Ethnographic perspective on slow coronavirus spread in Japan

Oscar Boyd offers thought-provoking ideas in his article, Japan Times Commentary Section: Why is Japan still a coronavirus outlier?

As a researcher/ethnographer, I would like to propose the following reasons why Japan is still a coronavirus outlier.

To offer a perspective, Mayo Clinic offers the following for the cause for coronavirus:

Mayo Clinic: Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19)


It’s unclear exactly how contagious the new coronavirus is. It appears to spread from person to person among those in close contact. It may be spread by respiratory droplets released when someone with the virus coughs or sneezes.

It may also be spread if a person touches a surface with the virus on it and then touches his or her mouth, nose, or eyes.

As of March 23rd, 2020, the Worldometer ranks Japan as the 23rd nation with the total number of patients with coronavirus. Japan has 8 cases per million cases after the first confirmed case on January 10th, 2020.

From an ethnographic perspective, this is no surprise: Japan has already been a socially distant country. People do not shake hands, hug, nor kiss like they do in western culture. In public, a person generally does not hug or kiss their boyfriend or girlfriend, even teenagers. Adults, especially school administration and teachers, often condemn this kind of open affection between a couple.  Elderly couples do not hug or kiss to express love. It is not the way the Japanese express their affection. A high percentage of elderly people live alone. With a low birth rate, less chance of contracting the disease from small children. Another significant cultural factor that keeps the virus from spreading is that Japanese people rarely visit each other’s homes. Home parties are very, very rare, except with families with elementary school-aged children. Once children start junior high school, children commonly do not wish to have a birthday or any other party at home. On the Internet, non-Japanese people discuss the hygienic habits that have been in place for many, many years. In essence, washing hands often, gargling after coming home, wearing masks during flu season, and pollen season, all create the environment that makes coronavirus breeding difficult. The toilets in most of the public places have automatic water faucets. This limits the chance of touching the surface where other people touched with their respiratory droplets on their hands. In the greater Tokyo area, social pressure is high for people to refrain from talking to each other in the crowded trains and places packed with total strangers.

In western countries, people often comfort each other with hugs and kisses regardless of their age. Japanese people do not have that kind of culture. I know, because I grew up in the western environment, and coming back to Japan, I miss this kind of physical closeness so much. I never thought that there would come a day that this social distancing is encouraged globally to save lives from the pandemic.

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