Swine flu is here. Here in Kawasaki, Takatsu. A stone's throw from our house. We've lived through the other Asian flu scares, and I expect this one is survivable as well. It is interesting, however, that the first case of swine flu in Tokyo strikes so close to home. A student who attends a local girls school around the corner from us seems to have come down with it. The school, quite well known in the area, remains closed down.
That brings me to something our friends in back in the States often ask: "Why is that person in your Japan video wearing a mask?" No, they are not likely to have some highly contagious disease. And they are not fixing to rob a bank! They are simply acting out a cultural norm. It's true: Japanese are perhaps among the heaviest face mask users in the world. The recent flu outbreak has resulted in an actual scarcity (a local drug store is rationing them out!) as commuters and students have donned the mask like never before. Even before the flu, however, Japanese can frequently be seen wearing face masks. Some suffer from hayfever, others are being polite about not spreading their colds, many simply find it a sanitary way of living in an compressed space with multitudes of people.
That is probably the point that is best drawn out here. Americans live, for the most part, with great amounts of personal space. Urban Japanese, however, have no such privilege. Tight. Cramped. Layered. Packed. This is urban life Asian style like you have never seen it. The social dynamics that result from such a close-quartered lifestyle shape Japanese character, and are important to know when involved in mission work. It seems that masks are more than just masks...they're social dividing mechanisms. I feel like launching into a great sermon illustration related to masks, but will leave it there for now. Gotta go get in the line at the drug store for a face mask.