What the Current Period of Uncertainty Requires From Humanity

Japanese believe that the spirits of their ancestors return home during the Obon festival, which is celebrated between August 13 and 15. Many people who live and work in Tokyo or other big cities return to their hometowns during this holiday to meet relatives and honor their ancestors by visiting their graves.

This year, however, people avoided traveling to their hometowns because of concerns about the spread of COVID-19.

Courtesy: "Masked woman" by Shihoko Moritani


According to airline companies, the number of domestic airline passengers traveling between August 7 and 16 for the holiday dropped by 65% in 2020, a YoY decrease from 3.45 million to 1.24 million customers. Railway companies have also observed an immense decline in their clientele: JR East passenger numbers decreased 81% YoY between August 8 and 10, 2020.

An occurrence has recently attracted much attention in Aomori Prefecture in the Northern part of Japan. Mr. N returned home to Aomori from Tokyo and the next day, he received an anonymous letter censuring him: “Why did you come back here during the pandemic? Tokyo’s Governor requested residents to refrain from traveling, didn’t she? Go back to Tokyo quickly. Small children and elderly people live in this area. You’re causing us so much trouble. Can you assure our safety?” Mr. N was humiliated by the insidiousness of the letter. In fact, he had twice tested negative before he undertook the trip back to his hometown.

Some people now act as informal self-restraint police personnel and their actions may be termed virus vigilantism. They shame individuals who fail to follow government recommendations in response to COVID-19. Some prefectures have reported antagonism against drivers crossing into their prefectural borders. Cars with Tokyo license plates have been tailgated and their drivers have been verbally abused. Such adversarial displays have become more visible after COVID-19 broke out.

People in regional urban centers are more conservative because they inhabit smaller communities. Given fewer residents, they can easily detect virus-carrying members of their communities and blame them for creating trouble. Perhaps regional communities are more considerate of their elderly residents and are more obedient to the recommendations of the Tokyo government in the bid to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

Such informal acts of public-policing of communities during pandemics and a growing feeling of insecurity in the citizenry may not be peculiar to Japan. In the United States, for instance, gun sales are skyrocketing amid the pandemic and general social unrest.

The current COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated such behavior due to elevated feelings of anxiety and frustration. The exercise of good judgment, empathy, and good humor is much needed during this period of great uncertainty.

August 20,  2020