At first COVID19 was news that my already saturated brain just learned to tune out. Japan was used to its fair share of calamities, so I assumed the coronavirus would simply blow over with the collective bubble power of gaman (bearing it out). I exercised the kind of exceptionalist thinking sometimes common in this country. But then there were fewer jokes and more people started talking in somber tones. Slowly the sense of security disappeared as I heard more stories and anecdotes from people I knew. Finally, in April, a state of emergency was declared. The bubble had popped and the coronavirus was here to stay.
After the announcement, I barely had time to make sense of things. Within days, most of my classes were cancelled. “When will they be back?” I asked. The replies were as expected: people didn’t know when classes would resume. A part-timer’s life has its advantages, but income stability is not one of them. Most teachers thought about money and how much they would lose in the upcoming months. Overtime hours piled up for school administrative staff, but young, doe-eyed teachers were stuck in limbo. Message boards for ALTs were peppered with questions on how to handle landlords when asking for deposits back. English conversation school teachers had it the worst; the first luxury that people gave up was English.
Reactionary behavior abounded. Immigration authorities prohibited permanent residents abroad from returning to Japan. There were “lifers” that decided they had had enough and returned to their home countries. Monster parents wanted their hard-earned tuition money back. Those of us who also had part-time jobs, especially in the hospitality industry, were neglected and abruptly let go. Contracts were cancelled, people were asked to take holidays, and bonuses were pulled back. Those that did have jobs continued to work with dubious protective measures. It seemed they had no choice, because next month’s rent had to be paid. Fear and necessity seemed to drive most of these actions. Japan has always been a conversative society and I fear that the coronavirus damaged this country’s already fragile psyche beyond fixing.
My daily life changed. Basic necessities were for a while scarce and places that were once part of my routine were now off limits. A person coughing was like a virus version of playing Russian roulette. What did people’s smiles look like? I had forgotten because of the maze of masks and face shields. The people I knew retreated to the confines of their homes. Visiting a park had to be scheduled at night, so my sleeping pattern was thrown into disarray. I had always been a solitary person but the feeling of loneliness was more pronounced now than before. This was as close as I got to depression and it was scary. I wondered how others were coping.
Staying home during self-quarantine nearly drove me crazy. Before the coronavirus my apartment was just a place to sleep and eat but now it has transformed into a prison of sorts. There is such a thing as “too much down time” and I had plenty of it. Amazon turned into my best friend but also my addiction enabler; I bought frivolous things, draining what little savings I had. My online routine was reading articles on snake oil cures for the virus, and my favorite bookmark became the coronavirus online tracker. Gradually, a lethargy set in. I relied too much on Uber Eats and gained three kilos. I lost track of time and discipline as well. Garbage, tasks, and laundry piled up. The time of the hikikomori (social withdrawal) had come, and I was not one of those equipped to excel at it.
Eventually classes started online and with that came some bumps. Some students did not have the bandwidth or hardware to keep up with the classes. Teachers had to upload and prepare content that for years was used offline. Some grizzled veterans gave up entirely on figuring out learning management systems. We had to simultaneously master both learning management and online conferencing systems. It was if we were the ones going to school this semester. Some face-to-face classes resumed and when they did, one student having a fever over the weekend was enough to cancel all the other classes. Cleaning took up 10 minutes of the class and other activities were restricted. It became difficult to promote language learning where face-to-face and proximity, the essential parts of communication, were limited by social distancing. I guess all of this was to become the new normal.
Against the backdrop of ongoing chaos and uncertainty I have found ways to persevere and thrive. Online classes have allowed me to learn new tricks that will stay in my teaching toolkit long after this incident becomes a footnote.I have taken up bike touring to far places as a new hobby and have lost some weight as a result. I cancelled my Netflix and replaced it with a more productive subscription to Kindle. My balcony has started to resemble a forest with the amount of greenery I planted during this summer. Most importantly, I have become more grateful and compassionate, aware of the plight of stranded international students and those who lost their jobs and families to the virus. Introspection is a powerful tool for survival.
Better yet, I’ve met and reconnected with many individuals during this crisis. A heart-warming message from the owner of a cafe asked if I was okay and if I needed help with anything. I joined a random teaching conference about teaching online which led to me contributing to this publication. I’ve gotten in touch with my friends and relatives back in my hometown, something that I hadn’t done in years. The pandemic revealed a frailty and longing for things to come back to normal. More than they realize, these people have helped me keep my sanity in these times of trouble.
I was naive to think Japan was immune to this pandemic but, despite this. we have somehow endured. Masks and hand sprays were around in Japan long before the coronavirus arrived. Although Japan’s response was tepid and slow, I take solace from the fact that people here follow safety measures rather than viewing them as political symbols. Doomsday predictions never came true and, so far, the number of cases has remained low. Businesses are gradually picking up and people are going out again, albeit with some caution. Even though Mother Nature seems bent on ending us, I think we’ll be okay.
As the new semester begins and we continue on our respective journeys I hope that we can overcome this coronavirus together and look forward to good things to come.
Timothy Ang is currently a part time university teacher in the Kansai area of Japan. His current interests include Task Based Learning, Student Motivation, Computer Assisted Learning, and Curriculum Development.