People have different ways of dealing stress and fear, especially during a protracted battle with a worldwide pandemic. Some Japanese are claiming that superstition saved us (as opposed to the two cloth masks per person promised by Prime Minister Abe), along with praying at Shinto shrines and guzzling detoxifying green tea.
As fears over a Covid-19 ‘infection explosion’ very gradually recede in the rearview mirror, more people are in a mood to agree with these theories.
After all, rural and traditional Japan remained largely unscathed by Covid-19, and these are the areas where people routinely visit local shrines, carry omamori (お守り・talismans), ask for ‘oharai’ (お祓い) –which is the practice of having a Shinto priest chase out bad spirits and demons lurking in one’s immediate vicinity, and down a lot of tea after the ceremony. If you get a Buddhist priest to do it, it’s yakubarai (厄払い). Add to that list, the drawing of an Amabie and posting it on social media. You may have just the armor needed for pandemic warfare.
A what? An Amabie (pronounced ama-bi-eh) is a yokai (妖怪）which can be translated as apparition, phantom creature or monster. She has the appearance of a three-legged mermaid with a beak in lieu of a mouth and she’s been around since the mid-19th century, according to Edo-Period documents. Though the typical Japanese yokai is often grotesque and loves to play pranks on humans, the Amabie is a beach chick that emerges from the sea to foretell epidemics. If you carry around her picture, she can ward off mass contagion and the effect is doubled if you draw it yourself. A lot of people in Japan and elsewhere have tried their hand at drawing Amabie, and she now has a definite presence on social media, on #Amabiechallenge and others.
Strangely enough, the Amabie has become a thing that may actually work. As of May 20th, the Japanese government has lifted the State of Emergency order for most of the nation, excluding the Tokyo metropolitan area. But the capitol city has been reporting less than 20 new infection cases for a week. Day care centers are talking about reopening as early as the 25th. Some local bars are welcoming customers again, even if masks are mandatory and draft beer is a thing of the past. Yes, the economy is in shambles and there’s nothing on TV but at least we’re seeing a light at the end of the tunnel.
This isn’t the first time modern Japan has turned to superstition and yokai for solace and guidance. The late manga artist Shigeru Mizuki, creator of the mega hit yokai manga series Ge ge ge no Kitaro (Spooky Kitaro) had always held that the yokai was what kept Japan from teetering over the edge into the abyss of disaster. Without their presence and powers, he said, the archipelago would just be a dreary sinkhole of greed and corruption. The yokai is a familiar figure in Japanese folklore, and some date back a thousand years. Some function as avatars for Shinto gods. Others do mischief and love to disrupt people as they go about their lives. The yokai can be friendly too, and will make good companions, as long as you respect tradition, revere nature and refrain from harming others.
Mizuki hails from Tottori prefecture, a very traditional region that has racked up a total of three– count ’em three!–Covid 19 infection cases and zero deaths so maybe his take on the yokai was right. Mizuki’s own illustration of the Amabie has been posted on social media since mid-March, courtesy of Mizuki Production, and apparently this has been printed out and carried inside wallets or folded into omamori sachets. A friend of mine in Tottori reports that local reverence for Mizuki has soared, and the 800 meter long “Mizuki Shigeru Road” in his hometown of Sakaiminato, which is marked with yokai statues and merchandise shops, has seen a lot of (masked) tourist action. These people hang out bv the various yokai figuresto take photos, and leave little notes of prayer for the pandemic to end.
Shigeru Mizuki died in 2017 at the age of 93 but if he were around today, he would no doubt have had plenty to say about the government’s handling of the pandemic. Mizuki was a WWII veteran who lost an arm in combat in Papua New Guinea, and the harrowing experience shaped his views on authority and Japanese society. After the war Mizuki struggled to survive before settling down to write manga, which he continued doing right up until his death. For many years, he could barely make ends meet but his career took off when the Kitaro series hit prime time TV in the late 1960s. However, success didn’t turn his head or soften his judgement on what he saw as crimes committed by the Japanese government, be it throwing the nation into war, or going whole hog on nuclear energy. His manga was never cute or very accessible – they depicted the Japanese as desperate and conniving, with caricatured features like bad teeth, squinty eyes and terrible posture. His portraits of the typical Japanese male were so unflattering they resembled the Yellow Peril posters propagated by the US military during WWII. According to Mizuki, the only way these unattractive Japanese could achieve a slightly higher level of humanity, was to befriend a yokai.
Mizuki’s drawing of the Amabie though, is soft and friendly-looking. She really does seem concerned about the welfare of this archipelago. It’s not a bad picture to carry around, especially in a time when everyone is masked and avoiding eye contact as if the very act of acknowledging another person is a risky undertaking. If a picture of a three-legged mermaid is going to make people feel better about each other, it should probably be framed and put up inside the Diet building.
Dr Naoto Ueyama, Chairman of Japan Doctors Union called upon the international community to unite and pressure the Japanese government to cancel the Tokyo Olympics scheduled to commence in July.
“I don’t think it can be said that the Olympics can be held in a safe way,” he said.
Ueyama said the international competition, which would gather over 80,000 people including athletes and staff from 200 countries, could distribute existing variants such as the U.K., Brazilian, South African and Indian strains across the globe, or behave as a petri dish for a new potentially more fatal mutation.
“And if that were to happen, the number of victims indeed would be on a number even unthinkable in a conventional war,” Ueyama said.
He noted it’s possible that the games could even produce a variant known as “The Tokyo 2020” strain, something that would make the games live forever in infamy.
Ueyama explained that viruses undergo constant mutations. This is why the annual flu vaccines are updated to accommodate that year’s most prevalent variant. Covid-19 will continue to change, in the process adapting existing mechanisms that circumvent the human immune system to infect a host’s cell with greater efficacy. Ueyama said slow vaccine rollouts that delay the development of herd immunity or gathering large groups of potential carriers together rik giving the different variants further opportunity to mutate.
“The IOC should recognize that they are calling upon the athletes, the people of Japan and global citizens to take on these risks,” Ueyama said. “We will be facing a situation where lives aren’t being lost in a battlefield but lives are being lost as a result of something which should be a peaceful celebration or even a celebration of peace itself.”
Not only could variants be less susceptible to available vaccines, they could also avoid detection by multiplying in areas that aren’t swabbed by current PCR tests. Ueyama said a variant that reproduces in the lungs, for example, would be difficult to catch with PCR tests that collect samples from saliva or nasal swabs. Such a “Tokyo Olympic strain,” as Ueyama coined it, would not only jeopardize developing countries or regions in conflict without access to running water or health care, but endanger vaccinated individuals in countries with aggressive immunization campaigns like the United States.
“The IOC should recognize that they are calling upon the athletes, the people of Japan and global citizens to take on these risks,” Ueyama said. “We will be facing a situation where lives aren’t being lost in a battlefield but lives are being lost as a result of something which should be a peaceful celebration or even a celebration of peace itself.”
Japan’s hospitals are already overwhelmed by the relatively low infection to population ratio. Ueyama said in the city of Osaka, a Covid-19 hot spot under an extended state of emergency, the medical system is facing collapse as patients are told to stay home due to the lack of hospital beds for infected patients. The chairman, who lost a colleague to the virus, said an increasing number of nurses are quitting their jobs as the rising number of patients and work hours strain their other obligations to their children or elderly relatives. The organization is also seeing doctors, especially in the Kansai area, suffer from severe exhaustion and stress.
Covid-19 is highlighting the nation’s deficit in medical personnel. When asked whether university hospitals in Tokyo would begin accepting more covid patients in case of an Olympics induced surge, Ueyama said even if the hospitals provided sufficient treatment facilities or beds, they lack the doctors and nurses needed to fully utilize them. Critical resources are also being stretched thin. Japan is one of many countries suffering the consequence of a serious global anesthetic shortage, without which critical patients can’t be intubated. The inability to implement proper treatments for those in need compounds the strain placed on weary medical practitioners riding Japan’s fourth virus wave.
The timing of the Olympics could further exacerbate the shortage in medical staff and resources. Ueyama said the months of July and August are characterized by a spike in heat stroke patients requiring urgent care. Three years ago, a heat wave following the end of the rainy season hospitalized a record number of people from heat exhaustion. In response to the Japanese government’s request for hospitals in Tokyo and surrounding prefectures to reserve beds for Olympic personnel, Ueyama said that would be implausible.
“During that season, if we imagine also that Covid-19 will not yet be under control, and not only this, we may see a continuing increase in the India strain, it will not be possible for hospitals to provide special treatment to those involved in the Olympics,” he said.
Ueyama said Japan’s belated vaccine rollout is also unlikely to affect Olympic safety. The current phase targeting the 65 and up demographic that makes up 20-30% of the population, is scheduled to conclude at the end of July, overlapping with the first week of the games. Regardless of whether Japan meets this ambitious immunization timeline, the Olympic volunteers that will be interacting with the athletes and their staff are under 65 years old, and therefore ineligible for the vaccine. Ueyama said the daily pcr tests for all Olympic personnel proposed as the compromise in the Tokyo 2020 playbook is insufficient to control and contain the virus.
The doctor criticizes the IOC’s insistence that it is safe to host the games in Japan. He recommended the establishment of a global framework enforced by an international body similar to the IAEA or the UN’s Security Council to deal with the current and future pandemics “to save all of humankind from this crisis.”
“Such a decision (to host the Olympics during a pandemic) is not something just to be made only by the IOC or only by the one host country. I am a fan of the Olympics. However, I do not believe they should go ahead while putting many people at danger and holding them will force many people to make sacrifices even in regard to their life, in order for them to take place.”
Japan Subculture Research Center is proud to present the latest addition to a series of short stories, by our resident book reviewer and social commentator, Kaori Shoji, on the often tragically mismatched marriages of foreign men and Japanese women–The Amazing Japanese Wife. If you see echoes of someone you know or yourself in this story, be rest assured that you’re a cliche—but take solace in the fact that misery is universal. This new story is apocryphal in the sense that the protagonist is unmarried–but seeking to be married.
In high school, Kimie read a novel about a woman who lived in a shack that was sinking into a sand pit. One day, sheer chance leads a man–an outsider–to wander into the woman’s shack. Initially, she’s kind and welcoming but she takes steps to ensure that the man can’t leave. Soon she sets him to work shoveling the ever-present sand out of her door, which she herself has been doing everyday for years. Otherwise, the sand will claim the shack completely and the woman will have no place to live.
At the time, Kimie was sixteen and was reveling in the power of her sexuality. She didn’t need to trap a man in the sand to get him to do anything–most of them were putty in the hands of a girl in a school uniform. When she stood on the platform of the train station she could feel the particles in the air around her change and shift, as men craned their necks to get a better look at the back of her knees and her neck and her long, perfect hair. A man in a neat, expensive-looking suit once gazed at her intently and pressed a 10,000 yen bill in her hand. “This is so you can kiss me later,” he whispered, before striding rapidly away.
For all that, the woman in the shack that was sinking into the sand, haunted Kimie. As she grew older it seemed she was turning into this woman, shoveling out sand alongside the man she had trapped. She knew exactly how this woman felt, and how earnestly she needed the man in her sand blown life. After she hit her forties, Kimie identified more with the man. She could picture him, desperately clawing at the sand, eyes darting wildly as he searched for a way to escape.
Kimie had turned 47, and was living with her mother in the same house she had lived in since childhood.
Three weeks into the pandemic shut-down, Kimie felt her synapses fraying, and then unraveling. Her hair was falling out in chunks and her skin was clammy to the touch in some places, while in others it was dry and chilly. The soles of her feet had the texture of old, cracked rubber. She would get up in the morning, and too distracted to open the curtains, would immediately turn on the news, mentally preparing for the day’s dreary horrors as if they were a mere extension of her fitful nightmares.
“Kimi-chan, Kimi-chan!” After half an hour of staring at the screen, the calls of her mother from the kitchen downstairs, would alert her to the fact that she had procrastinated long enough. It was time to face her mother at the table, over coffee and toast with synthetic butter and cheap jam.
The sight of her mother, aged 77, instilled a sense of silent panic deep within Kimie’s soul. This is where I’m going, this is what I’ll look like. She knew such thoughts were vain and unworthy but she had decided long ago that it was okay to have them. Until five years ago when her father was still alive, Kimie could convince herself that she valued her parents because they brought her up and sacrificed much for this life of hers. In her youth, this life had seemed to be the most enticing item in the whole shop. She had pointed to it with her finger and it became hers, gift-wrapped and bow-tied. The bill had been sent round to her father, who paid without complaint. But now the sand was getting into the nooks and nannies and crevices of her pretty little life.
On good days, Kimie would tick off her milestones in her mind, if only to remind herself that she was special, and her life was, if not completely wonderful then surely presentable. A semester in a high school in Missouri, courtesy of a school-sponsored home stay program. She had called her father collect to ask for 500 extra dollars to spend on a prom dress, subsequently torn in three places by her geeky, fumbling boyfriend as he frantically groped her in his parents’ car. A year in Pennsylvania during university because she had insisted to her father that she needed to improve her English in order to land a good job. Her father had wired 800 dollars into her account every month so she could eat well, go to parties and well, improve her English. (Which she did! She scored 900 on TOEIC!) A trip to Italy and France as a graduation present. At the time, all these things made enormous sense to her, and besides, her mother had encouraged her every step of the way. “I want you to have the life that I could never have, Kimi-chan,” she intoned, the closest thing her mother ever came to a prayer. She would also say, “The world is so different from when I was young. I had no choices, no options, nothing but the life that was put in front of me.” This was her mother’s mantra, pulled out whenever she got into a fight with her husband or daughter, knowing it would make them feel guilty enough to shut up and back off.
Kimie had allowed herself to buy into the myth that her mother, comfortably ensconced in their house in a Tokyo suburb purchased with a 30-year mortgage, had been abused and victimized by the Japanese social system. By embracing that myth Kimie took it upon herself–the brilliant girl who had studied in the US, could speak English and got a job in a bank–to be happy and successful. This would compensate for her mother’s apparently miserable and downtrodden existence. Kimie had believed she was doing the right thing, only to realize in middle age that she was trapped, a prisoner in the cell of her own bedroom.
Kimie’s younger brother had always rebelled against their parents and left home at the same time he chose a university in the northern tip of Japan–as far away from Tokyo as he could get without going abroad. Relatives had pitied her brother, he chose a national university with low tuition and turned down their father’s offer of a loan so he could rent an apartment. Instead, Kimie’s brother Youki spent four years in a cramped, filthy college dorm. Occasionally, he called to let his family know he was all right. After graduation, he stopped by to say he had found a job at a mid-sized electronics manufacturer. Youki had none of the privileges Kimie had taken for granted but he gained the kind of strength and freedom she couldn’t even fathom. Now, Kimie found it hard to wrap her mind around the fact that her brother had his own house, a family, even a dog–an elegant Dalmatian named Sabu whom she had seen only once. Youki had left and never came back. She had been the cosseted, dutiful daughter who stayed, and stayed and stayed at home. “At least I have you, Kimi-chan,” her mother liked to say. “As long as you’re still here, I have nothing to complain about, really.”
Kimie felt as if her insides had dried out and her blood vessels were clogged with sand. Did the woman in the novel die in the end? Kimie couldn’t remember but neither could she recall when she had her last period.
“Kimi-chan, are you working today?” Her mother, chewing toast, tossed the question in the air and Kimie nodded with a small grunt. There was a Zoom conference at 3PM for which she planned to turn the camera off. Until then she could pretend to do some paperwork, answer some emails, make a few calls. How long would that take? Maybe a couple of hours. Even with the Zoom conference slotted in, there were still ten or more waking hours that had to be whiled away somehow, secluded in her prison cell. Putting her dishes in the sink for her mother to wash, Kimie plodded to the bathroom to brush her teeth and wash her face. She saw no reason to change out of her pajamas, it wasn’t like she was going anywhere.
Kimie didn’t like life under the pandemic. At times, the strain of being cooped up inside a small house with her mother felt intolerable. But she hated her pre-Covid life even more, with a ferociousness that had her contemplating suicide at least three nights a week.
In late 2019 Kimie had an epiphany: instead of dying she would get married! Marriage would at least, enable her to leave her mother and the wretched house. In January, she signed up with a ‘konkatsu (marriage agency),’ dutifully paying the 300,000 yen registration fee and answering each and every match-up question. She understood from the hour-long meeting with the agency’s ‘counselor’ that these days, it was quite common for women in their 40s and 50s to look for partners, but the road to an actual wedding could take longer than expected. The 300,000 yen fee would cover her match-ups for up to one year. “What happens when a year goes by and I’m still single?,” Kimie had asked and the counselor, intimidating with her glowing skin and sleek hair, had chirped that most women found someone within 6 months. “Our advice is: try them out. Most of our clients haven’t dated in awhile and they’re all a bit rusty. We find that when the woman takes the lead, everything tends to fall in place. So don’t say no until you’ve tried them out!”
After screening a half dozen applicants, Kimie settled on the 56 year old Yamanishi-san, whose portrait photo reminded her a little of her father when he was that age. Yamanishi-san’s texts were charming; he seemed to know how to strike just the right tone between elaborately polite and paternally friendly. They agreed to meet for lunch in a kaiseki restaurant (his choice) in the posh district of Ginza, where he had booked an alcove facing a Japanese garden. “I love gardens in the winter. They’re so calm and soothing,” he texted, and Kimie felt a little thrill of anticipation. It had been a long time since she had been courted, on any level, by a man. Maybe she really was about to get a ticket out of the sand shack–her private nickname for home.
Exactly 24 hours before the appointed time, she had her roots done at an expensive salon in Aoyama. Two weeks prior to that, she had bought a dress at a department store, along with a fresh pair of panty hose and brown leather pumps. On the day, she scrutinized herself in the mirror and decided she didn’t look a day over thirty-nine. Saying nothing to her mother, Kimie went to the restaurant with as little anxiety as she could manage. If this worked out, she would break the news to her mother gently, and suggest moving to a house in the immediate vicinity so they could visit often.
Yamanishi-san turned out to be a bit heavier than his photo, and with noticeably less hair but Kimie was willing to overlook these minor flaws. What was much more jarring, was the rift between his digital texts and his real life persona. Yamanishi-san didn’t even look at the garden but kept his gaze firmly on Kimie’s chest, as if he were a chef contemplating the char marks on a grilled steak. “You have a good body for a woman of your age,” he said. “Have you done much sports in school? I like a woman with good muscle tone.” Kimie smiled and said no, not really, she had been too busy studying English.
“Ah, yes! I read that in your resume. You’re not some idiotic female with zero skills, you’ve been out in the world and you can speak English! My mother would like that. She used to be a teacher in her day. She likes women with knowledge and work experience. She can’t stand dumb girls.”
The conversation went on in this vein and Kimie could hardly bring herself to sample the meal, made up of exquisite morsels of food artistically displayed on polished lacquerware. All she wanted to do now was go home, and slip into bed with her phone. She stopped listening to Yamanishi-san altogether and thought about Spotify. She really should update her playlists.
Suddenly, in the middle of wresting a thin piece of radish from a tiny portion of soup, Yamanishi-san fixed her with an intense stare and said, “Okay, I seriously have to ask you this question if we are going to take this relationship any further. What color is your that?”
Kimie could feel her cheeks tingle, and then burn, and could only mimic the last word in his question. “That?” she blurted, like a fool, she thought. Yamanishi-san nodded vigorously and said, “Yes, your that. You know, I can almost tolerate black nipples though I would much prefer them to be a lighter color. But a woman’s, you know, that–should never be dark. If we are to have sex, I don’t think I can perform very well if your that is a dark color.”
After a full ten seconds of silence in which Kimie sat there, her face turned desperately to the winter garden which struck her as being dull and ugly, Yamanishi san said in a gentler tone, “I’m sorry to have to ask you. But this is…not love, it’s not dating, don’t you see? This is an arrangement preceding marriage. I think that you are a smart, modern woman and maybe we could come to an understanding, the two of us. But neither of us is young, and there’s no time for beating around the bush. I have my priorities and I am being honest about them. Won’t you give me an answer?”
“I don’t know. I don’t usually look.” With that, Kimie stood up, clutching her handbag, and walked clumsily to the reception area where she asked for her coat. As soon as she was out of the restaurant, she grabbed her phone and blocked Yamanishi-san’s number after deleting all his texts.
Kimie’s thoughts often wandered back to that lunch, but the memories were not of Yamanishi-san. Indeed, within hours of that experience he had felt like a figment of her imagination, spawned as the result of the meeting with the chirping counselor and her stupid advice.
What Kimie recalls is how, as soon as she had gotten home and climbed the staircase to her room, she stripped off her coat and dress and peeled off her pantyhose. She took a mirror from her make-up drawer and held it close to her vagina. For several seconds, she had to struggle to see, but when she got a good enough view, she let out a sigh of relief. Her ‘that’ wasn’t black. In fact, the color could even be described as being on the light side. “If we are to have sex,” she whispered to herself. Then she had put the mirror away, pulled up her panties and got into bed. She could hear her mother calling her name from the kitchen but she shut her eyes tight and willed herself not to hear. The sand was seeping into her room, gathering in mounds all around her bed, lulling her to sleep. She would shovel it out later.
Note: Ms. Shoji should be credited for coining the word WAM (Western Anglo-Saxon Men) also (White American Men)–a more understandable term for the Charisma-man type of entitled self-important foreigners that once flooded these shores but now mostly live in Hong Kong, Beijing, or Singapore. Also, it should be noted that Ms. Shoji has always been an equal opportunity misanthrope, as evidenced in her book review entitled 21 Reasons Why Japanese Men Suck.
IT’S OFFICIAL! A Japanese diner, TSUNAMI NAVY BURGER, located near the US military base in Yokosuka, calls the election for Biden w/ release of the Biden Burger: 600 grams, full of Philadelphia Cream Cheese (thanks Pennsylvania) and ¥1980 ($18). The diner might retire its predecessor, the fatty, artery clogging Trump Burger–but the jury is still out.
This gourmet delight was modeled on the Philadelphia Cheese steak sandwich. It contains a generous thick patty of beef, onions, peppers, paprika, sautéed mushrooms, lots of Philadelphia cream cheese–in a nod to Biden’s home state, Pennsylvania, which may have ensured his victory, and sprinkled with potato chips for a salty accent and a better mouth feel. It’s the taste of victory.
The Trump Burger which has been served since 2016, is a heart-clogging blend of peanut butter, soft-boiled egg, two bacon strips, Sloppy Joe sauce (ahem), cheddar cheese, lettuce, onion, tomato with a tiny USA flag on top (probably made in China).
Head down to TSUNAMI NAVY BURGER to celebrate if you’re a Democrat or to cheer yourself up if you’re a Trumper. Bon Appetit!
Suicides in Japan are like wildfires in California: tragic, inevitable and seemingly unsolvable. According to the National Police Agency, 1805 people killed themselves in September and suicides amongst women were disproportionately rising.
Still, cases of people offing themselves had gone down in the past 10 years, and 2019 closed out the year with 20,169 cases – the lowest number of deaths since 1978 when the government first started keeping records, and minus 10,000-plus cases during the early naughts. Strangely enough, though the Japanese government is secretive and reticent about almost every other glitch found in the archipelago, they’ve always been upfront about the nation’s suicide rate. Few countries in the world are so ready to reveal the numbers but not in Japan.
Suicide has never been taboo here. Back when Tokyo was called Edo and the nation was closed off to foreigners, the suicide rate in this city was said to be twice what it is now, among a population of a mere one million, which is one-fourteenth of what it is today.
There was a collective mentality that dying by one’s own hand is the best and most effective way to make a statement or erase problems, and the legacy still holds. Popular belief has it that every Japanese person goes through life knowing at least one person who committed suicide. (I myself have known six, but that’s fairly common.)
This year, suicides were low until June, but from July to August, the figures kept climbing. This was more or less in the cards – some experts had predicted as early as March that under the Covid-19 pandemic, more people will kill themselves than be killed by the virus. In August alone, 1854 people took their own lives of which 119 were women under 30 years old. This figure is alarming, but mainstream media seems too distracted to shed much light on why this is happening. Those who bothered however, tracked down Dr. Toshihiko Matsumoto, a psychiatrist who works almost exclusively with suicidal patients. According to Matsumoto, there had been an increase in young women with suicidal tendencies since Golden Week (early May), and those who couldn’t make it through the spring drove themselves over the edge during the summer.
Matsumoto said that in Japan, women commit suicides for different reasons from men. “Men’s problems almost always stem from work or the workplace, whereas women are much more social and are apt to encounter snags in their personal relationships. In pre-pandemic days girls could meet their friends for coffee, and just vent. But they were deprived of this pastime during the stay-home period. When the only people you see are family, there’s a lot of material for depression.” He has a point. Most Japanese daughters are diligent and dutiful, but they’re not ready to discuss life problems with mom and dad. “They don’t want to let their parents down,” explained Matsumoto, a logic that in itself is a breeding ground for suicidal thoughts.
Another factor triggering the suicides of young women could be the recent wave of self-inflicted deaths among actors/performers. These were celebrities who seemingly had everything to live for, and still chose death as a way out. In late May, professional wrestler Hana Kimura (22) was found dead in her home after being plagued by social media bullying. In July, the body of Haruma Miura (30) – one of the most popular actors in the industry, was found in his kitchen. After Miura came the death of actress and model Sei Ashina (36). The most recent shocker is the death of Yuko Takeuchi (40), an A-list actress whose career spans 25 years, and who had just remarried a co-star in February. There are five deaths so far, and only one of them left a note – actor Takashi Fujiki (80), whose body was found in a cheap, tiny apartment in Nakano ward.
Media analysts have mostly steered clear of the topic, fearful of stepping on the landmines strewn about on social media. Even a polite statement may be construed as offensive, hurtful or most damning of all – inspire others to die by their own hand.
Misako Noguchi, who has worked as a casting director for the past 30 years, says that she has never seen anything like it. “No matter how bad things got in the real world, it was very rare for performers to die of their own accord. The repercussions of something like that on the larger society would be enormous, and most stars were aware of that.” Noguchi says she blames Covid-19 – “when a performer is forced to stay home for weeks and months on end, it takes a huge toll on their mental health. I myself was going crazy, trapped inside the four walls of my apartment, broke and depressed. Imagine how a big star like Yuko Takeuchi would feel. She was used to being under the spotlight 12 hours a day, surrounded by cameras and people. Then suddenly, bang! Work dried up. She couldn’t even go outside.”
At this point, most Japanese have struck a deal with Covid-19. We’ll wear masks, disinfect vigorously and try to avoid crowds. Just please let us return to a semblance of normalcy. But for some Japanese, it may be too little, too late. Now mental health professionals fear that suicide rate will soar again in December – traditionally a month when many Japanese seek escape from year-end financial troubles by taking their own lives. Unemployment and failed businesses could push more people over the edge, and unlike the summer months, the deaths are expected to occur among people in their 40s to 60s.
It seems mind-numbingly strange that in a country famed for longevity and its super-aged society, suicides should be a leading cause of death. As Dr. Matsumoto says, “maybe what this society needs now isn’t protection measures but far less social distancing and more non-essential excursions.”
If you’re considering suicide or know someone who is, this site in Japanese offers a number of ways to get counseling.
In case of an emergency, please call 119 in Japan for immediate assistance. The TELL Lifeline is available in English for those who need free and anonymous counseling at 03-5774-0992. You can also visit them at telljp.com. For those in other countries, visit www.suicide.org/international-suicide-hotlines.html
Is there really no discrimination or racism in Japan?
This is a question that the creators of Japan’s beloved feminist podcast, SuperSmashHoes Podcast, and writer Yukari Peerless decided it was high time to ask. In a time when racism and police brutality in the United States have drawn global interest in the Black Lives Matter movement and the problems of intolerance all over the world, it’s certainly a question worth asking. Join Reflection on Racism, Diversity & Inclusion in Japan to find out more. Much of the discussion will be in Japanese but hopefully accessible.
Super Smash Hoes Podcast, hosted by Erika X and Fahreen Budhwani, and Yukari Peerless working with other NGOs have invited a group of experts and Japan hands to discuss issues of discrimination and racism in the shadows of the rising sun. Panelists include award-winning documentary film maker Miki Dezaki, Japan’s first black idol and sex worker rights advocate Amina du Jean, and Aerica Shimizu Banks,an engaging public speaker on the topic of diversity and an advocate for women of color who has accomplished much in her career. The speakers will talk about their own personal experiences with racism, ignorance, and prejudice and how to combat it.
If you wish to join the livestream, you are requested to contribute ¥1,000 yen which will be donated to two anti-racism charities. One is the Anti-Racism Information Center. The Center is an NGO that combats hate speech and raises awareness of the problems with xenophobia and misconceptions about race in a civil society.The other group is Save Immigrants Osaka which supports foreign immigrants detained in Osaka immigration center. https://www.facebook.com/saveimmigrantsOsaka/
Date: Wednesday, June 24 Time: 10am – 12pm Japan time (6pm – 8pm PST Tuesday June 23)
The Format: Round table discussion. It will be a “Webinar” on Zoom. The audience can watch but will be muted during the webinar. After the panel discussion, they will open up the floor and the audience can ask questions.
Admission: 1000 yen to a Paypal account. 100% to be donated to a charity.
They say it takes more than a death to change the world but perhaps that’s not true in the case of 22-year old Hana Kimura (木村花). She was a professional wrestler and one of the cast members of Terrace House, the now defunct reality TV franchise that first launched in 2012 and went on for eight seasons. For the uninitiated, Terrace House follows the relationship dynamics of three boys and three girls as they live as housemates in a posh seaside house with a terrace. Hana-chan as she was called, starred as herself – an up and coming wrestling star with pink hair who was eager to get ahead in the entertainment industry. In an episode aired on March 31st, Hana-chan unleashed her anger over a laundry mishap committed by a fellow (male) housemate. The two made up, but the whole thing exploded right in Hana-chan’s face.
Hordes of Terrace House fans posted Hana-chan hating comments – upwards of 300 a day – and many demanded that she either leave the show or die, immediately. It’s said that the Covid-19 induced isolation further drove Kimura over the edge. Alone in her home, she couldn’t help but read and obsess over the hellish comments on social media, directed straight at her.
On May 23rd, Hana Kimura was rushed to the hospital after friends found her lying on the floor in her apartment, but it was too late. The details of her death have not been disclosed, but she left a note, apologizing to her friends and thanking her mom for “bringing me into this world.” Astonishingly, the anonymous cyber bullies who were at least partly responsible for her death resumed their bashing, accusing her of being ‘weak and needy’ and ‘not cut out to endure the hardships of working in the entertainment industry.”
All that hate though, faded away after Fuji Television Network, the creator of the Terrace House franchise pulled the plug on the show five days after Hana-chan’s suicide. Minister of Internal Affairs and Communications Sanae Takaichi is now pushing for a law to hunt down those who post hate comments, and slap them with fines or worse. Even Prime Minister Abe has moved on the issue, remarking that “hateful comments on the Internet have the power to do irreparable damage, and they should be stopped, if possible.” Since then, things have been pretty quiet. Hana Kimura’s critics have seemingly disappeared off the face of the Net at least for now, and news commentators are continuing to express their ‘profound regret’ over her death.
That said, a certain apprehension hangs in the air; it seems that the Abe Administration is milking the Terrace House tragedy to its own advantage. In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, PM Abe’s popularity has hit an all-time low and the belated delivery of two “Abenomasks” per household that he promised back in March, has become a running joke. It seems that most things he does these days is being ridiculed. The death of Hana Kimura may have been a welcome respite from having to deal with the social ills spawned by the lingering coronavirus, and the pile of political embarrassments racked up during the nation’s 49-day shut-down. Moritomo scandal, anyone?
it seems that the Abe Administration is milking the Terrace House tragedy to its own advantage.
In the meantime, media pundits are pointing out that both the Abe Administration and the Japanese populace should have their minds on other, more relevant issues, like the racial protests tearing the US apart, and now raging in Europe as well.
Political columnist Takashi Odajima observed in Nikkei Shimbun that the pandemic has afforded the US an opportunity to take a hard look at social injustice, while in Japan that same pandemic has given the government an excuse to cover things up. “In Japan, the government hides its scandals and inconvenient truths under the masks they insist on wearing,” he wrote.
You don’t have to be a pundit like Odajima, to get that sinking feeling: once again, Japan lags way behind the west when it comes to grappling with stuff that truly matters, in spite of, or maybe because of, an ongoing pandemic. While we’re still wrapping our faces and panicking about the number of new infections cropping up in Tokyo (more than 10! How horrifying!), protesters across the Pacific are risking their lives for racial justice. The comparison is scathingly humbling. Gosh, we’re small. And scared shitless of direct conflict.
Odajima pointed out that the Japanese are hopelessly bad at arguing a point, or any form of adverse social interaction unless it’s done among family members. He’s right. The bad stuff happens mostly at home and behind closed doors. In some cases they continue for years before anyone finds out. There’s anonymous groping on trains, and faceless bullying on the net but public protests in broad daylight rarely occur unless the protesters are hiding their faces behind masks. This explains why Hana-chan got so much flack – she dared to express rage over public airwaves, in her own name. And though it’s been pointed out that the show’s producers obliquely coerced her to do so, many Terrace House viewers were too naive to see the difference between the ‘reality’ of reality shows, and real life.
Maybe that’s just the way the Abe Administration wants it. Passive silence behind masks is vastly preferable to outright self-expression, in whatever situation. Imagine if the Japanese took to the streets to protest income inequality, the plight of temp workers, foreign laborers, and single mothers, domestic violence and rampant child abuse–just a few items off the top of an endless list?
The truth is that at this point, the nation needs many more Hana Kimuras–brave enough to express anger and negative feelings without fear of being punished for it. Hopefully, we can do that better, once the masks come off.
The COVID-19 outbreak has hit Japan hard as of late. Classrooms remain empty after spring break, restaurants begin to provide take-out, and factories stall upcoming projects. The number of workers who are predicted to lose their jobs due to the novel Coronavirus was projected in the upwards of 1,021 people last month, according to the Ministry of Labor. Prime Minister Abe did declare a State of Emergency on April 7th, and the Ministry of Finance announced that ¥100,000 would be given to residents (and eventually confirmed that foreign residents were included) but some experts argue that this declaration occurred too late.
While April would normally be the start of new jobs for many in Japan, this April seems to have an opposite turnout for most job-seekers. Lines outside of Hello Work* buildings all over the country would be twice as long as lines for masks outside of drugstores. Certain locations have also reduced the amount of staff members on-duty, causing longer waiting times at local Hello Work branches.
(Hello Work is an employment service center operated by the Japanese government, under the auspices of the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare. Its main role is to help connect job seekers to companies in need of skilled labor.)
In early April, I became a part of this statistic. My 6-month contract at a city hall in Osaka was not granted for renewal, and the job openings for tourism and English education in the area seemed to have vanished as the governor also declared a state of emergency. I decided to reach out to Hello Work to see if I was eligible for any benefits and to search for jobs through their system.
I arrived on a Thursday morning around 11AM. The line encircled the entire building and moved slowly. There was little distance between us and we stood outside of the building for about two hours. Bottles of hand sanitizer were available to use before entering the building. It reminded me of Disneyland for a brief moment.
Once I entered the Hello Work office, I was greeted by an energetic staff member. Everyone in the office, including the job-seekers, were wearing masks. We were told to sit two to three seats apart from each other, and the seats for the computer lab were 1 seat apart. There appeared to be no multilingual support at this Osaka branch. Many of the people in the room appeared to be elderly or recently graduated from university. Some of the job-seekers previously worked in factories or in retail.
After about an hour, it was my turn. Since my previous contract was only for six months, I was unable to receive any benefits. But the staff member who assisted me thoroughly searched and found about fifteen jobs that I could apply for. The process itself took about 10 minutes. I turned around and saw the computer lab filled to the brim with anxious job-seekers. Most of them has 0 search results, and the staff would try their best to experiment with different search entries to find a match.
Hello Work branches all over the country seem to be facing the same dilemma. For many newly unemployed residents in the Chubu region, they faced the most difficulty with their former employer. “I did not know much about the paperwork I needed to file for unemployment”, said Guillerme Okada. “At the factories, we were suddenly told that we couldn’t work anymore. I had to ask several of my friends first.” Okada had brought someone with him as an interpreter to explain to his Japanese supervisor that he needed to give documents for Okada to receive unemployment benefits. “It is a common issue with factory workers in this area. If I struggle to get legal documentation, I struggle to trust this system. I came with my interpreter to Hello Work, but there were two already available to help me. I had a lot of support from my community and from them during this time.”
Other employers would also push back start dates and avoid paying the contracted salary despite the legal 60% minimum requirement. Maria M., a Tokyo resident, would get last-minute notices and conflicting information about her start date and paycheck.
“I had already given my previous job a month’s notice and quit to start this new one. I was supposed to start during the first week of April but they changed it. It’s at a store so telework is impossible.”
About four or five days later, she was asked to Skype with the human relations chair. Her hiring date was moved to May 15th with no pay in advance. She contacted the labor bureau about her situation. “They confirmed that my company was responsible for me. My friends [who also worked at the company] said that they were receiving part of their salary in April. When I told my employer that I contacted the labor bureau, they quickly agreed to offer me part of my contracted pay.”
During these uncertain times, it may be difficult to navigate unemployment and economic stability on top of acquiring the basic necessities for surviving the pandemic. As the numbers of infected individuals steadily increase, the ratio of available job positions drop to its lowest level in three years. However, with the national and local government bringing out new sources of financial aid for individuals and businesses alike, there is room for growth in the economy and policy change.
On March 18th, the Japan Medical Association announced that there were 290 cases of doctors deciding that a patient needed to be tested for coronavirus, and even then the patients were not tested. The term used by JMA “不適切事例” literally translated means “inappropriate/unsuitable cases”.
The government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe seems intent on keeping the official numbers of infected down and that means not only making the standards for getting a test very high (for example, you must have a fever of over 37.5 degrees Celsius for four days) but it also seems to be actively discouraging tests.
Nathalie Kyoko-Stucky interviewed one woman who was denied testing in Tokyo. This is her story.
Patient Zero, age 31 is a project manager in Japan working for an IT firm. She asked for her name to be omitted and some details of her story obscured for fear of being stigmatized socially. She lives in Tokyo.
“I started to feel very tired March 7th and had a low fever of 37.2. Thought i was just tired from work. On Monday, I felt really tired at work and on Tuesday, I struggled to go to the office and only stayed 2 hours and came home. Tuesday night, I started to get a cough and by 10pm I felt i was getting sick and my fever was 37.5 degrees.
Wednesday morning I woke up feeling sick and extremely tired and had a fever of 38 degrees.
Over the next few days, I stayed in bed sick. I started feeling a pain in my chest and it was getting painful to breathe. On Saturday, I called the Coronavirus hotline because by that point I had fever over 37.5 for 4 days.
I called them because I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to go to a normal hospital and accidentally spread it so I called for advice.
The lady told me that the Shinagawa Healthcare Center (品川保健所）is closed on the weekend, and I should call them on Monday when they opened. But, she said if I became sicker, I should just go to the hospital.
On Sunday there was still no improvement. I had pneumonia when I was in high school and my body felt similar to that time so I was a bit worried. So I called the hospital and told them my story and that at the minimum I wanted an x-ray. They told me, “Okay please come in.”
At the hospital they asked if I went to an onsen, had overseas travel, or if was in direct contact with a COVID-19 patient. I said no.
Luckily my x-ray came back clear for pneumonia, but the doctor diagnosed me with pleurisy.
Note:(Pleurisy (PLOOR-ih-see) is a condition in which the pleura — two large, thin layers of tissue that separate the lungs from the chest wall — becomes inflamed. Also called pleuritis, pleurisy causes sharp chest pain (pleuritic pain) that worsens during breathing.It can be caused by viral infections, pneumonia and other conditions
I felt the doctor was kind but his hands were tied.
On Monday, my fever was will going between 37.5-38, and my boyfriend called the health care center. It took hours to get through because the phone line was always busy.
After getting through to someone and explaining the situation, the women answering the phone said she can’t authorize a test because I have not traveled abroad and I have no direct contact with a COVID19 patient.
Her advice was, ” If it is still bad or gets worse in a few days, go back to the hospital and beg the doctor himself to call the healthcare center and request a test for me.
At that point I realized it’s impossible to get a test. I didn’t want to risk going outside and accidentally infecting someone.
Unfortunately, the part which is most frustrating for me now is that I don’t know if I actually have it or not.I was considering trying to go back to the US to help my mother who is in her seventies, but I cannot risk going back and spreading it to her.
Luckily today, on March 21, it was the first day that I haven’t had a fever since March 7. I lost my voice and talking still irritates my lungs but most of the chest pain is gone.
So I had fever for 14 days. It’s very surreal.
I was so surprised why they set up the hotline to call, but advice from both numbers was “just to go the hospital”.
I expected they would tell me where to go for example or perhaps advise me to stay home in quarantine.
What’s the point of a hotline if the advice is “just go to the hospital”?
Personally that made me feel like there is not much fear about it spreading in the medical establishment. This worries me.
Also as a side note, I had been extra careful , carrying hand sanitizer everywhere I went and also never was outside without a mask. I even was using taxis the majority of the time to avoid the train.
This is just one example of a person who most likely should have been tested for the virus and was not. If you have experienced something similar, please write us with the heading CVTESTS at email@example.com
A priority item on the agenda of the first Shogun of Japan, Tokugawa Iyeyasu when he seized power in 1603, was to limit foreign travel to Japan. He issued several orders like the ones we’re seeing around the world at this moment: urging the Japanese to stay put in their own communities and urging all foreigners to get the hell out. By foreigners, Iyeyasu specifically meant the European missionaries who were spreading ideas – like a virus! – about an omnipotent God that transcended traditional Japanese values. They also extolled the virtues of non-violence and giving to the poor; two factors that the new Shogun viewed as particularly harmful to his authority. The ‘aliens’ had to go, and those who didn’t, were eventually executed or banished to Dejima Island, off the coast of Nagasaki. Iyeyasu’s son and grandson tightened the screws on the lockdown as they in turn, became the Shogun. Japan effectively bolted its doors to the outside world and Sakoku*・鎖国(shutting down the country)’ went into effect.
Initially, other clan lords were skeptical about this sakoku thing. Before Iyeyasu came along, Japan had a fairly robust import/export system, supported by a prosperous merchant class in Osaka. Without inbound travelers and foreign business, these merchants were sunk, as was the burgeoning currency economy. But Iyeyasu shrugged off their complaints and worries. He chose reclusive isolation over commerce and progress, and for the next 265 years, Japan became a ‘hikikomori (shut-in)’ in the global community. Everything passed us by: the Industrial Revolution and the locomotive, colonialism and corsets, Mozart and coffee, the printing press and chocolate. Everything.
*Writer’s Note – Contrary to the belief that the Tokugawa Shogunate coined the term ‘sakoku’ which literally means a ‘country in chains,’ it was actually invented by German explorer Engelbert Kaempfer in the late 17th century and later translated into Japanese.
In the meantime, the Japanese got a lot of practice on keeping calm and carrying on behind closed doors, in spite of or because of everything happening in the larger world. Sure, sakoku sucked in a hundred ways but it also created a uniquely weird culture that continues to enthrall or amuse people all over the world. Iyeyasu’s capital city of Edo – now called Tokyo, was a haven of stability and prosperity with an unparalleled ecological and recycling system.
The sakoku mind-set made all this possible – a willful and deliberate closing of the shutters to the outside world while making sure that plenty went on inside. Call it aloofness, coldness or a thick-skinned pragmatism. In times like this, such traits can come in pretty handy.
You may have heard that the Japanese aren’t very expressive – well that’s just not true. The Japanese are THE LEAST expressive people in Asia which probably makes us the most rigid people on the planet. Long before this virus thing the Japanese have been wearing masks – as a prevention against all ills including a bad skin day and questionable breath. The mask was also fashionable among teenage girls, as hiding their mouths made them feel more attractive. (Kissing with masks was a real thing in the early aughts too, because many young couples deemed it erotic.) We were also adamant about washing hands, gargling and refusing to eat off communal plates.
Smiling and laughing in public, talking to strangers, physical displays of affection – these things are normal in western cultures but they’ve never taken off here unless it became a fad. Like being friendly to foreigners and embracing diversity was a fad that many Japanese felt pressured into doing because hey, globalism and the Olympics 2020. But now COVID-19 has given the Japanese a very good reason to go back to the way we were. Unrelenting, inexpressive, rigid and distanced. It’s all cool. Show me a person with a secret stash of face masks and 30 rolls of toilet paper and I’ll show you a model Japanese citizen.
As for touching one another, it’s a whole other issue unto itself. The Japanese just don’t do this, and never had. Though many of us love the idea of casual cheek kisses a la Francaise, we just couldn’t muster the courage to try it on a Tokyo street. Now, we don’t have to pretend anymore. Social distancing may be a new and scary concept for the west but to us, it’s very familiar, like our parents to whom we pay the obligatory visit over New Year’s.
Speaking of which, I don’t ever remember being hugged by my late father, who devoted much of his life to wedging a good, 1.7 meter distance between himself and the rest of the world. It wasn’t just him of course, many Japanese males can’t bring themselves to get close to anyone they know, which paradoxically explains why there’s so much groping on the trains. But the virus has resolved that snag–what with schools closed and people ordered to work remotely, the morning trains are far less crowded and consist mostly of masked salarymen clutching phones with one hand and briefcases in the other, studiously avoiding all eye and physical contact.
You might say the Japanese are good at this. There is little of the sense of deprivation and loneliness that say, an American person might feel about the loss of casual physical contact. We’re not touching, we’re not smiling, but who’s to say we’re not having fun underneath our face masks?
Editor’s Note: And judging by the hanami crowds this weekend and in accordance with the Ministry of Health’s “Let’s go outside!” admonitions, it seems like Japan’s 鎖国（sakoku ) period may end very soon.
Just for the record, while big concerts and public events are not happening, there’s still plenty going on in Tokyo and most restaurants and department stores have stayed open. Other venues include:
1) Shinjuku Gyoen Park Located in Sendagaya, this place is heavenly for a stroll among the greenery and themed gardens.