COVID-19 and the Image of “Safe” Japan

For as long as I have lived here, Japan has always evoked this image as a “safe” country. “Safe” in the immediate physical harm sense, I could go on ad nauseam about the “unsafe” nature of the overall business/workplace culture to the human psyche. But in terms of my physical safety, I probably haven’t lived in a more benign environment. Guns aren’t a problem, so no mass shootings. Physical assault is relatively rare. People generally keep to themselves and don’t act out their aggression on the general population. That isn’t to say there isn’t the occasional flare up of violence. Domestic abuse is a under-reported problem that is given short shrift by the authorities. But out on the street, I have always felt pretty much untouchable. Anytime of the day, any location.

Asahiyama Park 5:45 AM – I’d be hesitant going any later.

Petty crime too isn’t really a thing. I have always seen men walking around, in shopping malls, and on crowded subway trains with long wallets nearly falling out of their back pockets. They would be easy marks in most any other nation on Earth. But here it is generally a non-issue.

All this perceived safety filters down from the adult world, to how children are parented, and how those young people perceive and interact within this country. Spend anytime here and you will see 1st grade elementary school age children just loose on the streets. Not a parent in sight. They get on the subway, unattended, commuting to private school. They gang up with their friends in the park – not a parent in sight. That’s generally amazing, but unfortunately old habits are hard to break, and the COVID-19 situation has really come to loggerheads with this perceived “safeness” of the streets of Japan.

Despite being on psuedo-lockdown for a couple months, the attitude of the general population remains entrenched in this “Japan safe” ethos. For the past two months I have limited my interaction with society to a couple of walks with my dog, around a three block radius. I pass small community parks often packed with kids, even more than usual, as they seem to be surrogates for the closed public schools. Even worse, since most business, aside from those in the public sector and some retail shops/restaurants, have not actually closed, some duel working families see nothing wrong with allowing elementary age children to run free during the daytime. Scarier still, parents who are working from home are still sending the kids out on the town so that they can “focus on their work”. I have ready multiple interviews with parents who make this exact argument.

So, this is the challenge. Reported numbers of the disease are down here in Sapporo, but schools are gearing up to restart, and the disease certainly hasn’t been eradicated. Come a few months (or sooner) they might have to close schools down again. Again those students will just roam about, in groups, in parks, doing zero social distancing. The disease will fester but never really go away.

Is Japan safe? Not anymore folks. Get used to it… it could help save lives now and down the road.

What do you think?