Some disasters bring us together. The 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake spawned volunteerism on a scale unprecedented in Japan. What’s volunteerism? Doing good for its own sake — not for profit. Volunteers coalesced into nonprofit organizations, given official status by the Nonprofit Organization Law of 1998. It was idealism in motion: By 2015, NPOs numbered more than 50,000, according to the Japan NPO Center.
The Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011, triggering tsunamis and nuclear meltdowns, was catastrophic, one would think, almost beyond human endurance. Its sufferings and dislocations are not healed to this day. And yet, one of the enduring memories is a happy one, enshrined in the “kanji of the year” that year — kizuna (human bonds), seen as not only surviving the shock but strengthened by it. We drew closer to one another — recognizing perhaps our common vulnerability to that whose kanji came in second: wazawai (disaster). Strikingly, positive thinking triumphed over what circumstances seemed to be very heavily favoring — namely, negative thinking.
COVID-19 is a crisis of a different color. Its victims are infectious, possibly fatally so. There are heroes whose sympathies are stronger than their fear. Suffering and death, without their unceasing work, would be much greater. The debt the world owes them is beyond repayment. Lesser mortals salute them but do not, by and large, emulate them. The natural, instinctive and, from a purely practical point of view, rational response was encapsulated through Golden Week in a Kanagawa Prefecture road sign: “Do not come to Kanagawa now.”
Keep out. Stay home. Get away from me. It’s not mean-spiritedness, unless self-preservation is. The worst that can be said of it is that it’s not heroic.
Many of the heroes are medical workers and caregivers. Their burden is overwhelming. The system cracks under the strain. “Medical breakdown is already occurring,” a doctor tells Shukan Gendai magazine this month.
Medical breakdown means hospitals turning sick people away because they’re sick. Keep out. Stay home. Shukan Shincho magazine this month introduces a 35-year-old man who awoke one morning in late March to fever, lethargy and a slight headache. He took some cold medicine and went to work. Several days later, his morning orange juice tasted funny. Was it the new coronavirus? Dulled taste is one of the symptoms.
Then it got serious — nausea, dizziness, profuse sweating. He called an ambulance, was taken to hospital, tested positive. “Go home, rest,” he was told. He did, and got worse. He called the hospital. “We’re short of beds,” they said. At this rate, he thought, I’ll die. He was finally admitted, and recovered. Not everyone is so lucky.
A 42-year-old executive living apart from his family developed symptoms and tested positive. He, too, Shukan Shincho says, was sent home. The hospital had no beds. His fever was high, his breathing labored. He is diabetic — a potentially fatal complication. Desperate, sometimes choking, he has his wife call him three times a day. If she can’t reach him, she’ll know to call an ambulance.
The World Bank in April released a report estimating the pandemic will push 40-60 million people worldwide into extreme poverty. Japan is not mentioned in the report. Its poverty pales beside that of sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. If that’s a comfort to Japan’s extreme poor, they don’t mention it to Spa magazine, which featured their plight in its first issue this month.
They’d been poor but surviving before the pandemic. Now, in some cases — like that of a 41-year-old man encountered in Tokyo’s Shinjuku neighborhood holding up a handwritten sign that reads, “Please help me” — their very survival seems in question.
The nursing care facility he’d worked at for 12 years went bankrupt last August, months before the virus struck. His low-paying, 14-hour days there had seemed at the best of times like slavery. Losing the job at first felt more liberating than threatening. He was experienced, he’d find something. If not, day jobs would do. With his job he also lost his residence — he had roomed at a facility dormitory — but even that was tolerable. There were net cafes. One could sleep there.
And so he did, earning enough to get by washing dishes in pubs — until COVID-19 closed the pubs. It closed the net cafes, too. Homeless and near-penniless, he sleeps now on a park bench and if he eats once a day, “that’s good.” Inquiring at City Hall about welfare payments, he was told he didn’t qualify. He’s not sure why. Maybe he took no for an answer too easily.
What of the future? asks Spa. He points to his sign. Something will turn up. He hopes so, anyway. If not, “I may as well die,” he says calmly.
Spa could have told him — perhaps did — of NPO free food services at various locations around Tokyo. At one in Shinjuku, the reporter meets, among the 100 or so people lined up for lunch, a 50-year-old man similarly left homeless by the epidemic. His day jobs shut down, his dormitory closed. “Sleeping rough wears you down,” he says. What if he gets infected? “I have no income — could I even get into a hospital?” Even with an income it’s hard.
Down to his last ¥10,000, he listened eagerly when an NPO representative suggested he try City Hall. Three days later Spa’s reporter got a phone call. The man was jubilant. Either there’s a degree of arbitrariness written into the system, or else standards apply that are not readily comprehensible to outsiders. Be that as it may, he was found eligible for welfare benefits. He’ll survive, if nothing else — perhaps to get back on his feet once the emergency passes, assuming it will pass.
Almost everything does, and this probably will too. Shukan Gendai, meanwhile, drops a grim statistic. The economic collapse of 2008 sent unemployment in Japan soaring. Calculations based on that suggest that every 1 percent rise in unemployment generates 10,000 suicides. The light at the end of this tunnel, when it comes, will not come cheap.
Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations. Michael Hoffman’s latest book, now on sale, is “Cipangu, Golden Cipangu: Essays in Japanese History.”