For reasons that go without saying, public health has been on my mind a lot these days. I’ve been thinking about Japan’s response to this situation and the cultural factors that contributed to it. As I thought, three incidents from my time working as a teacher came to mind.

A few months after first coming to Japan, I was informed I would receive a vaguely defined “employee health check.” On heading into the meeting hall I was directed to, I was shocked to see many of my fellow coworkers and co-teachers receiving all kinds of tests, spread all throughout the large room, sometimes with only a clinical blue curtain for privacy. I stumbled through getting my blood drawn, measurements taken, receiving an ECG, and more in halting Japanese, all with my coworkers doing the same thing just a few feet away. I wondered how I – or anyone – could possibly get used to receiving something as private as healthcare in the company of one’s coworkers. To be honest, it felt a little invasive.

However, a few months after that, I started to understand. One day, class was cut short so students could get a checkup. As they filed out of the classroom to the school nurse’s office, with a start I realized that, in fact, my “invasive” health check totally made sense. It wasn’t about destroying privacy; rather, just like the students, we were a group so our health was checked as a group. Of course – if a single student is sick, it affects the whole class. No matter my individual decisions, my health would always be influenced by those around me, and vice versa.

A few months later still, the picture got even clearer. I had caught influenza, and while languishing at home, I heard a knock on the door. It was a co-teacher, with something to eat and sincere inquiries about my health. Rather than feeling annoyed at the intrusion, my own reaction surprised me: I was grateful for the care this showed. After all, I was a part of the school system. If I was sick, the system was sick.

When I was looking at a chart that seemed to show the relatively slow growth of covid-19 in Japan, and wondering why this could be the case, these incidents came to mind. Of course, I’m not an expert. Everything could completely transform in a day. However, I tend to think that teaching children to think of health as a group endeavor – you can’t just worry about yourself, what matters is the whole group’s health – has an impact on society, when those children grow up. This could make managing a pandemic a bit easier: there’s a head start, so to speak.

As of this writing, Iwate has no cases, but even so, there’s a vague tension in the air, like people are bracing for impact. Hand sanitizer is everywhere, as well as reminders about proper hygiene and posters about coughing etiquette. Supermarkets have announcements describing their measures for sanitizing the store. As usual, many people wear masks, though they are harder to come by these days.

Many events around the country have been scaled back, postponed, or canceled, and Oshu is not an exception. One example is the Hitaka Hibuse Festival in late April. A festival dating back 300 years and an intangible cultural property of Iwate, the Hitaka Hibuse Festival has roots as a celebration to prevent fires in the community. It features brilliant, colorful hayashi-yatai floats with performers playing traditional Japanese music, creating a dreamlike atmosphere.

Maesawa Spring Festival has also been canceled. This street festival features dance performances from 42 and 25-year-olds about to experience yakudoshi (an unlucky year.)  As someone who only came to Oshu in October last year, these signature festivals were things I was strongly looking forward to during my first spring in Oshu.

Everything is very unsure right now, but I’m trying to think of this as a group effort: even as we’re apart physically, we’re together psychologically. As much pain and fear that’s gripped the world in the past few weeks – it’s still hard to believe it’s been such a short time – there’s also been humor and hope. From videos of music from the balconies of Italian homes, to stories of Americans helping each other get supplies at the supermarket, to people around the world helping each other in truly countless ways, it’s been heartening to see people working together. Meanwhile I’ve been trying to practice gratitude; even though it’s not always easy, I know I’ve been lucky in innumerable ways.

I’d like to close with my favorite story of solidarity from this pandemic. In the early days, Japan gave China masks and other medical supplies with a note on the boxes: 山川異域 風月同天、a line from a Chinese poem meaning “our lands are different, but we have the same sky.” Later, China sent supplies to Italy, with a classical Roman poem. It read “siamo onde dello stesso mare: we are waves from the same sea.”










日本は中国にマスクなどの医療品を送った際、中国の詩を箱に書きました。「山川異域 風月同天」(陸地は違うけど、空は同じ)。
その後、中国はイタリアへ医療品を送った際、ローマの詩を箱に書きました「siamo onde dello stesso mare」(私たちは同じ海からの波だ)。