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Moving to Japan during a pandemic

We have now spent 1 month in Japan. This post is a bit of a personal update, for friends and family wondering how things are going on the other side of the world, and also to document my experience during the early days of the pandemic in Japan. This is obviously a snapshot, written during the 10th and 11th of April. The situation is constantly changing, so I refrain from adding too many official details.

The first time I moved to Japan, as an exchange student to Ritsumeikan University, it was Y2K. My friend and I had a plan to escape to the small neighnbbourhood grocery store. It was packed full of food, and had a shutter that could be pulled down in a siege. Seemed like a logical place to go…

The second time I moved to Japan was just after 9/11. During the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in 2001, I happened to be in Japan for a week visiting my girlfriend (now spouse) before my final semester at university. When all planes were grounded I was stuck here in Kyoto and started looking for a job. I interviewed at my old alma mater, and secured a position in the PR department. The ban on flights lifted, and my new employers let me go back to Canada to finish my degree. I returned on January 2nd, 2002. It was a different world.

The third time I moved to Japan full time was in the aftershock of the financial crisis in 2008. I was just out of grad school, and having a tough time interviewing for jobs in Canada. Luckily, the company I worked for part time in Nagoya (Apple) was willing to give me a full time position.

This is the fourth time I have moved to Japan to stay for an extended period of time. We arrived on March 11th, the 9th anniversary of the Tōhoku Earthquake Triple Disaster. Again, there is a global crisis happening in the background.

The timing of our decision

We started thinking about the move late last year. I began to seriously consider chasing my dream to write a book about Kyushu. We found the Remote Islands Exchange Program (more on that in a later post) and applied in November, and in early January visited Iki Island to interview in person and scope out some schools and homes. That was only one week after China had reported to the WHO about 27 cases of “a pneumonia of unknown cause”, and the same day that Korea reported its first case. I had been in Japan during the SARS epidemic in 2003, and even travelled to China the following year. “Mainland” pandemics were nothing new…

After interviewing, we returned to Canada and continued on with life as normal. Covid-19 news started becoming more and more serious, but it wasn’t until probably sometime in February when we started to worry that our move would be in doubt. Other than my desire to write a book, my wife wanted to come back to Japan to spend time with her ailing mother, who spent the last couple of years fighting cancer. There wasn’t much time, and my wife is an only child — a lot of the responsibility of care rested on her shoulders. Plus, Japan seemed to have things under control at that time. There were not a lot of cases, and a lot of pressure to prevent an outbreak due to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Well, you know already how that turned out.

Getting to Japan

Arriving at the YVR airport the halls were eerily quiet. Flights to and from China had been cancelled. The staff all wore masks, tensely but openly conversing among themselves about the virus. In the international departures area the food court where seating is usually scarce was scarcely populated. Staff kept busy by disinfecting tables. Travellers would sit down at a freshly wiped table and give it another wipe down with their wet tissues. Everyone kept their distance. The travellers all knew they were taking an unavoidable risk, and the stress was palpable.

The plane was one size smaller than normal, but passengers were sparse — about a fifth of capacity at my estimate. Each one of my family were able to take an entire row to ourselves and lay down for the entire flight. At that time, inflight sales were stopped, and interactions with flight attendants limited. They all wore masks, as we were. We wiped down all the common areas (arm rests, tables, seatbelt buckles, etc) with disinfectant wipes when we sat down or changed seats. The flight was tense. At the mere sound of a cough somewhere on the plane neighbouring passengers gave one another nervous glances.

Once at Haneda, it seemed like there were fewer people than normal, but I haven’t been able to dig up any stats from the Ministry of Transportation on comparative passenger numbers for March just yet. At least we didn’t have to sleep on cardboard beds. The airport hotel we always stay at had cancelled their excellent buffet, and all the staff wore masks (their white gloves are actually part of their standard uniform). However, when some customers came later than us, the staff sat them at the table right next to ours, flagrantly ignoring any social distancing. The plane to Osaka, the last leg of our journey, is usually packed with salarymen off to make deals. This time though, it wasn’t that busy, although that could be due to the time of day (10AM) since usually we take a later flight. Our original plan was to spend the day in Tokyo doing touristy things, then fly in the evening. But due to the virus, we changed our flight to an earlier time to lessen our exposure.

Just in time in Kyoto

With school starting on Ikijima in April, the plan was to spend about 2 weeks here with family before moving to the island. Two days after arriving, my mother-in-law went into hospital (Friday the 13th). By Monday she was in palliative care and three days later had passed away. We knew she was nearing end-of-life, but did not expect it to go this quickly. For those final days my wife spent pretty much all of her time with her mother. Unfortunately the hospital would not allow any visitors besides my wife and her father due to fears of coronavirus, so the kids and I stayed home. Just once we were able to FaceTime with Baba, but never got the chance to see her in person before she passed away. Luckily we were able to spend some good quality time with her three months ago while we were here for New Years.

From the perspective of spending time with my dying mother-in-law, conducting the funeral, and attending all the final matters of estate, we were lucky to get to Japan when we did. I could not imagine trying to do it remotely from Canada, especially under a lockdown. We were thankful to have made it to Japan in time. We came here on March 11th and on the following day Prime Minister Trudeau’s spouse tested positive for the virus. A few days later flight restrictions were put into place and on March 18th British Columbia declared a state of emergency. All my friends and family back home stayed at home in isolation.

Daily life

In Japan, people just put on masks. Under heavy criticism, the Japanese government finally postponed the Olympics, then weeks later meandered its way into a sort of lockdown just this past Tuesday.

For the past few weeks our lives have consisted of going through all of my mother-in-law’s old things, throwing out and giving away lots of stuff; also all of the paperwork, from the will, to closing out bank accounts and ending cellphone contracts. There is a lot to do. My wife is handling all of it (I just carry things for her), while I spend my days with the kids trying to get them to do homework, taking them for walks or out to the park when nobody is around (though not in the past week or so), as well as cooking and cleaning. I am sure glad I don’t have to also work from home in this environment.

Outside it is warm weather and blue skies. It feels like such a waste! I am in one of the most interesting cities in the world, with tons of places I would like to see and people I would love to meet (old friends and new), but we can barely leave the apartment. We even missed the cherry blossoms… I am sure everyone else is feeling similar frustrations while in isolation.

The nearby supermarket where I go to shop (by myself) has full shelves but not nearly empty enough aisles. There are still people walking around without masks. Despite the nightly news showing the horrific realities in New York and Italy, it wasn’t until the death of beloved Japanese comedian Shimura Ken, that people here started to take things seriously.

Downtown Kyoto at 6PM
Downtown Kyoto at 6PM

Yet the central government still prevaricated. Roundly criticized by both the left and the right (not to mention in the English press), Prime Minister Abe finally declared a state of emergency on Tuesday, April 7th. But even this was half measures (or 7/47th measures): the state of emergency only covers the 7 most infected prefectures. We are in the 10th, and where we are in Kyoto is only a handful of train stops to Osaka, the 2nd most infected. The prefectural governor of Kyoto asked the central government to be added to the list. Despite not being on the list, some are taking the “polite” request of the government to self-isolate seriously. Traffic is down (though not down enough) and today at the supermarket I saw tape on the floor and signs up for people to respect social distancing (however, the lines were only 1 meter apart). It was a long time coming, and possibly too late, but I am glad to see that stores in Kyoto are taking action and not waiting for official word.

What about the island?

Where would you rather shelter in place to ride out a pandemic: a dense city of 2.8 million people next door to a highly infected city of 19 million? Or a small, rural, completely self-sufficient island of only 26,000 people? Additionally, the only way to get onto Ikijima is via two ships or a small airplane.

With the passing of my mother-in-law, we had to postpone the move to Iki for a month. Ikijima is in the prefecture of Nagasaki, which as of today has only 13 confirmed cases of Covid-19… 6 of which are on Ikijima! Turns out that back in March, an infected man in his 30s moved to Ikijima (from Kyoto!) and while on the jetfoil crossing the channel he infected some people around him. Once he was diagnosed, he went into isolation and has since come out fine. It took a few days to find the others, but the hunt caused a lot of concern as Iki became a hotspot for coronavirus. In the last four days there have been no new cases as they have chased down everyone. But it would be a scary thing if there was a breakout on that island, especially with so many elderly residents.

The state of emergency is in place until May 6th. At this point, we are sheltering in place and keeping an eye on Ikijima’s progress in dealing with the virus with the idea to head to the island after the state of emergency lifts. But who knows? Everything is fluid. Numbers are racking up, a month probably isn’t enough time to flatten the curve, and with Japan’s limited testing regime (Japan has taken the strategy of targeting and isolating clusters of infections, rather than taking on communal infections, i.e. the test everyone strategy) we don’t really know the extent of the problem.

Outbreak map of Japan from https://covid19japan.com
Outbreak map of Japan from covid19japan.com (Apr 10, 2020)

Thus we are caught in between: we left Canada, but a month later have still not reached our destination. Do we keep forging ahead to the isolated island? Or stay put in the suburbs? Or go back to Canada? When I planned on quitting my job and leaping into an unknown future, this is not exactly what I had in mind.