When prefectures post “keep out” signs against people from other prefectures, idealists and visionaries of universal human brotherhood must, failing indestructible reserves of courage, conviction and blind faith, acknowledge that their ideals are in retreat.

Race glowers at race, nation at nation, religion at religion — in defiance of the hopes of great leaders such as Martin Luther King (1929-68), who said, “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools”; or Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948): “Whenever you are confronted with an opponent, conquer him with love.”

Japan now presents the spectacle (quite apart from anxieties stirred by the Go To Travel campaign) of prefecture glowering at prefecture. Iwate Prefecture in particular is circling the wagons. Alone among Japan’s prefectures, it has so far escaped the COVID-19 plague. It has no confirmed infections. It wants to keep it that way.

“No service to out-of-prefecture people,” read several signs an Asahi Shimbun reporter spots at some shops and restaurants.

A woman drives to a supermarket in the Iwate city of Kitakami. A small crowd confronts her in the parking lot. “Don’t be spreading corona virus here!” they yell.

She lives locally but drives a car with Tokyo plates. “I never thought people could be so frightening,” she tells the newspaper.

That happened in May. Since then, she has been going shopping by bicycle. Better the inconvenience of a half-hour bike ride than a potentially explosive altercation.

In April, the Mainichi Shimbun told a more tragic story. A 72-year-old Tokyo man who years before had fallen in love with Iwate’s culture and hot springs decided in March to move in permanently. His new neighbors gave him a cold welcome — so much so that he felt obliged to immediately leave his first apartment and choose another. Days later a fire broke out in the building next door. It spread and the man burned to death, no one responding to his cries for help.

The Asahi Shimbun speaks of cars with out-of-prefecture plates sporting windshield stickers — some handmade, others distributed free of charge by municipalities — with the words, “I am an Iwate resident.” The subtext is, “Don’t harass me, I’m one of you.”

The need to grovel like that for acceptance hardly bodes well for living “together as brothers.” The Asahi Shimbun report mentions worse attacks in other prefectures. Out-of-prefecture motorists have been pelted with rocks and intimidated by reckless driving. A pandemic doesn’t always bring out the best in people.

“We have flown the air like birds and swum the sea like fishes,” King once said, “but have yet to learn the simple act of walking the Earth like brothers.”

It’s true that we have yet to learn it — maybe because it’s not true that it’s simple. The evidence suggests that differences repel us more powerfully than our common humanity unites us.

One wonders why this should be. Different diets and different climates produce different body odors whose immediate effect is to repel the uninitiated. A foreign language sounds like mere noise — like “bar-bar,” the ancient Greeks thought, giving us our word “barbarian.”

That our primitive, insular, ignorant ancestors, with no intellectual defenses against the most violent passions, their lives ever shadowed by fear of sudden death coming from they knew not where, should have regarded strangers with suspicion and loathing can hardly surprise us. That such feelings survive, apparently impervious to thousands of years’ worth of civilizing influence, has yet to be satisfactorily explained.

Their survival in even the highest civilizations — in Japan, for instance — confounds immigrants and would-be refugees.

“I was not treated like a human being,” Mehmet Colak, a Kurdish applicant for refugee status told the Mainichi Shimbun in June 2019, describing his treatment at the hands of immigration officials and speaking for many in similar circumstances.

Human beings not being treated as human beings is the crux of the matter. It underlies the worldwide Black Lives Matter protests sparked by the death in May of an African American in police custody. Demonstrators in Japan defied compatriots who insist it is not a Japanese problem. Of course it’s a Japanese problem — it’s a human problem.

There’s no blaming Iwate Prefecture for wanting to keep infection out. What would King and Gandhi say? That there must be a better way than branding outsiders as contagious almost by definition? One likes to think there must be — but what is it?

The Asahi Shimbun is reminded of the instinctive fear of products and even people from Fukushima Prefecture following the nuclear meltdowns there in 2011, not dispelled to this day. Radiation and viruses terrify us. Science says, “Be calm, weigh the evidence.” Evidence concerning Fukushima is that its products are safe. Evidence concerning COVID-19 is that it’s out of control.

It could set back “learn(ing) to live together as brothers” decades.

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.”

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