A Personal Journal from January 2022 through the Future
Kalani M. Fujiwara
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
It’s now autumn of 2022. Japan is about to face the eighth wave of COVID-19 infections. The experts here in Japan are expecting a huge increase in infection rates, hospitalizations and COVID-19 related deaths again during this upcoming winter season. Much like what happened during the seventh wave of infections during the summer and for the past three years.
This unprecedented global pandemic has brought about changes to Japanese society that would have been unthinkable pre-pandemic. In this last dispatch from Japan, I would like to share with you the social and economic changes to Japan brought forth by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Remote work is now considered a major asset in Japan and not some high concept. The ability to work remotely anywhere is now becoming a norm. Aside from the high usage of remote work during the COVID-19 pandemic, now remote work is considered by the Japanese government as a way in which may help Japanese society by helping people move out of the congested urban areas and to move out to the other regions of Japan to work and live. Remote work is widely mentioned in the Japanese media as one of the ways to stem the depopulation and rejuvenate some of Japan’s rural areas. Local governments, with the assistance of the Japanese central government, have started programs to support families moving to rural areas for remote work purposes. Although most Japanese business establishments have reverted to the traditional work system of coming to the office or workplace, the pandemic made the concept of remote work a valid possibility for many Japanese workers and families.
The next major change is in digital technology and its utility in Japanese life. The pandemic ushered or accelerated many digital technology items into everyday Japanese life. One such technology is the adoption of a cashless payment system. Japan, to this day, is known as a cash nation, where paying in cash is the most widely accepted way of business transactions. However, cashless payment systems and use of self-payment kiosks has become the norm in urban Japan. Majority of 7-Eleven convenience stores in Japan have switched to cashless and self-payment kiosk systems during the pandemic. Although many of these technologies have been used in the United States and Europe for many years, its adoption in Japan has been slow. However, the pandemic has pushed businesses in Japan to adopt these digital technologies as a public health initiative and its utility will impact everyday Japanese life beyond the COVID-19 pandemic era.
Finally, the pandemic pushed the Japanese education system to utilize online education as a way to instruct students remotely from their homes. Much like remote work, the concept of online education was an outlier topic pre-pandemic for the Japanese educational system in primary schools as well as in higher education. However, the COVID-19 pandemic forced online education and the use of its technology as a norm in the Japanese classroom. Educators and students alike were forced to learn to use digital tools of online education as a means of communication and learning. For a couple years of the pandemic, Japanese students and educators struggled to master and use online education tools. However, the adoption of online technology tools in the Japanese education system will impact learning for Japanese students and even in the business world in Japan, much like remote work after this pandemic is over. Though traditional Japanese in-person education has resumed in Japan, the concept of online education is no longer a concept that is alien to Japanese society.
These are some of the changes to Japanese society brought forth by the COVID-19 pandemic. Japan has an image of high technology-based society however that is sadly not the case. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced Japanese society to adopt some of these technologies such as cashless payment system, Zoom and others that have already been used for many years in the United States and in Europe into mainstream Japanese life.
It’s now November 2022 and the COVID-19 pandemic shows no sign of abating globally and the death toll has reached into the millions. China continues its draconian zero-COVID-19 policy of shutting society while most of the western nations have adopted the opposite attitude. In Japan, the pandemic continues to be in the daily news and a concern to the majority of people in Japan. As recently as last month, Japan finally opened the country back to foreign inbound tourism. As there has been concerns of tourists being able to comply with the Japanese social rules that have been adopted since the COVID-19 pandemic. It is a valid concern by the Japanese people that the Japanese social rules in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic saved many lives and made the pandemic tolerable in Japan. The social rules of masking, social distance and keeping conversation to a minimum were universally adapted by the Japanese people. However, to me, it says a lot about the Japanese people and their compassion for each other. Some foreigners, especially tourists, have ridiculed the Japanese social rules such as masking as being quaint and inability to“move on” from the pandemic. I take the opposite view in that these social rules allowed Japan to successfully “ride out” this unprecedented global pandemic.
As I end this last dispatch from Japan during the COVID-19 pandemic, I would like to express an epiphanic experience I had a few weeks ago that made me very thankful to be living in Japan during this pandemic. I was riding a rather crowded Tokaido line train back into my home station of Kawasaki from Odawara city. It was during the after-work rush hour, I observed that every passenger on my train car during my train ride was wearing a mask, keeping social distance as best as they can and making no conversation. As I wrote before, the social pressure to conform in Japan is very strong and many of these folks on the train that day were just following the social pressure of conformity to these social rules emphasized at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, I started to view these social rules in Japan that are made fun of by these new arriving foreign tourists differently. I see it as an act of collective compassion and kind consideration by the Japanese people, who collectively view every life as valuable and should be protected from the possible harm of COVID-19. The feeling I got, personally, was that every person on that train carried this kind thought and wore their mask to do their part to carry this sentiment. They try to maintain social distance to carry this sentiment. They refrained from needless conversation on the train to carry this sentiment. I could not help but feel very thankful for the collective consideration by the Japanese society as shown as example by the folks, who were riding on that Tokaido line that afternoon with me. When and how this COVID-19 pandemic will end is an open question. It may never end. Who knows? But I do know and realize that when history is finally written about the dark days of the global pandemic, Japan and, more importantly, the Japanese people, despite the mistakes made by their government, came through with less deaths and disruptions compared to other “advanced” nations of the world. This was due to the collective actions of kindness and consideration by the Japanese people, to everyone living in Japan during those dark days.
Kalani M. Fujiwara was born in Japan and raised in Hawai‘i. He formerly taught political science at Kapi‘olani Community College and Honolulu Community College for 20 years. He lived in Japan off and on altogether for 12 years. He is currently living in Japan for the third time.