Japan Beats Covid by Aversion to 'Bothersomness'
Self-Isolation in the spirit of not being Meiwaku
By: Xiaochen Su
At an outpatient clinic for the feverish, located on the upper floors of a shopping mall on the outskirts of Tokyo, the doctor was adamant about the patients remaining where they are.
“We are not yet sure whether you are going to test positive or not,” the doctor stated matter-of-factly over Zoom from another room in the clinic, “but just in case, we need you to stay away from all other shops in this building and, once you go home, remain indoors for at least seven days.”
The thing is that, unlike those in increasingly recalcitrant western countries, people do. While Covid-19 has introduced the world to the concept of lockdowns and personal quarantines, the idea of self-isolation in Japan has taken on a unique dimension that is connected to the existing culture. Before closing his call, the doctor stated that going about life outdoors while waiting on the results of the PCR test would be “meiwaku” (迷惑) for everyone else, suggesting, without the need for further explanations, that the feverish patients certainly do not want to be meiwaku for all the healthy people out there.
Meiwaku can be a difficult cultural concept to translate. Roughly meaning “bothersomeness toward others” or “annoyance,” it is a concept that denotes, above all, an unwillingness for any individual to deviate from behavioral norms that are expected from all members of the society at large in any particular situation. It represents unwritten peer pressure to maintain the existence of a consistent group mentality to not disturb the general harmony of the public space and all individuals within it. The Japanese obsession with being harmonious in public, as such, makes being meiwaku a social taboo.
In the era of Covid-19, there is nothing as meiwaku as infecting other people with the virus. This appears to have paid off. With 6.4 million cases among its 125 million people, Japan ranks 151st among 190 nations in the number of deaths per million people, with only 221 against a global average of 789, and 134th in the number of cases.
With social distancing seen as a globalized, recognized essential tool to combat the spread of the pandemic, the Japanese government and the general public have also taken to the idea with gusto. Signs asking people to maintain distance have popped up everywhere from playgrounds to shopping centers, and any sofa, bench, or space that more than one person can sit or lean on has been plastered with “X” marks that ask people to not use adjacent spaces.
Yet, unlike in many other countries, where social distancing was or is often enforced with fines and even short spells in prison, getting the potentially infectious to stay away from others in Japan has been much more based on social norms, centered on the collective sense of meiwaku, rather than legal ones.
Of course, Japan has also put in place laws that penalize those who remain defiant, but for most parts, the country has relied on voluntary compliance, even as others resorted to government-led lockdowns and some have erupted in such defiance that it has become a vexing political issue. Indeed, after the doctor at the outpatient clinic sent his patients home, he did little more than inform them by phone call of PCR test results and ask them to stay indoors. No one from either the clinic or the government followed up on compliance.
Relying on people being ashamed of being meiwaku, however, has its limits. An increasing number of Japanese people have come to believe conspiracy theories relating to Covid-19, making them less likely to see an individual who has tested positive being out and about as an act of meiwaku at all. And as the vaccination rate goes up and the pandemic enters its third year, more people are becoming convinced that getting infected is not meiwaku enough to be deadly, despite scientific evidence to suggest the contrary.
As the idea of meiwaku vis-a-vis Covid-19 changes, the cultural concept has become less and less effective in driving people to voluntarily socially distance themselves even if they test positive. As Japanese people’s relationship with the coronavirus evolves, how they see meiwaku will also evolve. As more countries are abandoning the very idea of Covid-related restrictions, Japan will likely follow suit in the coming months.
As borders reopen and masks are dropped, people in the country may no longer see “living with Covid” as meiwaku at all. When that day comes, surely meiwaku will find a new target, as the collective mentality of the Japanese people shifts toward something else new that irritates them in public.
Xiaochen Su, Ph.D. is a business risk consultant in Tokyo as well as the Founder and Managing Director of the Study Abroad Research Institute, a Tokyo-based non-profit organization promoting international education. He previously worked in East Africa, Taiwan, South Korea, and Southeast Asia.