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Calls for solidarity have been commonplace during the COVID-19 pandemic. Back in January, when the second state of emergency was first declared, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga expressed this sentiment: “感染防止のため政府と国民が一丸となっての対応” (Kansen bōshi no tame seifu to kokumin ga ichigan to natte no taiō, The government and the people [must work together] as a whole to curb infections).

The term 一丸となる (ichigan to naru, to become one) represents the idea of 心を一つにしたひとかたまり (kokoro o hitotsu ni shita hito katamari, one whole united in heart) and 一つにまとまること (hitotsu ni matomaru koto, collected as one), but it’s not interchangeable with the similar 一体となる (ittai to naru, to become a whole). The difference? 一丸 (ichigan) is composed of several individual parts that can be separated, while 一体 (ittai) implies oneness via fusion; the parts become inseparable. So when calling for solidarity or cooperation, 一丸となって is a particularly useful phrase to mean “unite.”

But phrases like this can also be viewed with skepticism. While the 二度目の緊急事態宣言 (nidome no kinkyū jitai sengen, second state of emergency declaration) has proven to have some positive effects as daily case numbers continue to decrease, I couldn’t help but ponder Suga’s statement: 私たちは今どれくらい一丸となっているのだろうか (watashi-tachi wa ima dorekurai ichigan to natte-iru no darō ka, how united are we right now)?

There are different ways of interpreting this. Politically, with a low approval rating of 38% and a disapproval rating of 44% at the start of February, 菅総理が政府と国民を一丸にすることに成功した証拠は少ない (Suga-sōri ga seifu to kokumin o ichigan ni suru koto ni seikō shita shōko wa sukunai, there is little evidence that Prime Minister Suga succeeded in unifying the government and the people as a whole). Furthermore, his leadership skills were once again called into question when he failed to take action against 五輪組織委員会森会長の女性蔑視発言 (gorin soshiki iinkai Mori kaichō no josei besshi hatsugen, president of the Tokyo Organising Committee Yoshiro Mori’s discriminatory remarks against women).

Another way to think about this question is through public mood. For this, last year’s kanji of the year, 密 (mitsu, close or dense) may offer some insights. While the kanji has connotations of togetherness, in this case it embodies something to be avoided. The now ubiquitous motto “3密を避ける (sanmitsu o sakeru, avoid the 3C’s)” serves as a constant reminder to 自粛 (jishuku, self-restraint) and social distance. Combined, they seem to represent a core principle of the so-called 新たな日常 (aratana nichijō, new normal) brought on by the 新型コロナウイルス (shingata koronauirusu, novel coronavirus), and it has left many feeling frustrated and alone, rather than 一丸.

So, what can be done to achieve a greater sense of solidarity?

In September of last year, Suga outlined his 社会像 (shakaizō, vision for society) as being composed of 自助 (jijo, self-help), 共助 (kyōjo, cooperation), 公助 (kōjo, rescue and assistance [by public bodies]) and 絆 (kizuna, interpersonal bonds). This last kanji, 絆, is of particular interest, as it also happens to be the kanji of the year for 2011. It was chosen as an expression of the widely reported solidarity that emerged among residents of Tohoku during and after the 東日本大地震災 (Higashi Nihon daishinsai, Great East Japan Earthquake).

But in order for any such 絆 to be formed, まず信頼の回復が必要だ (mazu shinrai no kaifuku ga hitsuyō da, first regaining trust is necessary). Given the various controversies that have contributed to Suga’s downfall in opinion polls up until this point — the Go To Travel campaign, the 会食問題 (kaishoku mondai, the problem [with government officials] eating out), 森会長の女性蔑視発言 and the lack of 透明性 (tōmeisei, transparency) about how the Japanese government is handling the pandemic — 残念ながら (zannen nagara, unfortunately), the hurdle for achieving 一丸 seems difficult.

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