“Teacher, I’m very sorry. I can’t meet you for my English lesson because of Corona-san.”
At first I wasn’t sure if my student, who is in her early 70s, had made a joke. But she wasn’t jesting. She had purposely added the honorific “san” to the coronavirus, as if it were an honored person. Like “nikuya-san” for a butcher or “isha-san” for a doctor, the coronavirus has become a part of our lives, and thus, in its own way, demands respect.
New Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga will have to respect the virus, too. Recent economic data shows that Japan’s gross domestic product shrank by 7.8 percent in the second economic quarter. This suggests that a lot of businesses are having to paddle considerably harder just to keep their heads above water.
Given the state of my lessons, I decided to look up some acquaintances whose jobs seemed to offer particular challenges thanks to the pandemic, to perhaps anticipate what changes the residents of Japan can expect to see when using their services.
Akiyo Yoshida is an acupuncturist in her 50s. She runs Mei Chiryoshitsu, a clinic in Itabashi Ward, Tokyo. She specializes in women’s health issues, such as premenstrual tension and morning sickness. She successfully treated my wife four years ago.
“Of course the coronavirus affected the number of patients who came to my clinic,” she tells me. “The first patient who canceled due to coronavirus was in February. At first she said that she was worried about it, and put back her appointment. Then she put it back again, and eventually canceled altogether, even though she had been coming for years.
“When the state of emergency was declared in April, I closed my clinic for two weeks. After reopening, I wasn’t sure if my patients would return. In actual fact, though, most of them have come back. Some new patients have even started coming.”
Yoshida stresses that giving patients the confidence to return is key. The clinic could not simply open up and do things exactly as before.
“There are two bedrooms in my clinic,” she says. “Before the pandemic, two patients were treated at the same time, in adjoining rooms. I changed to just one bed, removing the door between the two rooms, and I leave the windows open in order to keep the air circulating. So the maximum number of patients I can treat has been reduced by half.”
Yoshida certainly has enough passion for acupuncture that she can make the best of a difficult situation. One day during my wife’s treatment, I was daydreaming in a chair off to the side and sniffling due to a cold. Suddenly Yoshida came rushing toward me with several needles, urging me to let her puncture my face. I woke up fast.
I ask Yoshida about her heavy-duty safety visor, which I could imagine appearing in “Star Wars.” Didn’t she get her Abenomask?
“I got it, I got it,” she says. “I received it earlier than most others, because I count as a medical professional. It arrived in March when it was still cold. So I wore it in bed to keep myself warm, and to avoid getting a dry throat during the night.”
Ayako Muroi has been performing as a singer for 10 years, giving concerts in front of live audiences both here and overseas in countries such as Italy and Russia. She supplements her income by giving singing and piano lessons.
“I sing classical music, and also traditional Japanese songs,” Muroi says, “but I haven’t performed any live concerts since the spread of the coronavirus in March. For me, especially because I often perform for an elderly audience in care homes, it has been difficult to continue. Outsiders can’t even enter those facilities at the moment. I also generally perform every year for tourists in Karuizawa. That has been canceled, too.
So was Muroi able to fall back on her singing and piano lessons to cover the loss of concerts?
“I stopped giving piano and singing lessons during the state of emergency. But they have started up again. One-to-one lessons are not a big problem, but it is harder for choral singing. The singers tend to be older, too. So I haven’t started up the choral lessons yet. For the one to one lessons, I open the windows between songs, to clear the air.
“To replace some of the lost income from music, I went back to my old part-time job from my university days, at a dry cleaners. I also got some help from a concert hall where I have previously performed. They released a CD of past performances to support the musicians and singers. It was a big help.”
Muroi is adapting with a positive attitude. She has just recorded a music video for the care home residents she used to perform live for.
“When I sing in care homes, the residents can hear songs they know,” she says. “They smile when they hear songs they recognize from their childhood, and it makes me happy to think of it.”
Takumi Kanai owns and runs an izakaya (a Japanese-style pub) in Himejima, Osaka. When I call him, he is at work. I can hear the sounds of sizzling food and raucous laughter in the background, so I end the call and then try again on his day off.
“I’m really sorry for interrupting you at work,” I say. “Your izakaya sounded as noisy as ever. Not even a worldwide pandemic can keep Osakans away from a hearty meal!”
“Eh?” he says, puzzled. “There were just a few customers in when you called. I think you must have heard the tv. I keep it on all the time now, to make the place sound livelier.”
My memories of Sangokushi, his izakaya, are of a local hub which drew all sorts of people, and was always busy. A knot of elderly regulars would sit at the counter and chat while nibbling sashimi. Groups of six or seven youngsters would sit at their own table, swigging beer for half the night.
“The groups of five or six don’t come any more,” says Kanai. “In many cases, their company will have told them not to gather in restaurants or night spots. It’s mostly pairs of people these days. And they are mostly the younger ones. The older regulars are much more careful about going out.”
“Thank goodness for the young. They seem to think of the coronavirus as being like a cold. You don’t hear, “Corona, corona,” drifting from their conversations, unlike with older customers.”
Kanai is also adapting with optimism. “When I had to close the izakaya, I got some compensation for the loss of business, which helped. If I have to close earlier, and focus on lunches more than late-night parties, then so be it. It might be a more relaxing life.”
Corona-san isn’t going away any time soon. This small sample of hard-hit businesses suggests that they are adapting, and making the best of it. Residents of Japan can expect services to be scaled down, and concerts hard to find at all. There also seem to be a lot of open windows. With winter approaching, it might be the time to buy an extra-thick sweater.