As many across the country continue to spend an unprecedented amount of time at home amid the coronavirus outbreak, parallels are being drawn with another period in history that offered a similar social landscape: the Showa Era (1926-89).
Most Japanese people who are older than 50 are quick to highlight memories of their time as a child before the introduction of modern technology changed life permanently.
It was a time in which sewing machines were common at home, groceries were delivered to a family’s front door and people wore face masks when they caught colds. Right now, that all sounds eerily familiar.
With many small and medium-sized businesses struggling to stay afloat financially at present, a few companies have actually seen an uptick in business since the government announced a nationwide state of emergency on April 16, particularly those offering sewing machines, bicycles, three-wheeled scooters and restaurant deliveries.
According to Nikkei.com, sewing machines are flying off the shelves as people attempt to produce their own cloth face masks amid the existing shortage in stores nationwide. The simplest models that cost around ¥10,000 are attracting most attention, with a company in Osaka named Akkusu Yamazaki reporting that its sales have tripled over the past month.
And while that does indeed sound like a trip down memory lane, there’s a distinction — Akkusu Yamazaki’s sewing machines are smartphone friendly and come with instructions via a QR code on mask making. There’s even a small socket on the machine in which to place a smartphone, so beginners can refer to their devices as they sew.
In Tokyo, meanwhile, a company called Auto Avenue is making three-wheeled scooters available to restaurants as the hospitality industry pivots toward home deliveries. Three-wheeled scooters are one of the iconic symbols of the latter part of the Showa Era, when restaurants and eateries swapped bicycles for scooters in order to meet a growing demand for hot food and speedy delivery.
Functional, durable and outfitted with protective safety gear, the three-wheeled scooter is now being deployed by leading restaurant chains such as Skylark Holdings, and Auto Avenue says that it has also seen rental sales triple over the past three weeks.
The use of standard bicycles is also gaining traction. According to FNN.jp, an increasing number of workers are cycling to work in an attempt to avoid getting infected on public transportation. With much fewer cars on the road, cycling in Tokyo hasn’t been this enjoyable for decades. However, experts have warned cyclists to wear masks and avoid crowds at any cost, while maintaining a sizable distance with other cyclists is also mandatory.
At home, an increasing number of people appear to be rediscovering the old-fashioned pleasure of reading a book. Before COVID-19, this pursuit had largely been replaced by smartphones, but now many are trying to slash the amount of time they spend on their devices. Book clubs have popped up on social media, using hashtags such as #コロナだからこそ本を読もう, (#KoronadakarakosoHonoYomou, or “Because of the Coronavirus, Now It’s Time to Read Books”) to inspire others to join their crusade.
Meanwhile, Jiji.com reports that the Japan Fencing Association has set up an extensive library for the benefit of athletes and Olympic committee staff members confined to their homes. The association says it will continue to manage the library even after the lockdown is lifted in a bid to support their athletes “in continuing with their lives beyond the Olympic Games.”
The nostalgia associated with the Showa Era — albeit one supported by advances in technology — could help repair and rebuild a post-virus Japan, some suggest. Cho Kanjyun, a professor emeritus of Tokyo University, tells Nikkei.com that in the aftermath of COVID-19, it’s going to be necessary to see an increased reliance on local communities.
“From now on, more people will be working and conducting their daily lives within much smaller, local communities,” he says.
He also notes that the pandemic has highlighted how inherently fragile a mega-metropolis can be and raised awareness on why more solid infrastructure outside of urban centers needs to be created.
Until the early 1970s, local communities formed the vertebrae of society in Japan. There was comfort in seeing familiar faces in the neighborhood and convenience in picking up a phone to order groceries. At that time, people moved in very small worlds that consisted of their home, workplace, schools and perhaps a handful of shops and parks.
Under COVID-19 restrictions, our world may have shrunk to Showa Era proportions, but it’s perhaps worthwhile to seek a bit of solace from a period of time when a small world was the norm.