It doesn’t compute. Why, asks Bungei Shunju magazine (February), should Japan be suffering a medical breakdown? Its medical infrastructure is among the world’s best; its doctors are well-trained and highly skilled; coronavirus rages starkly less virulently here than in many other places. And yet a system that should have held firm — Japan has more hospital beds per capita than any other country — is reeling and buckling under a “third wave.” Patients needing care are being turned away. The virus is killing around 100 people a day.
Whatever can go wrong will, goes the popular epigram known as Murphy’s Law. We know, we know, chorus survivors of 2020. The postponed Olympic Games that Tokyo was to have hosted last year are on track (so far) to proceed this summer, the government swimming against a vast current of public anxiety, with only 14%, according to a recent Kyodo News poll, supporting this symbolic return to life as we once knew it.
Are we ready for it? Isn’t it premature? We can’t eat together, drink together, travel together or do much of anything together — or even count on being admitted to a hospital, should the need arise. Can we gather together by the tens and hundreds of thousands at sports events, opening the country to the world as the Olympic spirit demands?
We most certainly can, says an eminent virologist who shares his views with Shukan Post magazine (Jan. 29). Canceling the games is “nonsense,” he says, using the English word for emphasis.
“Nonsense,” “sense” — how does one distinguish one from the other? By thinking, by acquiring knowledge. Education is the key. Modern life is inconceivable without it. The pursuit of education dominates — overwhelms, say some — life’s first phase; likewise, indirectly, its second, as parents fret, toil and sacrifice their leisure, freedom and financial security to ensure the best and most expensive for their children.
Is it worth it? asks Shukan Gendai magazine (Jan. 9-16). Note first of all, it says, the high educational attainments of the politicians and bureaucrats knocked so brusquely off stride by the virus. They passed all the tests — the “paper tests” — whose relevance to real wisdom and real life were in question long before COVID-19 reared its ugly, challenging head.
A corollary issue is: Does academic success lead to happiness? Shukan Gendai offers a cautionary tale:
“What failures we’ve been as parents,” sighs a 47-year-old Tokyo homemaker.
She met her husband 20-odd years ago at the trading company they both worked for — she as a clerk, he as a fast-rising executive star, a graduate of Keio University’s law faculty whose abilities matched his boundless ambition.
Their son was born. He’ll be like his dad, his dad decided. Best schools, strictest discipline, brightest prospects. Admission to a top private high school was the first reward, betokening more and better to come. “Study, study,” exhorted dad. “Forget playing, gaming, sports, fun, you’ve no time for that, you have higher goals.” But he didn’t. Keio’s law faculty didn’t interest him. Nothing else seemed to either. He cracked under the strain, dropped out of school. Now 18, he’s a hikikomori, scarcely leaving his room, his future narrowing fast. Dad’s crushed, the boy’s miserable, and poor mom — “‘It’s all your fault,’ he shouts at me; ‘why did I have to inherit your brains?’”
We inherit the brains we inherit; there’s not much we can do about it. Bungei Shunju, in its report on medical breakdown, discerns a certain inflexibility in Japan’s collective brain that curiously unfits it for graceful adaptation. The new and unexpected unnerve and derail it. It clings to old modes. Political stagnation is the leading symptom in normal times; medical breakdown in these.
On paper — one thinks again of “paper tests” — Japan’s medical establishment is world-leading. It has the most hospitals (roughly 8,300), the most beds per capita (13.1 per 1,000 population, as against 2.8 in the the U.K. and 2.6 in the U.S), an adequate though not leading number of doctors and nurses, and (though it hardly seems so) relatively few infections — some 8,000 a day versus the 280,000 cases seen in the U.S. and the 60,000 in the U.K.
The undermining flaw Bungei Shunju pinpoints is the small-business outlook of most Japanese hospitals. Eighty percent of them are private, run on the profit motive, competing with each other for patients. To open their wards to coronavirus sufferers is to risk what to a small hospital could be a death sentence — cluster infection and consequent notoriety. Better claim incapacity and thrust the burden on others. What others?
“Nonsense,” snaps Kyoto University virologist Takayuki Miyazawa in response to talk of canceling the Olympics. Sporting events pose no risk, he tells Shukan Post. Supposing a million foreign visitors come. Welcome. PCR testing at customs will weed out the infected. Coronavirus is weakly contagious, especially in summer. Animated conversation face to face over meals and drinks risks hazardous saliva sprays; keep your eyes on the athletes, mask your faces, mute your cheering and relax — have a good time.
That’s reassuring. Will it reassure? Should it? What if he’s wrong? Or right as of now but wrong long-term because of something unforeseen arising between now and summer, or active now but unnoticed?
Ask — as Spa magazine does (Jan. 26) — stranded foreign workers here about unforeseen developments. Was the pandemic foreseeable when a certain 34-year-old Nepalese man migrated to Japan four years ago in search of work? He waited on tables at an Indian restaurant in Tokyo. The virus shut it down. He found another job; then, at reduced hours and pay, a third. He lives in a small room he shares with three countrymen. He earns ¥80,000 a month, sending as much as he can home to his family.
The story ends happily — not because his cramped, confining, hand-to-mouth circumstances are happy, but because he is.
Poverty in Tokyo is tough but not grinding, compared to poverty in rural Nepal. He’s happy to be here — happy with a happiness nothing, it seems, can defeat. Such happiness is a gift to those possessing it, and a lesson, maybe, to those who don’t.
Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations. Michael Hoffman’s latest book is “Cipangu, Golden Cipangu: Essays in Japanese History.”
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