Japan: Do Epidemics have a Common Message to Convey

658 921 Social Initiative Forum

Text: Daisuke Onuki [JP] | Photo: Max Anderson [@thepicnictree]

As of June 25, a total of 18,110 cases and 968 deaths have been reported in Japan. Those are significantly low figures compared to European and American countries.

Being a close-knit society, Japan enforced quarantine and social distancing by mutual vigilance rather than governmental decrees or sanctions. We do not shake hands or hug people to start with, so keeping physical distance has not been particularly difficult. We have always used face masks – only doing what we always did – just a little more exaggeratedly.

Does that mean that Japan is unaffected? No, we are suffering from the pain of the pandemic all the same!

© Max Anderson @thepicnictree

Shops, parks, schools, and other public spaces were closed completely and are slowly reopening recently. Economic repercussions are as severe as in other parts of the world. Most hospitals and nursing homes keep most visitors away. As a result, people are dying without their families by their side. Anxiety sinks in our bones – deeply felt just like any other person in the world.

This sense of shared pain reminds me of another pandemic roughly 30 years ago. I witnessed Brazilian society transform in the ’90s when I worked as a sexuality and AIDS educator/activist in Monte Azul – an anthroposophical social initiative in São Paolo. The change was triggered by a mixture of generalized anxiety and brave acts of people with HIV/AIDS as they exposed themselves to society – pleading for the end of prejudice, educating people about the disease, and understanding the nature of human sexuality. A sense of “solidarity” started to develop. The community reexamined its machismo culture. And the government came up with a free universal treatment program. Brazil was also supported in its aggressive fight for the accessibility of medicines and treatment.

Japan partially skipped the AIDS epidemic and missed the opportunity for transformation at that time. We are probably the only developed nation with a government that still does not care much to reexamine gender binary roles or to improve the rights of social minorities.

If COVID-19 is a once-in-a-hundred-years pandemic, it is also a once-in-a-hundred-years opportunity for change.

While we are witnessing the whole world chant “Black Lives Matter”, Japanese society is also changing. A culture of excessive work hours was arguably the most pressing social problem in pre-corona Japan. I am optimistic that we will finally make significant improvements in that aspect.

Pain, fear, and anxiety are powerful agents for change. The question is “what change do we want to see happening?”

It must not be the mere containment of the epidemic that we want to achieve. If “zero” tolerance of the virus is the goal, Japan being such a “do”-oriented society, we may end up not seeing the faces of anyone anymore. Japanese companies might develop face masks wearable all year round, day and night, even while asleep!

We need to go through this with our consciousness wide awake.

Epidemics such as AIDS and COVID-19 have a common message to convey to us, and that is “the world is one”. We are all interconnected. No one is safe as long as someone in the world is not safe.

I feel that it is not a coincidence that Rudolf Steiner proposed Social Threefolding in the midst of the “Spanish flu” pandemic, enigmatically associating “fraternity” with the economic sphere. It is no surprise that the major impact of  COVID-19 is in economics. So are the impacts of climate change, the refugee crises, and other global problems that demand humanity to understand the interconnectedness of the world.

After all, understanding epidemics is understanding “fraternity” and our role in it.


Daisuke Onuki is a professor at Tokai University – Japan and a member of the WSIF Advisory Board.

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