Living as one of a handful of foreigners in a rural town in Japan has its drawbacks. For one, elderly people and young children often don’t know how to react upon seeing you as you may well be one of the only non-Japanese people they have ever seen in their lives. In this same way, people often have a hard time telling you apart from the other foreigners, celebrities included, that they have encountered – indeed, I am still called by my predecessor’s name at least twice a week at school, and sometimes, if I’m really lucky, by his predecessor’s name. Also, people speak a strange language called Japanese. Go figure.
All of these things make for interesting stories and can be written off as “coming with the territory,” but there’s still certain things that I encounter in my daily life that don’t rub off so easily. Take this swine flu thing, for instance.
Now I realize that the current strain of flu going around is to be taken seriously. Any kind of flu (or “in-fu-ru-en-za” as my co-workers call it) that can spread so easily is potentially dangerous to a good number of people, and certainly given what happened here with the avian flu in 2004, people have reason to be on guard. Again, no surprise there. However, the Japanese are CRAZY about swine flu.
The following, I have learned, are factual statements regarding the H1N1 flu:
- wearing surgical masks in public is the most effective way to stop the spread of swine flu
- any public workers returning from overseas travel should be quarantined in their homes for no less than seven days to avoid giving others the disease they most likely contracted during their travels
- all swine flu comes from foreigners arriving to, and/or living in, Japan
And it’s that last point that gives me pause. Next month, the foreign English teachers of Tokushima will visit orphanages all over the prefecture as part of an annual gift-giving and activities Christmas event. It’s a wonderful occasion that both the teachers and the children look forward to, and this year the event (or at least one location) has been canceled due to swine flu concerns. Fair enough, except that the concern is that the foreign teachers will infect the Japanese children with a disease no one is known to have. Additionally, a Mexican food cooking class was canceled at a local school last spring because the class was to be cooking, well, Mexican food. Talk about stranger danger.
Irrational fear is one thing, but a complete misunderstanding of the facts is quite another.
So what does all this whining mean for my position here? Realistically, not much. It would be arrogant to assume that my role is somehow to “correct” Japanese attitudes or to induce shame due to ignorance. I am concerned, however, about these attitudes being passed on to the students who may never have a chance to form their own opinions.
Call it nit-picking or even over-generalization, but I think it’s something to at least be weary of. And at the very least, it proves that there are more dangerous things at play here than my black friend routinely being called “Obama.”