Teaching In Socks

Pig Flu and Masked Men
May 18, 2009, 5:22 pm
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On Friday, the H1N1 virus hit Kobe. A high school student, who had not traveled out of the country was diagnosed with the virus, as were a number of students from other school that he came in contact with at a volleyball tournament.

I would say the Japanese response has been calm and measured, but that would be blatantly incorrect. Instead moderate to laughable panic ensues: locals schools have been given the week off (so that all the students can assemble in the mall), the news palpitates reports of a new confirmed cases, and drug stores in the area are selling out of medical masks.

I don’t want to dwell on the merits of school cancellations, or on the dangers of how mainstream news media reports/fear mongers an outbreak. I think other people have and can do that better than I can. I also will concede some of the measures taken by the Government have been responsible and logical. Also, some of the paranoia is understandable when you consider that I trapped on a densely populate island (it’s not likely divine wind would save Japan in this instance).  What I do want to talk about is the masks.

Flu season, allergy season, cold season, train rides, airplanes, nature hikes and now pandemic outbreaks: these are the places I see Japanese people wearing masks. They are ubiquitous and disconcerting at times–certain train rides trigger "Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder" flashbacks.

The SARS outbreak gave me a nice sampler of this imagery, but I thought it was purely a crisis-mode phenomenon. What perplexes me the most about the mask is the amount of faith that many Japanese put in them. I understand why Surgeons wear them during an operation (to hide their identity in case something goes wrong and there is a malpractice suit), but they way Japan turns to them almost instantly and indiscriminately you imagine they’d wear them to a gunfight.

They believe it keeps a variety of germs out. They believe is keeps pollen out and prevents hay fever. They believe if you have a sore throat it keeps your throat humid and hastens recovery. They believe it prevents sore throats from dry seasons and long airplane flights.

I, however see their paper panacea as the Great Wall: it looks impressive, and probably servers some purpose, but eventually the Mongol horde, Manchu invaders or the seasonal flu virus is going to past it. The mask may have some fancy efficiency statistics but it’s a placebo with elastic bands. I’m too lazy to research the effectiveness of these masks, but I recall during flu season, a student came to class wearing a mask. He sat down right next to me and proceeded to tell me about how he had the flu yesterday, which is why he was wearing the mask.  As I listened to his muffled explanation, I could see his breath, permeating through a gap in top of the mask, fogging up his glasses giving me his germs.

I’m not sure why this is something Japan has adopted, but the west primarily has not. In some ways, I see how the mask represents a lot of characteristics of Japan. Japan is obsessed with science and medicine  (as well pseudo science) and their application to increase general health and longevity.

It’s honorable and desirable to live a long life in Japan. They also don’t as willingly accept taking a day off work or school because they are sick. In America and Europe I think we accept this as part of the cycle–and perhaps a necessary respite or therapeutic break. I don’t mean to imply the West relishes being sick, but I think we like being reminded by our body that we aren’t robots: we are people,who get sick, have some basic limitations and on occasion, must watch the Price is Right and drink sprite even if Drew Carey is untenable at times and sprite can taste like urinal cakes (I imagine, of course). I think Japan, doesn’t see it this way. Sickness is an avoidable obstacle–a distraction that is important to avoid.

I’m sure this all goes back to to the fact that Japan is about small people living in densely populated cities and depending perhaps the most labor-intensive staple crop; rice. Rice requires you to work hard, and if you get sick, everyone gets sick, rice doesn’t grow and suddenly the entire town is in trouble. In this scenario, I’d probably wear a s mask as well.

Meanwhile, America, both Corn and Wheat called, and they said you could sleep in today if you want and watch Regis and Kelly.


1 Comment so far
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As the source of your comment on “Sprite = urinal cakes” I can vouch for the fact that this is purely an olfactory phenomenon–I am unaware that anyone has tried a “taste test” on this particular issue.

Comment by Grey Fox

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