Sanjo bridge

What Did 2020 in Japan Teach Me?

January 16, 2021

“You can plan a pretty picnic
but you can’t predict the weather, Ms. Jackson”

About a year ago, 2020 looked like another legitimate year for making plans. Who’d have thought that a year with such a pretty name would turn on us and become a cliffhanger with no finale in sight?

I believe that everyone reading this post has been affected in one way or another by everything that happened last year, and so I’ll spare you the summaries of the year we’re all tired of. In the present post I want to focus on Japan – or more specifically, on what I learned about Japan this year. Although I have a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in Japan, no course could have taught me these things.

I’m not Japanese, but I’ve been living and breathing Japan for five years already, and the recent period has opened my eyes in several areas. With so many things going on here (did somebody say Olympics?) it was impossible to look from the sidelines and fail to notice a few things that became very obvious:

1. A love-hate attitude toward tourists

I imagine everyone who lives in a tourist destination knows the feeling: tourists are a blessing and a curse.

Tourist attractions don’t just become what they are for no reason. There’s something about the destination that draws curious people to it. And yet, when the place is too full of people, it could cast a shadow over the local charm. It could even turn the destination into a snare lacking in authenticity. Sound familiar?

That was the vibe in Kyoto until March 2020. This city is truly stunning, and has countless historic and modern places that are gorgeous to behold, but in certain seasons you can’t see the bamboo forest for the trees. There will always be the secret spots that almost no one goes to, but I’m talking more about the “must-see sites” and the city center. In normal times I’ve observed many locals complaining that “there are too many tourists in Kyoto”, and I’m sure there’s a similar sentiment in cities like Tokyo and Osaka.

But suddenly there were no tourists at all! If you can remember the post I wrote (mostly photographs) in May, you’ll certainly remember how jarring the sight of the city was. One of the primary arteries of many locals’ livelihood was cut off in an instant. Abruptly the noise, the mess and the crowdedness turned into something everyone was hoping for, just so that things would return to normal.

With so many empty rooms in hotels and the risk of the Olympics being postponed again, there seems to be renewed local appreciation for tourists.

But as the cheesy expression goes: we never appreciate something enough until we’ve lost it.

2020 in Japan

2. Physical distance isn’t a bad thing

As someone who comes from a culture where we say hello to people with hugs and kisses (lots!), Japanese culture could come across as cold. Bowing, as an example of avoiding touch in social situations, could seem like a strange gesture. But this year has proved that these customs are not only hygienic, they can be real lifesavers. And it isn’t just that the Japanese avoid touching – there’s a historical justification for it.

Epidemics are nothing new in Japan. Throughout history, there are numerous references to plagues that broke out in the Land of the Rising Sun. Remember the Gion Festival I wrote about? It’s celebrated to thank the gods for helping hopeless humankind to overcome a plague in the ninth century. The Japanese are well versed in infectious diseases and so they are wary of them. It’s hard to ascertain whether avoiding touch in this way is what saved Japan from annihilation in the past or what is saving them today, but it certainly doesn’t hurt.

3. An aging population is no joke

With the baby boomer generation from after World War II living long and a low birth rate, 65+ year-olds make up more than 28% of the population in Japan. As far as health risks go, many of them are extremely cautious. In April and May, there was a real concern of hospitals filling up, because the vulnerable population constitutes a large percentage of Japan’s citizens. In other words, the percentage of people in the high-risk group is very large.

Something else that happened is that I noticed how many of the people close to me are old: my Japanese teacher asked to postpone classes because he’s in the high-risk group; the owner of one of my favorite restaurants closed it because she’s afraid of getting infected. Language students at the school where I work were afraid to attend because they wanted to protect themselves – all of them are retirement age. I came to this realization all at once: there are loads of old people here.

Of course, even without the recent global developments, the fact that Japan’s population is ageing is significant. The current situation only highlights it.

4. Face masks are a big deal

I must say that after five years in Japan, seeing people from all over the world going around wearing masks was surreal at first. I’ve always had to explain to people visiting here what the masks mean – but suddenly everyone understands it better than I could ever explain.

It’s true that Japanese people don’t only use masks when they’re afraid of an epidemic or when they’re sick – it could be because of seasonal allergies or even air pollution. But hey – thanks to the recent situation, it looks like we’ll all have a much broader selection of masks available for protecting ourselves in years to come. Indeed, we don’t always recognize people we know on the street, but who knows – perhaps they actually prefer not to be recognized?

And yet, I must point out that I’m afraid of growing too accustomed to a mask. Sometimes it’s addictive to go out and have no one see me or the expression on my face. It’ll be interesting to see what happens when we no longer need them. Think you’ll find it hard to say goodbye to masks?

sanjo bridge

5. Who needs laws when shame exists

In Japan there’s no law to wear masks, and yet more than ninety percent of the population wear them anyway. As a Japanese friend explained to me: “More than the fear of getting infected and infecting others, it feels bad to be without a mask in such times.”

The widespread view is that if everyone wears a mask, we’re all combating this together. It’s true, there are always those who don’t mind going around without one. But my personal feeling, at least, is that I’m not okay if I’m in a place bustling with people and am not wearing a mask. As my friend put it: It just feels bad.

The shame of being the one to infect others or simply one who flouts unwritten social norms is what makes people wear masks, sanitize their hands whenever they enter a shop, and stay at home if they feel sick. If it was found out that a person was sick but came to work anyway, and as a result other people got sick – the shame would be indescribable.

Does shame help to prevent the spread more than rules enshrined in the law? Good question. As someone who lives here, I can say that I feel better when I do something by choice, even if it’s because of shame.


I believe we all learned a thing or two from this year in the personal, social, global and a host of other spheres that there’s no space to mention.

What is my message to you? I hope we come out of this period stronger, more united, wiser, and most importantly – optimistic.

What did you learn from 2020?

Tell me your answers in the comments!

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