Japanese Jishuku and the Coronavirus
The power of cultures that have traditions of sharing consideration during times of crisis
It’s October 2020, and there is still no vaccine. Yet I look at what’s going on in Japan, and I look at what’s going on in the United States — two starkly different realities on what normal looks like now.
How did it become like this?
Recalling the 3/11 earthquake, tsunami, and Fukushima nuclear disaster
I was in Japan during the Fukushima disaster, and I remember that day like an American remembers 9/11. It was shocking and devastating, and it challenged my understanding of stability and safety. School was temporarily cancelled, my friends left Japan, I wasn’t supposed to leave the house for fear of radiation poisoning, and in general there was an air of paranoia and fear.
It was during this crisis that I first learned of the term jishuku (自粛). Jishuku is loosely defined as the practice of restraining from fun, luxury, and celebration in consideration of others who are going through a hard time. Then-prime minister Abe encouraged citizens to practice jishuku, to show camaraderie and support for those directly affected by the earthquake, tsunami, and Fukushima disaster. Not just victims, but to show support for heroes as well — while volunteers and workers were going out of their way to rebuild homes and clean up radioactive waste, those who couldn’t directly help should at least show support by restraining from going out.
March is the time for cherry blossom festivals and celebrations, and April is the time for graduation ceremonies, but in the name of jishuku many of these major events were cancelled. Shopping malls were sparse, if not completely closed, and city lights were turned off in the name of saving electricity and nightlife slowed down.
It was not forever. Eventually schools reopened, events resumed, and the economy did not collapse. But I’ll forever remember how on a national level, so many people could come together for a moment to show support. There was fear and uncertainty, yes, but it didn’t turn Japanese society against each other — the rich did not host lavish parties, and the reckless did not go on looting sprees to capitalize on others misfortune. Staying at home and keeping quiet wasn’t oppression of freedom, but a personal choice in consideration of others.