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Japan has found itself in a unique predicament. While governments around the world have responded to the spread of the new coronavirus by instituting draconian measures to curtail social interaction, Japan’s central and local governments have no authority to implement or enforce such measures. Instead, they’re relying on something else to convince citizens to socially distance: persuasion.

The initial results of this approach have not not been encouraging.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has set a target of reducing social interactions by 80 percent. However, recent data suggests that, at least in Tokyo, foot traffic and public transport ridership have dropped by only about half of that. This raises the question: What if this approach isn’t enough to suppress the virus’s spread?

The roots of the country’s current predicament lie in its history immediately following World War II, when the occupying Allied Forces took charge of drafting a new, hyper-liberal Constitution, hoping to prevent Japanese society from relapsing into authoritarianism. Postwar efforts to revise this Constitution quickly became tangled up in Cold War debates about remilitarization that continue to this day.

Yet Japanese history may also provide a solution to the current problem, in the form of two of the country’s most durable local institutions — neighborhood associations (chо̄naikai) and residents’ associations (jichikai).

Anyone who has lived in Japan will have encountered one of these. It’s the neighborhood associations that oversee elaborate protocols for trash separation and that organize local festivals, among other things. They occupy a curious niche between state and society: Membership is voluntary, but they perform a number of services that would be provided by municipal authorities in other countries, while also frequently working with government officials to help mold the behavior of individual citizens.

Neighborhood associations have long played a particularly important role in responding to disasters. The oldest associations arguably date back to the Edo Period (1603-1868), when townsmen formed communal organizations to guard against the periodic fires that ripped through cities. Many modern associations later formed in the immediate aftermath of the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, and during the interwar period became the primary institutional framework for communities when responding to fires, crime and disease.

The role of the associations was amplified during World War II, when the government passed a law making membership compulsory. As the war effort ramped up, associations became the primary instrument for homefront mobilization, helping to whip up patriotic fervor, sell war bonds, dig air raid shelters and distribute ration coupons.

After the war, the U.S. Occupation authorities attempted to abolish the associations, viewing them solely as instruments of totalitarian rule. But many either survived under another guise or quickly reformed after the Occupation ended, so that by 1958 they could be found in 98 percent of municipalities. The same housewives who had badgered their neighbors to buy war bonds returned to doorsteps only a few years later, this time soliciting Red Cross donations and flogging bonds to aid national reconstruction.

Children belonging to a neighborhood association compete by carrying buckets with water as part of a disaster prevention drill in Tokyo in April 1943. | KYODO
Children belonging to a neighborhood association compete by carrying buckets with water as part of a disaster prevention drill in Tokyo in April 1943. | KYODO

And although membership was now once again purely voluntary, a degree of state coordination continued. According to a recent survey, some 300,000 neighborhood and residents’ associations continue to operate across the country, often working closely with local governments to achieve shared objectives.

Neighborhood associations are something of a sociological Rorschach test. For some they are a hive of nags and busybodies who take inordinate pleasure in sticking their nose into other people’s business. For others they are the glue that holds Japanese society together, maintaining community solidarity in the face of modernity’s alienating individualism. The reality is that they are both. But it is during disasters that they truly shine, helping arrange food and housing for victims of typhoons and earthquakes, for example.

Now, with the disaster that is the COVID-19 pandemic growing larger in scope each day, neighborhood associations can play an outsized role in preventing the disease’s spread.

To do so, the associations will require an infusion of new, younger members. Participation rates have dwindled markedly in recent years, and membership now skews toward seniors — the demographic most vulnerable to the virus. Younger members will be needed to introduce technology, helping to move the usual face-to-face meetings online via messaging apps and videoconferencing tools.

Younger members’ more resilient immune systems would also make them better placed to promote social distancing in public spaces, reminding people to wear masks, urging the sick to self-quarantine and discouraging revelers from crowding into bars, izakaya pubs and parks.

This isn’t an unrealistic prospect.

For all the hand-wringing about selfish, individualistic millennials, 4.4 percent of teenagers and 3.4 percent of 20-somethings already participate in neighborhood association activities at least once a month. Moreover, youth membership has often swelled dramatically during previous crises. There is reason for optimism that the same may happen now.

The virus-induced economic downturn has cost many their jobs and left others stuck working at home, desperate for any chance to leave the house. The closure of schools has left teenagers, in particular, with a great deal of free time. As the young seem to be particularly resistant to COVID-19, the associations could pair up middle and high school students to conduct patrols of local areas, suitably masked, of course, while maintaining the requisite 2-meter distance from one another.

What I am suggesting here might sound sinister — the idea of creating civil-society peer surveillance networks will remind many of the authoritarianism that pervaded Japan’s wartime “dark valley.” Indeed, as recently as a month ago I could hardly have imagined myself typing these words. But things change quickly in “corona-time,” and the virus has a habit of forcing us to make choices that previously would have been unthinkable.

A failure to halt the disease’s march in Japan could lead to up to 420,000 deaths. Yet effective suppression may require convincing millions to practice social distancing of some form for many months. Individual self-restraint simply may not be enough to sustain such a long-haul effort.

And while using civilian surveillance to mold behavior would assuredly provoke resentment, it’s still treating the problem with kid gloves compared to the wartime use of the associations or the strict lockdowns currently being enforced elsewhere.

None of the admonitions meted out by neighborhood associations would carry any legal weight. All they can do is establish norms of etiquette — shaming people who choose to unnecessarily put others’ health at risk.

There’s also every chance that the associations will prove even more useful when the time comes to ease social distancing strictures.

After the state of emergency is lifted, COVID-19 suppression efforts will necessarily shift from a blanket quasi-lockdown to a mixture of granular surveillance and targeted containment of localized outbreaks. This has been the approach adopted in mainland China — the only country that has so far worked out how to emerge from a full-blown lockdown — where temperature checkpoints and contact tracing of patients will be routine for the foreseeable future.

Neighborhood associations would make ideal vehicles to implement such measures. Analogue monitoring within communities may prove both less oppressive and more effective than whatever centralized digital apparatus the government manages to devise.

For all their faults, neighborhood associations also help build community solidarity — a resource that will be sorely needed in the months to come. Those same institutions, which will remind people to keep their physical distance from each other, could also help them forge new connections, acting as vehicles to deliver food, medicine and psychological comfort to those most impacted by the disease. Communities might even emerge from the current crisis stronger than they were before.

Ultimately, in something of a paradox, the best way to maintain social distancing may well be to band together.

Paul Kreitman is assistant professor of 20th Century Japanese history at Columbia University.

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