Commentary / Japan | Opinion

COVID-19 versus Japan's culture of collectivism

by Paul De Vries

Contributing writer

The Tokyo cherry blossoms bloomed in late March. The public couldn’t resist. Case numbers of COVID-19 surged, leading many Western pundits to predict that Tokyo would become the next New York.

It has not occurred. Daily tallies for Tokyo have fallen as low as single digits. Active case numbers are in decline. Japan’s cumulative total of deaths from the new coronavirus is less than the average daily number of fatalities from the pandemic in the United States. Lockdown has proven unnecessary here. The medical system is holding the line.

Cities and states in the U.S. and elsewhere are attempting to restart their economies in abridged form. Japanese economic activity has never fallen beneath the level to which they aspire. Life has gone on, if not as normal, at least in the form that the new normal will comprise.

Japan has succeeded in countering both the initial advance of COVID-19 and a complacency spike. Reasons proffered have been many and varied. One that may yet attract increasing attention is its culture of collectivism.

The mantra routinely heard from Western commentators in respect to COVID-19 is “test, test, test.” Testing, however, does not prevent infection. That is achieved when individuals progress from contraction through to death or recovery without passing the virus on.

An impediment to that aim is the asymptomatic condition of some carriers, resulting in no one being certain whether they are infected or not. The most appropriate form of prevention is thereby for all to assume they have contracted the virus and act accordingly.

Practical measures include mask wearing and touching as few public objects as possible. They differ from those that are primarily needed to avoid contracting the virus itself, which are washing one's hands and avoiding hand-to-face contact. Social distancing has commonality to both avoidance and prevention.

A stumbling block of the “assumption of carrier” countermeasure is that it requires people to endure discomfort for the sake of the collective good, despite the likelihood of being COVID-19 free. Persuading a critical mass of the population to accept such an imposition is a challenging task, especially when new case numbers are in decline.

Three of the motivating factors that induce Japanese nationals to adhere are courtesy, obligation and shame. Courtesy is the willingness to act out of genuine concern for others. Obligation involves placing the needs of the group before those of oneself. Shame is fear of what others might think if one does not comply to group or societal norms.

There is no shortage of courtesy among the silent majority of the West, as unlikely as that can sometimes seem. A sense of obligation also exists, but typically toward groups less large than society as a whole. Shame, on the other hand, is not a dominant Western trait.

Additionally, in some regions of the West, anti-collectivist behavior can be a source of identity and pride. Not everyone within Japan plays the collectivist game. Personal observation suggests that present-day mask wearing runs at around 95 percent, but one wonders how those abstainers would respond if confronted by a TV crew. Probably with a sheepish reply. This differs from the United States, where mask-less demonstrators have been rejecting the notion of social distancing as anti-libertarian, as, indeed, has President Donald Trump himself.

The concept of liberty is an interesting one. The dictionary informs it to be “the state of being free within society from oppressive restrictions imposed by authority on one’s way of life, behavior, or political views.” Many, however, might wish to facetiously counter with “the right to act irresponsibly, purely because you can.” Regrettably, that would be consistent with the way in which liberty is all-too-commonly claimed.

An example of asserted liberty during the early days of Japan’s COVID-19 experience was telling. In late January, the government began the repatriation of Japanese nationals out of the COVID-19 epicenter of Wuhan, China. Lacking the legal framework for mandatory quarantine, it requested that the evacuees submit to testing, and undertake 14 days of self isolation. Two of the compliment refused to be tested, leaving Prime Minister Shinzo Abe with no recourse other than to bemoan how “extremely regrettable” the situation had become.

This story, however, had a less than libertarian ending. The families of the two had their say and both rapidly relented. The irresistible force of liberty, it proved, was no match for that of Japanese collectivism.

Significantly, in Australia and New Zealand, Western nations with broad similarities to the U.S., dubious applications of liberty are generally given short shrift. These two nations have fared far better with COVID-19 than the U.S. The reasons are again many and varied, but their interpretation of liberty is surely one of them.

In fairness, collectivism is a concept for which facetious definitions can also be offered. There are times when the merits of collectivist culture can be called into question, as any Japanese national will readily concede. Dealing with pandemic, however, is not one of them.

“Illness becomes Wellness,” declared Malcolm X, the U.S. human rights activist, “when 'I' is replaced with 'We'.” So it would seem, of the Japanese experience with COVID-19.

Paul de Vries is an Australian writer based in Japan. His book“ Remembering Santayana: the Lessons Unlearnt from the War Against Japan” is available from Amazon.

Your news needs your support

Since the early stages of the COVID-19 crisis, The Japan Times has been providing free access to crucial news on the impact of the novel coronavirus as well as practical information about how to cope with the pandemic. Please consider subscribing today so we can continue offering you up-to-date, in-depth news about Japan.

Coronavirus banner