“No longer were there individual destinies; only a collective destiny, made of plague and emotions shared by all.”
Many more people in Japan can identify that quote now than would have been the case two months ago. In 1947, when Albert Camus’ novel “The Plague” first appeared, it was interpreted allegorically. World War II had shattered the world. A plague seemed an all-too-fitting metaphor for man’s bleak fate among the ruins.
Now, it’s no allegory. Shinchosha, the book’s Japanese publisher, told the Mainichi Shimbun in March of speeded-up print runs to meet demand that has risen nearly eightfold since February, when the COVID-19 virus was detected in Japan.
“More than war, more than natural disaster, a plague reveals humanity’s true nature,” Kanazawa University political philosopher Masaki Nakamasa told the Asahi Shimbun in an interview published earlier this month. “It symbolizes the ‘unknown something’” to which we are eternally vulnerable.
What’s a plague? You can’t see it, or touch it, or smell it, and suddenly it’s everywhere, having sprung from nowhere — microbes killing us at will, languidly for now, in relatively small numbers, permitting us to hide if we have habitable hiding places, but who can say what ravaging virulence lies ahead?
Maybe it’ll peter out, leaving us shaken but resilient. Maybe not, and in a year, two years, life as we now know it will have altered out of recognition, in ways scarcely predictable. The “unknown something” is fearsome indeed.
There’s always an “unknown something.” On Sept. 11, 2001, it acquired a distinctively 21st-century cast, which in two short decades has taken us through a terrorist wave, technological revolution, economic recession, a longevity explosion, record-low birth rates, accelerated climate change, natural disasters, a nuclear meltdown, globalism, anti-globalism, populism, a rightwing authoritarian surge that puts democracy on the defensive — and now plague.
The technological revolution turns reality virtual and intelligence artificial. It raises a stark question: Are we gaining control of our lives, or losing it? Before COVID-19, artificial intelligence was the reigning “unknown something.” It changes everything it touches, and it touches everything: how we live, how we work, whether we’ll work, what we’ll do instead of work if intelligent machines make us redundant, what it means to be human in a world ruled by (will it come to this?) superhumanly intelligent machines — and so on. Endless questions, few answers. “Does the future hold a place for me?” Who can escape that question? Who can answer it?
An article in Shukan Shincho magazine earlier this month has nothing to do with artificial intelligence but much to do with technology’s fearful tendency to abort its own promise.
Japan, the article says, is an “agricultural chemical superpower.” Data it cites from the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development show Japan’s use, exceeded only by South Korea’s, soaring far above that of other developed countries. Insecticides known as neonicotinoids seemed especially effective when introduced in 1992. Between 2003 and 2014 their use, though under suspicion, regulation and outright ban elsewhere, doubled in Japan.
It was around 2003 that a phenomenon known as gakkyū hōkai (classroom breakdown) began spreading. Elementary and junior high school kids in increasing numbers became restless, inattentive, defiant, violent. Teachers couldn’t keep order. What was happening? Why this sudden corrosion of the most elementary discipline?
Might it have something to do with neonicotinoids? Researcher Junko Kimura-Kuroda thought it might. Her ongoing research doesn’t prove a cause-and-effect relationship between increased use of the insecticides and a rise in developmental disorders among children, but the coincidence, she says, is at least suggestive. What are we eating, and what’s it doing to us? The cost of abundance is high. How high? Nobody knows.
Civilization entails dependence on, and faith in, systems beyond our control. Advanced civilization entails extreme dependence. We don’t grow our own food, we buy it. We don’t die naturally when our bodies fail us, but under care decades later. Japan, aging faster and living longer than any society on Earth, present or past, is especially dependent on doctors, hospitals and pharmacists. What if the system breaks down? Shukan Post magazine this month imagines it happening. It’s cracking already, it says, under the strain of COVID-19.
A 48-year-old man suffering from a slipped disc goes to his rehabilitation clinic for his biweekly appointment. He finds the clinic closed. A notice on the door explains: no masks, no disinfectant; hopefully, but not certainly, it’ll reopen within a month. If not, the patient is in trouble. Rehab aside, the prescription medication that accompanies it keeps the pain tolerable and permits him to walk. Without it, he’s in a sorry state.
Let that one instance stand for many — for all of us, in fact, medically dependent and, for now, not, since tomorrow any one of us may be.
Fear feeds fraud, which feeds fear, which feeds more, more skillful, more lucrative fraud. Such was Shukan Bunshun magazine’s angle in a report earlier this month.
The phone rings: “Are you confident you won’t catch coronavirus?” No, of course not — who is? Well, the caller has just the reassurance you’re seeking: masks, health supplements, expert inspection of your home water supply, with installations to improve its purity, and so on. Go to this or that website, click here or there, send credit card information, admit us into your homes so one of us can rob you while the other distracts you with questions, or “repairs,” of what you have.
PS: If a caller invites you to invest in gold while the price is low and before the currency system collapses altogether — pass. (Which is not to guarantee the system won’t collapse.)
Japan is now under partial emergency rule. Nakamasa, the political philosopher, is worried. “We tend to accept (government-imposed restrictions on our freedom),” he tells the Asahi Shimbun, “if they’re in the name of health and sanitation.”
Camus, in “The Plague,” expressed a similar fear: “They fancied themselves free,” he wrote, “and no one will ever be free so long as there are pestilences.”
Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations. Michael Hoffman’s latest book, “Cipangu, Golden Cipangu: Essays in Japanese History,” is now on sale.
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