Yoshie Kakimoto Mohanty is desperately hoping that Hong Kong can contain the fourth wave of COVID-19 that hit the city in early December. Trying to work, homeschool her children and maintain her dragon boat team’s fitness plan during the city’s third wave, in the summer, was the “hardest time” of the year, she says.
Hong Kong is one of few places to have entered a fourth wave. Having been struck by the coronavirus in January, the city is farther along than most in its battle to contain it, but continues to experience setbacks.
Overall, Hong Kong has so far escaped the pandemic relatively unscathed, experiencing a flatter epidemic curve than many other regions, but its record 21-day period of no confirmed community cases ended in July with the advance of a third peak. More than 100 cases were reported daily for several successive days, reaching about 140 new infections per day at the end of July.
In response, the government rolled out a raft of measures to curb the rate of transmission, including tougher restrictions on social distancing and eating out, as well as the closure of non-essential public services.
Kagoshima-born Kakimoto Mohanty, who has lived in Hong Kong since 2006, was forced to shutter her whisky bar and ramen shops for two months and move her children’s educational classes online.
It was a deep blow, particularly after the freeze on her tour operator business, Tabitto. Based in her home prefecture, the company offers experiences related to the outdoors, culture and cuisine in English, mainly to inbound tourists. All of its tours were canceled in February when the virus halted international travel.
Now, as cases in Hong Kong average 100 per day, up from single digit averages in early November, the government is tightening restrictions again, including suspension of in-person schooling until the end of the year and limited restaurant operations.
Kakimoto Mohanty hopes for a speedy recovery while continuing to adapt furiously to keep her multiple businesses operating.
At the outset of the third wave, she began planning a series of virtual tours under the Tabitto brand and launched them in September. Attendees have joined from Hong Kong, the United States, Israel and Australia to learn about diverse topics ranging from green tea cultivation to samurai history and how best to enjoy imo shōchū, a local alcohol made from sweet potatoes.
Despite the ongoing challenge of making the tours profitable, Kakimoto Mohanty remains determined to continue, to “maintain visibility” for the prefecture, thereby helping prevent a drop in inbound tourists long-term.
For her Hong Kong businesses, too, she tried new things to keep her customers engaged, linking up with a whisky distillery in Scotland for an online tasting session and offering virtual workshops about cocktail making. Not everything has been a success; she admits that her ramen shop’s home delivery service did not attract much interest, despite packing the noodles and soup separately.
Still, she counts herself lucky. Many of her Japanese contacts in the food and beverage industry have lost their jobs or are on a reduced income, having taken gigs such as making sushi or other popular dishes as home chefs.
Socially, Kakimoto Mohanty has found support online from her dragon boat team, although she says many members have little motivation to train as races in Hong Kong and Kagoshima Prefecture have been canceled until further notice. Rather than do group burpees on Zoom, she chooses standup paddle boarding and kayaking, which allow her to exercise in the fresh air while social distancing.
“It’s been bad,” she says of 2020, “but it’s given us good things, too. I feel closer than before to Kagoshima and have been able to develop my business there, from here.”
The necessity — and growing normalcy — of working remotely has led even the traditional companies that she works with to embrace online meetings, prompting her to consider how frequently she might need to visit Kagoshima on business, post-pandemic.
Still, she longs for a swift return and for Hong Kong to continue suppressing the virus.
“People here are getting used to the new normal and new style of living,” she says. “That is good, but we must remain careful.”
The mood of fearful optimism is shared among the Japanese community in Florence, according to Erii Nakajima, a volunteer at the city’s Associazione Culturale Giapponese, a Japanese cultural society also known as LAILAC.
“Things were very bad here in March and April,” she says, alluding to the rapid spread of COVID-19 in Italy in February and early March that saw confirmed infections exceed 5,800 per day. With limited success in placing restrictions on areas with transmission clusters, the government imposed a national lockdown on March 9 that restricted people’s movement except for necessity, work or health reasons. It lasted nine weeks, although restrictions on non-essential businesses were in place only from March 23 to May 3.
For Nakajima, who works as a caterer for businesses, isolation was not hard at first.
“For the first month I was happy doing things at home that I wouldn’t normally have time for, like gardening, cleaning and relaxing,” she says. “I slept a lot and went out with my dog. But it was great to go back to work after six weeks. I could release the stress I didn’t know I had during lockdown and see my customers.”
Born in Japan to Japanese parents and brought up in Italy from a young age — with summers spent in Shikoku — Nakajima has long been bicultural. On returning to her role at LAILAC, however, she had new realizations about the society’s Italian and Japanese membership.
“For Italians, social distancing was harder, and they were more stressed to not have skin contact, to not greet people with a hug or kiss,” she says, adding that they have been vocal in asking for help. “Japanese people here are quiet. They’re grateful because they are generally in good health and to find out if they have a problem, you have to ask them — probably more than once.”
Nakajima estimates there are about 1,000 Japanese citizens in Florence, most of whom rely on tourism from Japan. Before the coronavirus outbreak, the city was a regular feature on Japanese tour operators’ itineraries due to its high concentration of Renaissance art and architecture.
Nakajima derived most of her income producing bento lunchboxes for these groups or hosting the “Japanese food corner” at large events. Now she makes Japanese-style curry and rice, ramen and donburi rice bowls for the local market.
The experience has left her more open and flexible when it comes to planning, much more like her Italian self than her Japanese self, she says.
“Compared to last year, we are working less and so have less money, but we are better socially,” Nakajima says. “We have more time for ourselves.”
Perhaps the hardest thing for the Japanese community in Florence, she says, is not traveling to Japan or welcoming extended family from Japan, which was common pre-pandemic.
The situation was looking more positive in the summer. LAILAC resumed classes in Japanese language, tea ceremony and traditional dance, albeit on a one-to-one basis, and representatives danced outside Uniqlo’s Milan store in September to mark its anniversary.
But a steep uptick in infections nationwide saw the return of lockdown in November, prompting the closure of LAILAC again. Still, Nakajima remains hopeful as progress is being made to curb transmission. Tuscany was downgraded in Italy’s three-step infection risk level from Red to Orange in mid-December.
Life looks bleaker in the United States. At more than 16 million confirmed cases, it tops the global ranking for the number of COVID-19 infections.
Eisai Ikenaga is the reverend of Nichiren Buddhist Temple of Portland, Oregon, a state that has seen rising cases of COVID-19 since the start of October.
Set up in 1924 by request of newly arrived Japanese immigrants, the temple has long been the heart of the Japanese community in the area. Its congregation consists of about 30 second- or third-generation families who enjoy coming together for services and other Japanese traditions as well as fellowship and social activities.
Japan-born, Hawaii-raised Ikenaga, who spent 20 years serving several Nichiren temples in Japan before becoming an international priest, says temple members are struggling to come to terms with the pandemic and its impact on their lives.
“In the beginning, people were very afraid,” he says. “They knew very little about how to keep the virus from spreading.”
In recent months, their difficulties have been exacerbated by political debate about the coronavirus, riots between extreme-right groups and Black Lives Matter protesters in the city, and the wildfires on the west coast of the United States. In September, Portland’s air quality was ranked 516th in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s air quality index, above its “hazardous” grouping of 300–500.
“Lots of things are making life difficult for people here, and all are putting pressure on each other,” he says.
Ikenaga is supporting the temple’s members as best he can. The temple remains closed since the state’s introduction of a stay-at-home order in mid-March, but he offers a weekly Zoom service comprising prayers at the altar and a sermon. While it’s more communicative than before as viewers can make comments, he says it can be harder to deliver.
“I’m looking out to a blank space,” he says. “Before I could read the audience, see reactions and know if they understood or not.”
Aside from the services, Ikenaga has been busy helping older members fearful of contracting COVID-19 and dying before being able to get their affairs in order.
“I think people are more conscious about their lives and see how ephemeral life is, how fragile we are,” he says, adding that the pandemic has caused him to think more deeply about Buddhist teachings.
For the people of Sudan, the fragility of life has been front of mind since the Sudanese revolution of 2018–19, which brought a coup d’etat and hundreds of deaths.
Stopping the spread of COVID-19 is just one of many duties tasked to the new government. With some 21,000 coronavirus cases as of mid-December, Sudan falls outside the top 100 countries with the highest number of cases, although the volume of testing per capita remains uncertain.
Akane Eltayeb, an Arabic–Japanese translator who has worked with NGO Rocinantes and a Japanese company in Sudan since 2007, says Japanese people in the capital, Khartoum, are “so tired” with it all. The mood swings from positive to negative, mostly because people don’t know what will happen in the near future.
“The revolution was a real danger to us; there were shootings and fires in the streets,” she says, adding that, compared to that, COVID-19 “is not as big an issue.”
Since the outbreak of coronavirus in the country in March, Khartoum has seen no panicking, she says. Rather, people have been diligently following advice regarding hand-washing and social distancing and abiding by several short-term lockdowns. Even during Ramadan, when men would traditionally have breakfast with neighbors and friends on the street, everyone stayed home.
Members of the close-kit Japanese community in the city swapped their usual meetups and casual parties for phone calls and Line messages for about three months to avoid the risk of transmission. But some remained deeply concerned about the outbreak and began to return to Japan. It is an exodus that began with the revolution.
Eltayeb estimates that as many as 170 Japanese people lived in Sudan in 2018, working mostly for aid agencies, mining companies or the Japanese Embassy. By the time of the coronavirus outbreak, that number had already fallen to about 70, and had further dwindled by the end of the summer to 40.
Eltayeb is among the Japanese nationals who reluctantly returned to Japan in September on the advice of the government in Tokyo. She held out as long as possible, pointing out that people in Japan are not truly aware of the situation in Sudan, but admits that Sudanese medical care has its limitations.
Despite current uncertainty about the trajectory of the pandemic and the possibility of international travel, Eltayeb longs to return to Khartoum, where she has made a home. Like many others, her long-term dreams are helping her through this pandemic.
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