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Perspectives from Japan: staying connected and optimistic

17 Mar, 2020

The cherry blossoms are about to bloom at any moment, yet the usual crowds of tourists bustling around Ueno are far more sparse than usual. The Japanese government are asking residents to refrain from celebrating the start of spring. Implausible to many. The Governor of Tokyo likened asking Japanese people not to hold blossom parties to asking Italians not to hug. This is the “new normal.”

The first real wave of news about COVID-19 from Japan came from the stricken Diamond Princess cruise liner. It was difficult to sit in the middle and read conflicting news reports about it from Western and Japanese media. Ultimately, eight people died and more than 700 were infected, including some government officials, putting into question Japan’s ability to deal with a crisis and sending shockwaves through the country.

"In a world where social distancing and the virus is keeping us physically apart, it’s important to stay connected."

The first time I felt the impact of the virus on my everyday life was when I took a group of Japanese students to Spain to study abroad in early February. We were instructed to wear masks on the plane and when changing at Doha I overheard some fellow passengers make some antagonistic comments about my students. Thankfully, the rest of the trip passed without further incident but it certainly was a reminder of a burgeoning anti-Asian sentiment attached to the virus.

On return to Japan the changes were becoming more perceptible. Soon after, the government recommended the closure of schools, two weeks before the start of the spring vacation, graduation ceremonies were cancelled, sports events cancelled, gyms closed, dramatic social distancing experiments were introduced in the northernmost island of Hokkaido, and thanks to the dispersion of misinformation on social media, toilet paper, sanitary products, masks, and tissues were sold out within hours, with long lines of people queuing at drugstores each morning to get their hands on the scant resources.

From a business perspective, the impact of the virus on the tourism and hospitality industry here is catastrophic. The canceling of visas for Chinese and Koreans has resulted in a dramatic drop in tourist numbers, with many small businesses in the industry teetering on the brink of going bust. With a now unattainable goal of around 40 million tourists expected this year for the Olympics, Japan is in a fiscal fight against COVID-19. According to the Japan Center for Economic Research, they expect the Japanese economy to show weak resilience, with the growth rate for January to March expected to be -0.2%, quarter on quarter. With a continued decline in the number of visitors from overseas, this will erode any chance for recovery thus prolonging the economic stagnation. For some, it is inconceivable to think of canceling or postponing the Olympics, yet for others, it is a matter of life or death; the decision as to the future of the Games will be an arduous one.

"Having lived in Japan through the earthquake and nuclear fallout of 2011, and having traveled in Thailand during SARS, this isn’t my first experience of adapting to “a new normal,” so to some, I may seen a bit more blasé than others right now, but my approach to those critical situations was the same as I take now; remain optimistic."

Returning to my personal experience of this crisis, as an international educator and international business consultant, I rely on the world having open borders. I am concerned that a significant number of young people will now view travel and international exchange with other countries through a negative lens. I worry about the financial impact on Asia and the future of small and medium sized businesses that are reliant on their international partners.

Having lived in Japan through the earthquake and nuclear fallout of 2011, and having traveled in Thailand during SARS, this isn’t my first experience of adapting to “a new normal,” so to some, I may seen a bit more blasé than others right now, but my approach to those critical situations was the same as I take now; remain optimistic. This means maintaining the ability to focus on where we need to go next.

"The realisation hits home that as an expat when international travel is curtailed, you really don’t know when you will see your family again, so wherever you are in the world, reach out, find someone new to communicate with, listen, share your stories, and experiences!"

At the end of the day, I figure we have to put trust in our systems, trust in each other, as a society, and as a community. As an example, the Welsh in Tokyo still came together to celebrate St. David’s Day and to watch the rugby. The smiles and fun we shared on those occasions boosted our mental health – an area we often neglect while focusing on our physical health.

In a world where social distancing and the virus is keeping us physically apart, it’s important to stay connected. The realisation hits home that as an expat when international travel is curtailed, you really don’t know when you will see your family again, so wherever you are in the world, reach out, find someone new to communicate with, listen, share your stories, and experiences!  Our physical borders may be closed and we may be holed up at home behind computers, but we can still be open to others and optimistic about the future.

I sign off this note, from a café in the southernmost islands of Japan, Okinawa, where I am teleworking. An area yet to have a single case of COVID-19. And thanks to technology and openness, I’m planning to meet a Welshman from Caerphilly for dinner. It’s a small world indeed. Stay connected and stay optimistic!

 "Thanks to technology and openness, I’m planning to meet a Welshman from Caerphilly for dinner. It’s a small world indeed."

Dr. Sarah Louisa Birchley, GlobalWelsh Tokyo’s host, was born and raised in Cwmbran and has been living and working in Tokyo for the past 19 years. A professor of entrepreneurship at Toyo Gakuen University and entrepreneur, Sarah is passionate about Wales and business. 

Ymuno â GlobalWelsh

Dewch yn rhan o dyfiant rhwydwaith ar-lein o bobl Gymeig sy’n cydweithio ar gyfer y gorau i Gymru gan gefnogi eraill, archwilio cyfleoedd busnes a rhannu gwybodaeth.

Ymuno â GlobalWelsh

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