I don’t really know where to start, but I guess the situation changed from “something to keep an eye on” to “really concerned” about mid-February.
I remember when the news feed about the Diamond Princess hit my timelines on Facebook and Twitter at the start of February. My colleagues and I talked about it. We speculated about the quarantine efforts. Were they enough? Too much? How long would they keep people in there?
All these conversations took place between lessons. We drank coffee, complained about this class issue or another. I was having a couple of problem students, one of which involved a kind of serious incident. The homeroom teacher and I were strategically figuring out how to help the kid get through the next few classes.
During that time, I was concerned with actually finishing up my curriculum for the third semester. I was struggling to get my test together, too, because with only two months of subject matter to cover I wasn’t sure how to grade it out of 100 points.
Little did I know, very soon, it wouldn’t matter at all.
As the death toll kept increasing abroad, murmurs and tension started to rise. What tipped the scales from nervous to frightened for us was the news about the teacher who caught it in Chiba. Japanese teachers at my school pushed back against a formal top-down decision from the administration to continue holding the last classes and finals as normal.
I talked about it with co-workers and we all seemed to have the same concerns.
“If one student catches it, then that’s it, right? That’s the whole school?”
“For sure, the kids never wash their hands. They have sports clubs together, and that’s always how the flu gets around. One basketball player gets it and then half a team goes down.”
“So-and-so sensei has a family member with leukemia living at home. He’s terrified of passing it along to them!”
“Did you hear Racist-sensei? He doesn’t want the half kids at school, especially the half-Chinese kids. He thinks I don’t understand Japanese. Should’ve punched him in the face.”
“Don’t bother, he’s old. With any luck he’ll die off like all the other dinosaurs. The school is talking about only parents at the graduation ceremony. That’s a bit half-assing it ain’t it?”
Xenophobia is of course all over the place by this point. Restaurants denying foreigners is a time honored tradition in Japan, so of course in these stressful times it’s best to just swing that racism card harder than ever.
The “foreigner seat” effect took a strange turn for me. Up until February 2020, I never really experienced people avoiding to sitting next to me on a train before, but since the start of the pandemic hitting Japanese people would leave extra space around me when going to and from work. It’s of course nothing in comparison to the Asian discrimination that is getting people beaten and thrown out of their homes in other countries. All the same, it’s there, and I’m more pissed off it got thrown around behind my students’ backs than anything else.
When Shinzo Abe made his astounding out of left field announcement that all schools should close by March 2nd, it really hit my school hard. I went in early the next day to catch the morning meeting. The announcement on that Friday was essentially this:
Grades for third semester don’t count. Put in absences. Get out.
Well, get out company employees. Direct hires to the school would still come in, but with an irregular schedule. As most of the Native English teachers were company supplied, we had the weirdest stressful day. We scrambled to find team teachers or class books and get everything in order. I was rushing around trying to get things back to students before they went home (even if it didn’t matter, it was the principle of it).
When we clocked out on February 28th, we were told school wouldn’t start until April. Have fun, see ya, good luck!
The next couple of weeks were…strange. I don’t know how else to put it. Although the Japanese government kept telling people not to gather in groups, people did. Although Icheon and Seol got put on lockdown, I was going out to see friends at a restaurant. I spent days at home, but yes I would make plans to see people.
Some friends took the advice to stay isolated seriously, and others not so much. One of my friends stayed inside for a whole week before going out, too anxious to risk it. Another friend was at high risk, so also stayed at home unless absolutely necessary. He ended up deciding to leave for the UK because he didn’t trust his company after they offered homemade masks and demanded people return to work after only a couple of weeks off. I don’t blame him, as that company in particular is notorious for not caring about employees.
Other friends were taking the opportunity to go around and have a fun vacation. And again, I don’t blame them, either. The government’s lax as hell stance on anything besides shutting down schools prevented no one from going out to bars, restaurants, concerts, and even still traveling abroad. I went to Werq the World, an arguably smaller venue and concert, but I can’t claim I was some kind of quarantine saint.
I noticed the news abroad. I would stay home for a couple or three days at a time. I went over to a friend’s place and played video games with her for three days straight, then went right back home. I stayed off the peak hour times as much as possible, never taking the last train home or morning trains. People were, and are, still going to work and commuting.
I didn’t have a mask for a while. I only had a limited supply in my emergency bag, and the stores were emptied out. Even today, masks are hard to come by, with only a few select drug stores allowing one pack per day and per person. Finally, I found a set of masks in my old backpack. Even though they were the ones only good for keeping out dust and pollen, that’s actually what I desperately needed.
The allergy season hit me hard, so I was coughing and sneezing. I was getting very tired of the glares and whispers. Allegra helped push the symptoms away, but if I missed a single dose then my eyes would water, my nose would run, and the coughing would come back.
Then, I managed to get a sinus infection because I made the mistake of dusting my apartment (I’m highly allergic). No fever involved, just an annoyance with a side of anti-biotics. Coupled with seasonal allergies, I sounded sick, when really it was just bad timing. After about a week on antibiotics the sinus issues went away, but the itchy eyes problem never left and continues to plague me.
The news of Europe getting a few cases, then it hitting Italy seemingly overnight like a hammer really shocked me. The American cases grew and grew, and with the travel restrictions placed on Americans to Europe and visa versa, I decided to just stay at home for days at a time.
I called Delta Airlines around March 11th, as I was very concerned about my plane ticket to the U.S.A. Would I still have a flight? What about coming back? I heard people were getting rejected, flights getting slashed to Japan and other South Asian countries, quarantines, and travel bans.
Delta told me at that time, “Sorry, no changes and no refunds as stated in your receipt. However, if we have to cancel it because of a coronavirus issue, we will refund the ticket price to you.”
Frustrated, I could only accept that answer and move on. My mother, on the other hand, was very worried about me trying to travel over. The panic buying in Japan had taken toilet paper and masks in my Tokyo area, but in Las Vegas it was cold medicine, it was food, it was everything. It was honestly shocking to see the dystopian pictures of shelves emptied out.
I heard other places were wiped clean in Japan. I saw it on Twitter and on the news, but I guess I got lucky. My stores all around me only had the usual instant noodles and water bottles gone, but everything else was fine.
My mother had to drive to California to find toilet paper, though, so going home to America was looking like a grim prospect. Events all over Las Vegas got canceled, until it reached a point where even if I got there, the whole city would’ve been shut down upon my arrival. I would still have to wait and see about the ticket. I held out hope I could make it, but I also hoped I could eventually change it if I bothered Delta enough.
I wish I could claim I didn’t go outside at all anymore, but I would be lying. I did stay away from large crowds, though. I went over to my friend’s place for more video games, and then returned right back home. Plans for other events got canceled, so I stayed home some more. I was careful, washing my hands at every opportunity, using my mask when out and about, taking allergy meds and vitamins to try and keep healthy.
This past Sunday, I noticed my flight with Delta had changed. Due to the changes, I wasn’t sure if I would be making it home to Japan in time for work. The operator informed me that Delta was allowing any changed flight due to the company to then, and I quote, “be allowed to change to any date until December 31st of 2020.” I took the chance and moved my flight to August, because fuck the Olympics.
After the change was made, I told my family and cried. I felt torn between bittersweet relief that I wouldn’t have to go through the health screenings or get thrown in quarantine, but I also was really looking forward to seeing my family. After three years apart, I was so excited to finally be with them. I knew logically it was for the best, but it still hurt.
Nowadays I’m trying to stay good, practice social distancing. I’m staying home for days at a time. If I’m going out, I try to limit it to a few people or a person at any one time. Again, when going out I’m washing my hands at every possible chance (even though Japanese toilets have a 50/50% chance of having soap). But I’m limiting it to hours out and then right back home. Just friends, no one with kids or elderly people.
It’s still crazy to me how little has changed in Japan since the pandemic started. Everyone in general will use their masks, sure, but I still see pictures of bars packed with party people. I see people having hanami parties, bunched in together under the trees. Kids are playing around, free from school but going on play dates. Hell, I saw a child run up to a train partition door and lick it…so fear and panic isn’t really happening here.
Seeing the stories now of people dying from COVID19, people all ages, these kinds of crowds seem almost criminally dangerous? I know I might be throwing stones in a glass house as I haven’t been a perfectly isolated individual, but I also couldn’t imagine surrounding myself with hundreds or thousands of people if I could avoid it right now.
I’m not saying there should be panic. I do think there should be more steps taken to just shut things down. Even for just a week, shut down all non-essential work. Japan, in my opinion, has been lucky. The masks have been possibly helping to keep the numbers down, but it’s not enough. The shortages and the false sense of security could potentially bring on a second wave.
But maybe this country will stay lucky? Maybe it will stay the strange exception? I don’t know what the future holds. All anyone can do is try to be careful, stay home whenever possible, and just keep an eye out on the news. I’m trying to be pragmatic and realistic about my expectations, but it’s tough when everyone knows the government is under-testing these cases and we see pics like the ones in the parks.
For now (knock on wood), I’m healthy. If I catch symptoms similar to COVID19 I know my action plan, I know the hospitals around me, and I know enough Japanese to get help. I’m going to keep being cautious and do what I can to stay unaffected, but I’m a “prepare the worst, hope for the best” kind of person. Avoiding all human contact forever just isn’t feasible, and I’m supposed to go back to work in April.
Here’s hoping the pandemic has hit its peak here, but we’ll see I guess. I’ll update more in the coming months, because I’ve just got a feeling this thing isn’t over.