3/13/20

&: Pandemic



I usually work at night. I started writing this at 22:36. ***** is falling asleep beside me, listening to Song Dongye at a very low volume, playing from the speakers of my Macbook. I usually go out around this time, maybe to walk over to the 24-hour supermarket north of Inaricho Station, maybe just to walk around the neighborhood.

There aren’t any bars around here, but sometimes they’ll be drunks staggering home from Ueno or from Iriya Station. One night at the end of February, when people were still nervous about COVID-19, I saw a man staggering up the road that runs under the elevated highway near my apartment. I was coming up behind him. He paused in the middle of the sidewalk, bent at the waist, and vomited. When he was done, he leaned precariously to the left, stumbled, and crashed sideways into the bushes outside of an apartment block entrance. He didn’t notice me. I—and everyone else that came along after me, since it was still there in the morning, dessicated and stinking—stepped around the puddle of ramen, gyoza skins, cabbage, and chuhai.

Goddamn, Tokyo is filthy.

On the low wall behind my building’s small outdoor parking lot, there are small tori silhouettes stenciled in red paint. It has been identified as a hotspot for public urination. I believe it’s probably because of the men that make the pilgrimage from Ueno Park or Senzoku to the nearby Catholic church, which runs a soup kitchen, or to the municipal office that’s right beside it. I’ve never actually seen anyone urinating there, but just down from the post office, not far from that church, men often piss on the sidewalk.

I never had a case of food poisoning while living in Mainland China, but it hits me fairly often here. I’m more careful now. The last time it happened, I couldn’t keep liquids down, and I’d been throwing up since noon, so I dragged myself over to a hospital, thinking they’d give me an IV. It was, like, three in the morning by then. I was suffering. They gave me an X-ray, asked me if I’d swallowed anything unusual, then sent me home, advising me to drink some water.

When I had a cough a couple weeks back, I didn’t bother going to the doctor. I didn’t have a fever, at least. But a friend of mine who had the same cough went, since he just got back from Beijing a week or so before, and he’d had a mild fever that afternoon. The clinic said they weren’t seeing anyone with mild symptoms and told him to contact the ward office to locate an appropriate health care provider. He was given some carbocisteine and dextromethorphan.

Japan has lagged behind everyone but the United States in testing for SARS-CoV-2. The U.S. was at five tests per million people by March 8th, with Japan at sixty-six per million by March 4th (South Korea was at 3,692 per million, Italy at 826, etc.). That gap is closing as the U.S. begins to panic. The lack of testing has kept the numbers artificially low.

The fuzoku businesses haven’t even been shut down yet. Right now, I could get a train across town, check into a love hotel, and have a woman in a nurse’s costume dispatched to give me a ノーパン診療 and 前立腺マッサージ, all for about two hundred USD. One delivery health operation in Kabukicho offers nurse cosplay and a “corona discount” コロナ割. The soaplands in Yoshiwara have updated their websites with descriptions of their disinfectant procedures.

Judging by the cut rate deals, traffic must be down. The lower-end operations that actually allow foreign guests are dealing with the sudden evaporation of business from China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.

The fuzoku industry functions as a sort of social safety net for single mothers, so I know they’re probably scrambling to deal with their kids suddenly being tossed out of school.

All the talk about telecommuting, it’s impossible. Companies aren’t set up for it, and it doesn’t fit with local corporate culture.

Only a sliver of total workers could take advantage of it, anyways. The number of job-for-life employees that go to work everyday with a briefcase isn’t huge. Even if they are office drones, most staff in service industries are classed as non-regular employees, which is down to the labor market reforms of the late 1980s, like the Worker Dispatching Law, the austerity measures and deregulation of the 1990s, proposals by the Japan Federation of Employers’ Association to limit protection for workers, and Koizumi and Abe's amendments to and revision of the Worker Dispatching Law and Labor Standards Act. Across all industries, non-regular workers account for just about half of the country’s entire workforce. (Find "Neoliberalism and Labour Inequality in Japan: Ramifications of Neoliberal Policies in the Japanese Labour Market" by Kyriaki "Sandy" Galaiou for all these statistics and a handy timeline of reforms.) The single mothers staffing the city’s pinsaro and kyabakura are at least taking home enough to keep the lights on and probably pay for childcare, and they have the flexibility to take time off.

It’s not an original thought, but I would agree the numbers are being kept low mostly because of the potential disaster of the Olympics being cancelled. I think it goes beyond simply the financial injection, which is probably bullshit, and it’s not about nationalism, either (someone at the Lowy Institute, for example, writes: “Prime Minister Abe Shinzo was also hoping that the Olympics and subsequent wave of nationalism would give him a political boost in opinion polls”)—it’s about losing the Olympics as force to push forward further reform projects.

I think I said before I was reading Jules Boykoff's book, Celebration Capitalism and the Olympic Games, and he outlines events like the Olympics creating "a state of exception where the normal rules of politics do not apply." That’s been the case in Tokyo:
Looking back on the activities over the past eight years we notice the emergence of the notion of a legacy inherited from Ishihara's hosting bid to the current arrangements. The goal was nothing other than to use the Olympic Games to complete the Ishihara metropolitan government's task to create a Tokyo to outshine other global cities. The hosting committee decided to tax the whole country and Tokyo itself around 318.3 billion yen, which is about 40 percent of the total 734 billion yen needed. ...
… The execution of the project was undertaken by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, the Japanese Government, the Japanese Olympic Committee, and global companies within the framework of the all‐Japan regime and it can be said that the kind of Japanese society envisioned as an Olympic legacy is based mainly on the redistribution of wealth in Tokyo, via the trickle‐down methods of neoliberal economics. ("'Creative Reconstruction' and the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games: How Does the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games Influence Japan's Neoliberal Social Reform?" by Yoshifusa Ichii)
It’s a project to present “Tohoku‐Tokyo‐Japan politically and ideologically as safe, secure, and attractive spaces, which will deliver profit for capital investment.” There’s no better way to knock that off the rails than an epidemic outbreak that sees the Olympics cancelled.

What’s the worst case scenario? I don’t know.

There are still under a thousand people infected, but the government guesses at three thousand, while some have said ten times the official figure, which would be six thousand or so, and it hasn’t peaked yet. With a higher mortality rate for the elderly, you’ve got a nice bump in the death rate. As Klaus K. Yamamoto-Hammering says, “future Japan has become beleaguered by negative figures of death”:
The social atomization consequent on privatization and deregulation already presages that by 2030, one of every three people will be above the age of 65 – retirement age – and that one out of every four people will be living alone. As a veritable reorganization of production and labor that has reinstituted a regime of absolute surplus extraction, neoliberalism has called the limits of the laboring body to the fore. If 1,200,000 people passed away in 2012, the number of deaths in 2030 will have increased to approximately 1,700,000 – 1,800,000. Deaths of the baby-boom generation will have become so frequent that urban centers, like Tokyo, will require incinerators on the scale of convenience stores. And these numbers do not even incorporate the cancer rates promising to unfold as a consequence of the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, where state scientists claim that radiation can be combatted through stress reduction. ("Propriety, Shame, and the State in Post-Fukushima Japan.")
After I showed a friend a patriotic musical tribute to Wuhan’s front line medical staff, doing my part to promote authoritarian communism, she wept and asked: “Why can’t we have that in Japan?” She didn’t mean authoritarian communism, but probably patriotism and definitely the idea of caring about your fellow citizens.

Yamamoto-Hammering translates Nakshita Daiki 中下大樹, a Buddhist monk that works in suicide prevention:
...we are constantly overwhelmed by something, and temporal, psychological and economical “space” is disappearing from society as a whole. Because there is no space, there is no leisure to stop and think about things deeply or to discuss social problems. If there is no space, it is also difficult to be sympathetic with others. As a result, the “self-responsibility doctrine” that you are no good because you are not making enough effort comes into vogue. Working even from morning till evening, one’s pay does not rise as desired, and with the rise of temporary work, the young generation cannot even get married.
...私たちはいつも何かに追われており、社会全体に時間的、精神的、経済的に‘余裕’がなくなってきている。余裕がないから、立ち止まって物事を深く考えたり社会的な問題について議論したりする暇もない。余裕がないと、他者の事を思いやる気持ちも持ちにくい。結果、お前がダメなのは努力が足りないからだという‘自己責任論’が流行する。朝から晩まで働いても給料は思うように上がらず、若い世代は非正規雇用の増加に伴い、結婚も出来ない。
Western liberals agitating for Chinese regime change have asked whether or not the epidemic and the response to it could shake the foundations of the party-state. The answer is no, although it might threaten the futures of some members of the party-state or harm the existence of some apparatuses. In the United States, it might help bring down an incumbent president. But in Japan, no change is on the horizon, no matter how this plays out.

Japan is ahead of the curve in some ways, but it hasn't been swept up in populist politics. It's on the sidelines, watching Bolsonaro, Orbán, Modi, Trump, gilets jaunes, Boris, Bernie, etc. The Japanese are far more committed to the Western model of party politics than the people that they borrowed it from. The dominance of the Liberal Democratic Party comes from catering to diverse constituencies, local politicking, and not so much a charismatic leader or deep identification with the party. There's also no credible alternative. There's no Japanese Orbán or Boris waiting in the wings. I think they're grooming Koizumi Shinjiro now!

There’s no danger now—and there never really was—of a left populist movement rising in Japan. I recommend We Live on Railways by Nakano Hiroshi, ex-president of National Railway Chiba Motive Power Union (Doro-Chiba), which is up online, fully translated, for an overview of the birth and death of the Japanese left. He covers the split between the Japanese Communist Party and Japan Revolutionary Communist League, labor militancy, AMPO, Zengakuren, Chukaku, the Sanrizuka Struggle against Narita, occupying universities, Okinawa, the nationalization of the railway, etc. etc. Radical leftism is done and dusted.

The only news on the left recently is that the JCP met earlier this year to completely revise their political program, but the only significant news out of that was a move to criticize China for "great chauvinism." That might be the first step in signalling a move to link up with Democratic Party for the People, a center-left group that hopes to lead an opposition coalition. Left populism is not on the horizon.

I enjoy the wartime anthems of the right wing sound trucks as much as the next guy, but it’s not looking much more promising for right populists. Spandrell might agree. A “small conspiracy of neotraditional cults,” he says, have the ears of a sympathetic portion of the Liberal Democratic elite, including Abe, but it’s impossible to do much to foster the growth of a far right movement, because the party’s hands are tied by being an American tributary state.

The majority of rightist groups are serving at the behest of the LDP, and don’t do much to challenge their authority. They get tossed some red meat now and then, and they’re happy. It would be better if the emperor they venerate would start being worthy of that veneration—but what can you do?

Out on the fringes, disowned by most of the far right, even, there are people like Sakurai Makoto 桜井誠 the founder of Zaitokukai 在日特権を許さない市民の会, who ran to be governor of Tokyo in 2016. His platform was this:
  • Abolish welfare for foreigners
  • Halve the number of illegal immigrants within Tokyo
  • Create a law banning anti-Japanese hate speech
  • Legalize marijuana and send all tax revenue to the Yamaguchi-Gumi syndicate
  • Enforce the regulation of pachinko
  • Cancel the establishment of new Korean schools in Tokyo
  • Enforce a more compact Tokyo Olympics
Zaitokukai have a less coherent ideology than traditional right groups. Five of the seven are aimed at zainichi Koreans, who Sakurai says are claiming too much welfare, smuggling people into the country, criticizing the country, funneling profits from pachinko to North Korea, and continually opening new schools to teach a younger generation of stateless children how to hate the Japanese.

Perhaps the zainichi Korean is like the Jew for American white nationalists, the figure upon which class antagonism is displaced. The Jews control Hollywood and the banks, but the zainichi Koreans are content with pachinko and perhaps loansharking, although Sakurai doesn’t seem to be aware that the majority of Yamaguchi-gumi members have some Korean or burakumin ancestry. Maybe the better comparison is with American blacks, who the same claims are made about by white nationalists as Zaitokukai makes about the zainichi Koreans.

So, obviously, nobody gives a shit about that, by and large. If you’re under thirty-five, maybe forty, there’s nothing good coming, so it’s hard to care about national pride or taking pachinko away from Koreans.

And what would shake out if there was a significant, long term recession caused by structural weaknesses, a decline in tourism, economic uncertainty, an epidemic, and an Olympic cancellation? More austerity, probably. I don’t know. Nothing good.

My selfish hope is that the Olympics will be cancelled, or that it will proceed without as much fanfare. The excitement on Japanese-language social media over a potential cancellation was refreshing, but everyone else is just indifferent. Nobody cares. It just means crowded trains and more lines.

All the talk about tourism pollution 観光公害 is justified and good. It might even be a good platform for a populist party to seize on!

Especially where I live, it feels like living in a zoo. There's a strange phenomenon where foreign tourists will photograph Japanese children, which has gotten so bad that daycares and kindergartens, when taking kids out on strolls or to the park, carry placards with signs that say in English: NO PHOTOGRAPHS. The nationalists need to tackle that! Build a fake Asakusa and Akihabara somewhere out by Narita, then ship everyone there. Don't let them come into Tokyo. What do they need to come into the city for? To buy souvenirs, get fleeced at a kaiten sushi place staffed by sullen Filipinos, take a few pictures of themselves at sacred religious sites—let them do that somewhere far away from regular citizens. (The Chinese tourists, so frequently attacked by Japanese commentators, are the most benign. They go to department stores and actually buy stuff, usually practice some degree of common sense at temples and shrines, and also smell far better than the Australian backpackers. The Europeans and Americans believe that they can experience some undiscovered, authentic Tokyo, they tramp around with giant backpacks on for some reason, don't even stay in hotels, and their only contribution to the economy is buying knick-knacks. If you ever stay at the Shangri-La or Ritz-Carlton in Tokyo, it's only Chinese, Taiwanese, and South Korean guests, since even well-heeled Europeans and Americans choose to stay in tacky ryokan or hostels, which are usually converted business hotels.)

If Sakurai and the Zaitokukai could get on board with throttling tourism and getting Japan off the sugar rush of foreign money flowing into the service sector, that would be a great start. Kadokawa Daisaku was almost unseated as the mayor of Kyoto recently after widespread anger at tourism pollution. Fukuyama Kazuhito of the JCP (with backing from Reiwa Shinsengumi れいわ新選組) snatched almost 35% of the vote. If anyone below retirement age had voted (turnout was only 40.7% overall, and I haven't seen the breakdown, but I can imagine), the JCP might have stood a chance.

Neither the Olympics, the grand project of revitalizing Japan Inc., and supercharging the real estate market will do much to improve my material conditions. It's more of a pain-in-the-ass. Let Japan become a sleepy backwater again, an economic basket case that's cut itself off from South Korea and China to chain its fortunes to the fading American empire. And it's interesting to note that Sakurai Makoto's platform includes a more compact Olympics. That's something we can all agree on. You know it's not a nationalistic project because nobody here cares about the goddamn Olympics—maybe especially the nationalists. Flooding Tokyo with foreign tourists and showcasing the city as a fine place to stash dirty money from around the world is not a nationalist project. It doesn't help Japanese morale to watch juiced up Chinese athletes run the medal table.

But, whatever happens, Tokyo under an epidemic feels happier than it’s ever felt, to me, at least.

It was blue skies and twentysomething degrees outside today. The tourists are gone, so you can walk around Asakusa without dodging masses of Indonesians and Taiwanese; the elderly German couples hogging the sidewalks on Kappabashi are gone, so you can hang out and look at tableware without being jostled; Uguisudani feels like a seedy sex district again, now that all the hotels are empty; and Ameyoko felt almost quiet today. All the people working from home or set idle by their companies are out walking around, enjoying their time off. The kids are out of school, so the parks are full.

And when I went out for my walk tonight, I actually caught someone pissing right out front of my apartment, right against the phone booth, right after a cop drove by on a bike.

Everything is normal. Nothing will change. We might get to cancel the Olympics.