Tanuki showed up, having recently survived both a stroke and crashing his car into a city bus. Talk about managing risk. And of course the Suzuki-sans came, with Mrs. Suzuki wearing not one but two masks. Never seen that before. She promptly doused everyone’s hands with sanitizer, and then pulled from her bag a giant roll of Wet Wipes and set upon wet wiping the mics, remote controls, table, and beer mugs. Real mood-maker, she is. But then everyone pulled down their masks to drink and sing, which seemed to kind of defeat the whole sanitation protocol. Anyway, nice try.
Coronavirus Japan, Sayonara Tourists
So to get to karaoke, I ended up hopping on the bus. I was like, Score, there’s empty seats at the back. And just as I was pushing through the masked Japanese folks amassed at the front, I stopped. Because in the last row were six Chinese college girls. The entire back of the bus was empty and all the Japanese folks were standing like sardines in the front.
Now, Ken Seeroi’s about the least racist person in the world. But he’s also not trying to die any time soon, so cognitive dissonance aside, I decided to cast my lot with the Japanese crew and finally got off a few blocks early and just walked.
I recently read that 25% of all foreign people in Japan are from China, which seems about right. If you want to have a fun and interesting time, come to Japan, then hang out with Chinese folks. And until about two weeks ago, you could, because every shopping mall and drug store was filled with them. But now the numbers have pretty much fallen off. There’s a lot more room on the sidewalks and you don’t need reservations for restaurants. There are visibly fewer people, tourists and locals alike. The Japanese economy, already headed to the bottom of the ocean, just got tied to a giant anchor for 2020.
Should You Visit Japan Now?
Yeah, that’d be a question, all right. But apparently Shinzo Abe has yet to appoint Seeroi Sensei as Health Minister, so honestly, I’ve no idea. How bad is the coronavirus in Japan? I don’t know, you don’t know, nobody knows, but it’s looking like I’ll need to cancel my Diamond Princess cruise. I’m also not real crazy about sitting on a plane for several hours, breathing the air same air as… ick, other people. But even that aside, my biggest fear would be getting detained through some quarantine, flight cancellation, or border closure. I can just see going on a week’s vacation and then losing my job because I got stuck for a month in Istanbul.
So is now a good time to visit Japan? Well, maybe it’ll be easier to view the sakura with fewer tourists, if you don’t mind seeing petals wafting on a coronavirus breeze. But hey, the autumn leaves are pretty excellent too, and the country’s nearing lock-down mode, so I might advise waiting a bit. As long as you’ve got enough coffee, beer, and Doritos to last through the crisis, or at least the weekend, you’ll be good.