January 26th 2020 — My family and I relocated from USA to Tokyo where I had accepted a new role with a leading Japanese corporation. This is our second stint in Tokyo, so it’s easier as we know our way around and are very familiar with the culture. But, this time is also different as only our younger son accompanied me and my wife with our older son studying at a university in Canada.
As we settled into our new apartment, we used the first few evenings to visit our favorite places in Tokyo where we lived from 2011 to 2013. This brought back several pleasant memories that have had a profound impact on our personalities. It’s quite uncanny, the last time we moved to Tokyo in July 2011, Japan was just recovering from the great tsunami and earthquake of March 2011. Radiation exposure from the Fukushima nuclear plant was a huge health concern for everyone. With all nuclear powerplants forced shut, Japan was barely managing with much reduced energy supply, most escalators in train stations and malls were shut, half of the elevators in high rises were shut, all of the city’s attractions and high rises turned off their lights at night. Tokyo felt very different, but the nation was together and no-one was cribbing about personal discomfort as this was not about individuals but for the country.
Now in 2020, the year of the Olympics and here we are back again! Little did we realize, we will again see a major health scare that would again bring out the true character of the resilient Japanese. Within a month of joining office, we were asked to start working from home. Two months later, it still continues. My son had just started his competitive soccer training with a very welcoming Japanese club that he loved from day one. Soccer is his only passion. But we had to very reluctantly stop his training to avoid riding a train. He had been to school for just a month, barely enough to even make new friends in high school and the school shifted to online learning!
Fortunately, the school is very tech-savvy and was able to switch gears seamlessly. The only challenge is finding your quiet corner to do telecons and video calls in a typical small Japanese apartment. I guess this is a major issue with all households in Japan!
While much of Asia, Middle East and EU had to completely lockdown their cities, Japan didn’t need to do it. There are several reasons for it. Foremost, Japanese are highly disciplined and compliant of any guidelines. Even under normal circumstances, wearing a face mask is a common practice with the intension of not transmitting your own infection to someone else. People and even little kids are used to wearing a mask occasionally. So, when the time came for everyone to sport one, there was no resistance and a 100% compliance.
Culturally in Japan shaking hands and hugging is uncommon, a polite bow is the preferred greeting which automatically ensures significant reduction in human to human touch. Most doors have motion sensors and are self-opening, you don’t need to touch door knobs. These things have allowed Japan to keep their social distancing without enforcing a complete lockdown.
While tourist places, museums, malls and bars closed, we can still walk around and visit parks (sporting our masks of course). This is such a blessing, when you see your friends around the globe restrained in their homes. How much have we undervalued the free fresh air and sunlight!
Speaking to friends in USA, India and other Asian countries, I can sense a rising level of frustration with the inability to be out in the open, to enjoy the sunshine and the spring flowers. I am blessed to be in Japan where I can still enjoy the spring, albeit with constraints, and this helps tremendously to keep yourself sane under this unprecedented situation.
We do have our share of anxiety as we feel helpless and unable to bring our son to Tokyo from Canada. He is stuck in his dormitory, university is closed, he cannot take up part time jobs, it is very frustrating for him. We cannot visit him either. We just hope and pray he remains safe and away from exposure to Covid-19. The helplessness of not being able to do anything about it, is unsettling, to say the least. His university has been very supportive of international students and ensures they can stay in residence, get their meals and social distancing is strictly followed.
My parents are in USA, my wife’s parents in India and we just pray with their age and underlying conditions, they remain safe as our worst fear is not being able to reach them if they need our support.
But God has been kind and we are truly grateful that we all are healthy and have our jobs…much more fortunate than millions of others.
Like everyone else, we hope this is soon behind us and we are able to unite as a family and enjoy summer together. Covid-19 will change many things for the foreseeable future until a safe vaccine is available. We need to learn to live with such constraints and adapt to a new way of working, traveling, socializing and entertainment.
There is so much that countries can learn from each other. Japanese society’s discipline, genuine concern about others by wearing masks, bowing to greet (much like a namaste in India) need to be adopted globally. Likewise, Japanese need to adapt and learn remote working, modify their business processes that allow people to operate efficiently from home.
Covid-19 may hit again in winter before a vaccine is made available, or another pandemic may emerge seeing the frequency in recent history of SARS, H1N1, Ebola etc. I hope this global pause has given all of us time to reflect upon our behaviors and to re-think how we as individuals become more responsible citizens and agile professionals to adapt to this VUCA world.
About the Author
Tarang Srivastava is an agribusiness professional with global experiences. He has managed businesses in over thirty countries in Asia, Africa, Middle East and Americas and has lived with his family in India, USA and Japan. He is passionate about studying culture, cuisines and history of the countries his work takes him to.