COVID-19 against the culture of collectivism in Japan


Tokyo cherry blossoms bloomed in late March. The public could not resist. The number of COVID-19 cases has increased, leading many Western experts to predict that Tokyo will become the next New York.

This does not happen. The daily counts for Tokyo have fallen to single digits. The number of active cases is declining. The cumulative total of deaths from the novel coronavirus in Japan is lower than the average daily number of deaths from the pandemic in the United States. Containment has proven to be unnecessary here. The medical system holds the line.

Cities and states in the United States and elsewhere are trying to restart their economies in short form. Japanese economic activity has never fallen below the level to which they aspire. Life has continued, if not normally, at least in the form that the new normal will understand.

Japan has successfully countered both the initial advance of COVID-19 and a spike in appeasement. The reasons given are many and varied. One that can still attract growing attention is its culture of collectivism.

The mantra regularly heard by Western commentators about COVID-19 is “test, test, test”. The tests, however, do not prevent infection. This is achieved when individuals go from contracting to death or recovery without transmitting the virus.

One obstacle to this goal is the asymptomatic state of some carriers, so no one is sure whether they are infected or not. The most appropriate form of prevention is therefore for everyone to assume that they have contracted the virus and to act accordingly.

Practical measures are to wear a mask and touch public objects as little as possible. They differ from those that are mainly needed to avoid contracting the virus itself, which is to wash your hands and avoid hand-to-face contact. Social distancing has things in common with avoidance and prevention.

A stumbling block of the “carrier take charge” countermeasure is that it forces people to endure discomfort for the collective good, despite the likelihood of being free from COVID-19. Persuading a critical mass of the population to accept such an imposition is a difficult task, especially when the number of new cases is declining.

Three of the motivators that make Japanese nationals join are courtesy, obligation, and shame. Courtesy is the willingness to act out of genuine concern for others. The obligation consists in placing the needs of the group before those of oneself. Shame is the fear of what others might think if one does not conform to the norms of the group or society.

Courtesy is not lacking among the silent majority in the West, unlikely as it may sometimes seem. A sense of obligation also exists, but generally towards smaller groups than society as a whole. Shame, on the other hand, is not a dominant Western trait.

In addition, in parts of the West, anti-collectivist behavior can be a source of identity and pride. Not everyone in Japan is playing the collectivist game. Personal observation suggests that the current mask wear is around 95%, but one wonders how these non-voters would react if confronted with a TV crew. Probably with a sheepish answer. This differs from the United States, where unmasked protesters have dismissed the notion of social distancing as anti-libertarian, as have President Donald Trump himself.

The concept of freedom is interesting. The dictionary states that it is “the state of being free within society from the oppressive restrictions imposed by authority on one’s way of life, behavior or political opinions.” Many, however, may want to playfully challenge “the right to act irresponsibly, just because you can.” Unfortunately, this would be consistent with the way in which freedom is too often claimed.

An example of freedom claimed in the early days of Japan’s COVID-19 experience was revealing. At the end of January, the government began repatriating Japanese nationals from the COVID-19 epicenter of Wuhan, China. In the absence of a legal framework for a mandatory quarantine, he asked evacuees to undergo tests and self-isolate for 14 days. Two of the compliments refused to be tested, leaving Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to lament how “extremely regrettable” the situation had become.

This story, however, had a less than libertarian ending. The families of the two had their say and the two quickly gave in. The irresistible force of freedom, it turned out, was not up to that of Japanese collectivism.

Significantly, in Australia and New Zealand, Western countries with broad similarities to the United States, questionable applications of freedom are generally overlooked. These two nations have fared much better with COVID-19 than the United States. The reasons are again many and varied, but their interpretation of freedom is surely one of them.

In fairness, collectivism is a concept for which facetious definitions can also be offered. There are times when the merits of collectivist culture can be called into question, as any Japanese national will readily concede. Dealing with the pandemic, however, is not one of them.

“Illness becomes wellness,” said Malcolm X, an American human rights activist, “when” I “is replaced by” we “. It would seem, therefore, from the Japanese experience with COVID-19.

Paul de Vries is an Australian writer based in Japan. Her book “Remembering Santayana: The Unlearned Lessons of the War on Japan” is available on Amazon.

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