We’re at the end of 2020, and though some reports seem promising, there is still no vaccine. Yet I look at what’s going on in Japan, and I look at what’s going on in the United States—two starkly different realities on what normal looks like now.

How did it become like this?

Recalling the 3/11 Earthquake, Tsunami, and Fukushima Nuclear Disaster

I was in Japan during the Fukushima disaster, and I remember that day like an American remembers 9/11. It was shocking and devastating, and it challenged my understanding of stability and safety. School was temporarily canceled, my friends left Japan, I wasn’t supposed to leave the house for fear of radiation poisoning, and in general, there was an air of paranoia and fear.

During this crisis, I first learned of the term jishuku (自粛). Jishuku is loosely defined as the practice of restraining from fun, luxury, and celebration in consideration of others who are going through a hard time. Then-Prime Minister Abe encouraged citizens to practice jishuku, to show camaraderie and support for those directly affected by the earthquake, tsunami, and Fukushima disaster. Not just victims, but to show support for heroes as well—while volunteers and workers were going out of their way to rebuild homes and clean up radioactive waste, those who couldn’t directly help should at least show support by restraining from going out.

March is the time for cherry blossom festivals and celebrations, and April is the time for graduation ceremonies, but in the name of jishuku many of these major events were canceled. Shopping malls were sparse, if not completely closed, and city lights were turned off in the name of saving electricity and nightlife slowed down.

It was not forever. Eventually, schools reopened, events resumed, and the economy did not collapse. But I’ll forever remember how on a national level, so many people could come together for a moment to show support. There was fear and uncertainty, yes, but it didn’t turn Japanese society against each other—the rich did not host lavish parties, and the reckless did not go on looting sprees to capitalize on others’ misfortune. Staying at home and keeping quiet wasn’t oppression of freedom, but a personal choice in consideration of others.

The Novel Coronavirus and Japan

When the coronavirus happened, it was reminiscent of what I had already experienced. Again I saw schools close, graduation ceremonies get canceled, celebrations and festivals end, and people restrict themselves to staying at home. The purpose of these actions was even more critical, in that they had the immediate urgency in preventing the spread of the virus and protecting the lives of the immunocompromised and at-risk.

As a result of these efforts over several months, a sense of normalcy has returned to Japan. Masks are worn in public and major events are still on hold, but people are able to safely enjoy eating out, going shopping, and regularly meeting friends and family in safe and distanced conditions. As of writing, there have been a total of 1716 COVID-19 deaths in Japan, or total COVID-19 deaths per million stands at 13.56. For comparison, the U.S. has a total death rate of 685.69 per million residents.

I don’t need to further point out how Japan’s reality differs from other democratic and developed, high-income societies. This isn’t meant to be an evaluation of cultures, to deem one better than the other, but what I’ve seen in Japan has proven to me that a successful coronavirus containment doesn’t mean having to give up personal freedom or liberty: there was no forced government lockdown or threatening fines for breaking social distancing rules, and Japan’s citizens choose how they’d like to live their day-to-day. Stay at home or go out? Wear a mask or leave it at home?

Japanese jishuku has shown me that there’s a certain powerfulness to cultures that have traditions of sharing consideration and support during times of crisis, and I hope citizens of other nations can see it as so too. I love the freedom of expression and sense of individualism my upbringing in the United States has instilled in me, but with freedom comes responsibility, and to ignore this responsibility is not an act of exercising this right, but a choice that threatens it.

This article also appeared in Yes! Magazine on 24 November 2020 and was originally published on Medium.

This article inspired the Over Here, Over There podcast: Jishuku: Is Social Responsibility the Best Vaccine? Below is a clip of Kaki Okumura from that episode:

KAKI OKUMURA is a top writer in food, cooking, health, travel, and culture. Follow her on Instagram @kakikata.space and visit her website kakikata.space.