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Thoughts on Life in Tokyo

Takeshita-dôri in Harajuku. Back to a manageable, pleasant level of crowds. This is more like what it was when I came to Tokyo the first time in 2003; in recent years, it’s gotten so packed-solid crowded with tourists that it’s become an area to avoid. But during Covid, ironically,
it can be enjoyed again.

It’s been a long time since I’ve kept up with this blog in any way. So, starting to catch up a little. Here’s a post I wrote way back in October, but it’s basically still true today.

I’ve been in Tokyo for more than a year now. Almost a year and a half. I can’t believe it. The longest stretch I’ve ever spent outside the US.

Of course, this is like my eighth time or something being in Tokyo, so it’s not the same as almost any other city…

But what does the city feel like after being here for so long? In some respects it feels too ordinary, like I’ve gotten used to it and it’s lost a sense of adventure to some (albeit only partial) extent. But at the same time, I do still very much feel like someone still finding their feet. Like someone who’s still visiting, or who hasn’t necessarily gained a deeper, stronger familiarity with the city than a year ago. Granted, I think a lot of this has to do with the Covid situation. Here in Tokyo, we’ve never had a real serious lockdown, and we still don’t now. Even during those weeks/months when I was more seriously trying to avoid public transportation and to avoid sit-down restaurants, etc., even at those times I still went for walks, experienced the city in a sense. I wonder how my familiarity with the city, my feeling of living here, might be different if this pandemic never happened, and if I might have spent more of this past year and a half more actively hanging out with friends, going out to restaurants and museums and so forth in a more lively fashion; then again, we’re researchers and full-time workers, and so forth, and even in non-Covid times it probably would have been a lot of just day-in day-out regular workdays.

In any case, with the pandemic or without, on some level I suppose I have gotten more familiar with, more used to the city, but that said, it feels more ordinary, not less. I might have expected that gaining the cultural capital of being so familiar with Tokyo would feel cool, amazing, empowering, but instead it just feels ordinary. 

The imperial palace moat at Ichigaya. An area deeply nostalgic for me from my very first time in Japan.
I never tire of seeing the trains running right along the water.

Sure, I can go visit anywhere in the city and find my way around no problem, but I could do that before. And I’m not too unfamiliar with various archives, etc., even having some sense, some image in my mind of what’s nearby in each neighborhood. I can walk around in certain neighborhoods – certainly not the whole city! but certain areas – and just sort of know what’s around the next corner, or where to find a bathroom nearby or whether there’s a good café I know nearby. 

And I don’t think my language skills have gotten all that much better in the one year I’ve been here. I’ll blame it on the pandemic, that I’ve been spending so much time isolated away. And I do plan on taking sanshin classes and/or Uchināguchi classes once we can, and I very much hope that that might be a good angle for improving my Japanese by meeting and interacting with Japanese classmates. But in the meantime, I dunno, it’s just a weird feeling to think about being here for a full year, and what my relationship with the city has become.

Akamon, the famous red gate of University of Tokyo’s main campus.

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Above: Watching and listening to the Kamogawa flow along. There’s just something wonderful about the Kamo, bringing this relaxing, refreshing energy to the city.

Time has flowed so strangely these past X months since the pandemic began. It’s hard to believe that it’s been roughly seven weeks already since the state of emergency was officially lifted here in Tokyo on May 25. I have been fortunate throughout this time to have my health, and to remain employed and safely comfortable otherwise in my cozy Tokyo apartment. And I have been exceptionally fortunate that none of my family back home in the US have fallen ill, and almost unbelievably, even out of my hundreds of Facebook friends, only a handful so far as I know have fallen ill with this. So, I begin this blog post by acknowledging, of course, that my “journey through Covid” or my experience of “living with Covid” is a very different one from those who are suffering from the disease, or even those living in high hot spots, dealing with the stupidity of our fellow Americans. I am so sorry to you all, and I hope so sincerely and so deeply that, somehow, things turn around for the better soon.

Glancing back again at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s official Covid Information Updates site, the state of emergency was lifted after the number of new coronavirus cases (new positive test results) per day had remained around or below 15 new cases per day for about 10 days. Things were really starting to look like they were under control, and might remain so. My university gradually, cautiously, began lowering its own internal threat level and gradually, cautiously, reopening campus in stages. From Level 4 down to 3, then 2, then 1, and now level 0.5. Even at level 0.5, there are numerous policies and safeguards in place, and the number of people actually present on campus at any given time is a tiny fraction of what would be normally.

Chart of official numbers of new Covid-19 cases discovered each day by the Tokyo Metropolitan government, April to July 2020. Rising again from a low of 10-15 new cases per day in late May to nearly 300 on July 17 and 18. Apologies the screencap is a little wonky. Click through for more data.

Now, I don’t know if this was selfish or irresponsible or what, but I considered the situation and decided that if the numbers continue to remain low, and the campus continues to open up more fully, before long I’ll be back in a situation where I’ll be expected to be in the office fairly regularly, X days a week, so therefore, so long as I’m still officially working from home but the state of emergency is lifted, the numbers are low, now might be the best time to squeeze in a little travel. I was cautious about it, waited until I had some sense that hotels would be willing to have me. I looked at which museums were open, and took that as an indication of how safe people thought it was, to what degree things might be somewhat back to normal in a given city or region, and to what degree the trip might even be worthwhile – no point in going if half the museums, archives, etc I want to visit might be closed. And so, even as numbers began to trickle back up, I decided to go on a little trip.

In Kyoto, the numbers have been super low for quite some time. One day while I was there, there were four new cases that day. And I get the impression numbers have been in that range all week, and maybe even for weeks before that. Now, of course that doesn’t mean that I couldn’t be bringing it from Tokyo, and of course I don’t want to be responsible for a new outbreak / cluster. I don’t want to get into a whole lengthy thing about how I could have (should have) possibly calculated the risk – based on what numbers? what data? – and made a more fully, truly, rational, responsible decision. I’m not an epidemiologist. I’m just a guy. And I was most certainly not the only person traveling at that time.

Social distancing, Kyoto-style. Stay far enough apart that your umbrellas won’t touch. A sign I saw posted in Fushimi.

A lot of people in Kyoto were wearing masks, and most stores and other establishments had some kind of precautions set up. Plastic sheets hanging over the counters, to block customers and staff breathing directly on each other. Windows open and fans running. Far more places in Kyoto than in my experience in Tokyo explicitly asked me to use hand sanitizer or alcohol when coming into their establishment, and far more of them tested my temperature.

But, then, at the same time, a greater proportion of people in Kyoto than in Tokyo were not wearing masks, a greater proportion of restaurants were open for indoor seating, and a greater proportion of people were taking them up on that. Narrow as the sidewalks can be in Tokyo – outdoor sidewalk seating is not nearly as common a thing in Tokyo as in, for example, New York, though that’s changing this summer precisely because of this pandemic – there’s even less space in Kyoto to put out tables & chairs outside of a bar or restaurant.

My first day or two in Kyoto I was definitely feeling off-balance – to take a train for a few hours and suddenly be in a world where the pandemic, or at least the general widespread response to it, is at such a different stage. What do I do? Do I apply my Tokyo-based routines and standards and tell myself I won’t eat indoors anywhere? Or do I adapt to what everyone around me seems to think is probably safe enough? (Not that they – customers or managers alike – are experts either…) And then, when walking around in some slightly more out-of-the-way places, in small towns and hiking up stairs or hills at shrines and temples, when there’s just totally no one else around me and I’m frankly having trouble breathing through the mask because of my exertion and because of the humidity, it’s alright to take off my mask, right? There’s absolutely no one around me who would breathe in my droplets, my exhalation particles. … But then once you start doing that, you get to a place where, well, if I’m not wearing the mask outside because it’s just too hot, and sometimes I’m not wearing the mask outside simply because I’m eating or drinking something and thus granting myself an exemption to wearing the mask for those X minutes, but then I’m also not wearing my mask when I’m eating indoors because how could you wear a mask and eat, even though there are still other people in the restaurant with you, who may or may not be six feet away… Well, then when do you wear the mask, and doesn’t it start to feel a little … what’s the word? Arbitrary? Hypocritical? I was surprised to sometimes see waitstaff not even wearing masks. On the one hand, this made me feel better that they might be feeling scared to come to work, feeling they didn’t even want to be there; I put off thinking about traveling for quite a few weeks, maybe even months, because I didn’t want to feel like I was contributing to any such situation, where staff didn’t want to be there, or didn’t want to interact with me. But, now, the situation was reversed! I did what I could to wear my mask so long as I was interacted with these waitstaff at all, so long as I didn’t actively have food or drink in front of me, but they didn’t seem inclined to take similar precautions, getting quite close up to me, close to my face, as they served the food or as they asked me “is everything alright?” And, frankly, it made me a little nervous.

The almost completely empty streets of the city center in Shimizu, Shizuoka. Of course I’ll wear a mask so long as it’s comfortable; I think if I remember correctly, I did wear my mask while walking around on this street, just by default. But if there’s no one else around….?

I met up with some friends, too. Wasn’t sure if anyone would be willing to meet up, or if it was wrong of me to even ask. But I told them all, if they thought it was not right, if they thought it was not being careful enough, I wouldn’t hold it against them or anything. That’s perfectly reasonable, and maybe I’m the one who’s being unreasonable. It’s okay. Just say so. … But, people were willing to meet anyway. So, I met with one professor (for the first time, someone I didn’t know) and we sat a good ten feet apart or something, inside his office, masks off, with the windows open and the fan on. I met up with a second professor, who I do know, who I figured I might as well just knock on his door so long as I’m in the building. We talked out in the hallway, masks on.

I met up with a couple of friends for dinner (masks off, obviously) on the roof of their building, with the thought process that even if we were sitting less than six feet apart, at least we’re outdoors. I met up with another friend and spent the whole day with him, wearing masks as we walked through the streets and museums and so forth, but taking them off when we went into restaurants and cafes together.

Oh, and of course, there’s also the question of trains. For I don’t know how many weeks, here in Tokyo, I avoided the trains completely. Walked everywhere. Was afraid of the subways and other trains – and the stations – being a bit too closed in, even with the train windows open (does that really do anything?). But one night in Tokyo (many weeks before this trip), as I began on what would be a 45-60 min walk home from wherever it is I was at that time, the skies started to give me the feeling like it might open up and just start pouring at any moment. So I took the train. It was midday, some random hour on a random day. Not rush hour. And I was only on the train for about 10-15 mins. There was almost no one else on the train. Now, of course, if I had caught Covid, and if there were any way to know that it was because of that train ride and not because of anywhere else I’d been, then of course a 10-15 min train ride just to avoid getting wet would not be worth the risk. But… *shrug*. How are you supposed to make that calculation? How are you supposed to know what risks to avoid, and at what point to allow yourself to let your guard down and just stop making things extra difficult for yourself for what may (or may not!?) actually be an unreasonable level of caution? In the end, now, these many weeks later, it was fine. I never developed symptoms, not after that short subway ride, and not after any other particular outing. But since then, and especially since the state of emergency was lifted, I started taking the trains a little more frequently. Still staying home the great majority of the time (outside of this trip to Kyoto), and still walking most places. Avoiding rush hour. Avoiding buses. (Are buses more or less risky than trains? I have no idea.) It’s a bizarre thing this pandemic – it’s not only invisible, it’s completely imperceptible. There is no color, no odor, no way of knowing at all whether you’re entering a dangerous (infected) space, or whether you’ve been through one, or whether you’ve caught it. So, it’s tempting to say “well, I rode the train once, and I was fine,” but of course you don’t know if you’re fine until 14+ days after that, when you start to have symptoms. Or maybe you don’t have symptoms. So, I suppose that logically that uncertainty means we should all be staying in our homes still, isolating as strictly as ever, still. For months and months on end. But, what can I say? I saw plenty of other people riding the trains; I tried to take others’ behavior as indicative of what might be a “normal” or reasonable level of caution. I always wear my mask on trains, or indeed when out in public in general (with small exceptions, as I mentioned above), and I try my best to stay a good distance away from anyone else, as best as I can within a narrow subway car.

And then came time to actually make my trip to Kyoto. I got up early in the morning, so that I might make it to Kyoto before noon and still have a good amount of the remainder of the day to do stuff in the city. But almost as soon as I stepped out my door, I could sense it was like rush hour. Maybe only half as busy as a fully normal (pre-covid) Tokyo rush hour, but even so. In all my weeks of cautiously starting to ride the trains again, this was certainly the most busy. And then once I got on the Shinkansen, it was the same. Yes, I know that the Tokyo-Kyoto-Osaka route is the busiest in the country. But, really? This many people are on their way to Kyoto or Osaka right now? Amidst a pandemic? And on *this* train, and not on the train X minutes earlier or the one X minutes later? It was far from packed, but it was most certainly not empty. Even so, I thought this might be safer than flying. Is it? I don’t know.

Even before I left for Kyoto, the numbers in Tokyo were rising again. From 10-15 a day for however many days straight, it was back up in the 50s, then the 100s, then the 120s-150s. Governor Koike suggested that people not leave the prefecture. Oops, I was already gone. And then the numbers exceeded 200! … But, what does this really mean? We come right back to where we’ve always been: Tokyo is testing in such a limited fashion, that it’s hard to know what this really indicates. And, whatever the numbers are, they kept saying that they were in identifiable clusters. That one day that there were four cases in Kyoto, they were all delivery men from the same KuroNeko (Japanese equivalent of UPS or DHL) office. And in Tokyo, at least half the cases each day were traced to the nightlife districts, to bars and nightclubs. And then I saw something saying that whatever the numbers of new cases each day, there were fewer than 10 people in all of Japan in the ICU right now due to Covid, and that there had been no deaths (identified as) due to Covid for days and days, perhaps weeks. So, what are we to make of this? Of course, it doesn’t mean I’m going to stop wearing a mask, stop being cautious, and it certainly doesn’t mean I’m going to start having big parties in giant unmasked crowds. But, at least so long as I was in Kyoto and Osaka, maybe it was okay to ease up a little, not be unduly strict with myself. If you can’t find any restaurants with outdoor seating, and everyone else is eating indoors, maybe it’s okay? …. But now that I’ve come back to Tokyo, I’ve resettled back into a routine of not going anywhere except to the grocery store.. and always with a mask, and always washing my hands when I get home… Is this excessive? I don’t know. Is it hypocritical, given that I was looser about such things while I was in Kyoto? I don’t know.

Should I feel okay about going out and eating indoors more now, because I’ve seen how things are okay in Kyoto and Osaka and Shizuoka? Or should I make an active decision to be stricter about it now that I’m back in Tokyo, because Tokyo’s the one place where numbers are high and still rising? Or should I not worry about it too much because even with the numbers still rising (and about half the new cases are now from outside of identified nightlife clusters), there are so few people seriously ill and so few people dying that maybe it’s overall more under control than we think? And because I’m not taking rush hour trains, not going to the office, etc.?

I don’t know.

But the whole point of this post isn’t to put my own irresponsibility out on display in public, or necessarily to stage a critique of the absence of good news information, but rather to just touch upon or contemplate how our experiences going through this are so dependent on our own internal thought processes.

In some respects, the situation hasn’t really changed at all for months. In other respects, it has – changes in numbers, changes in state of emergency policy. But internally, personally, we’re each making these decisions, do we feel safer going outside, or not? What are the ups and downs, the curve-trend-lines on that?

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I’ve actually grown quite used to this staying-at-home life these past, well, let’s call it two months. I don’t know what it is exactly about this apartment, but I feel I’ve sort of lucked out, somehow it’s been a very comfortable place to be spending so much time in these last X weeks. Not too small or too dark or too anything… and not too far from the supermarket, convenience store, etc. either. I’m glad I didn’t have to do stay-at-home in my previous apartment (dorm room). It would have been fine, no doubt. Of course. But somehow I do think I’ve been much happier here.

And I’m of course not the only one.

I do feel weird saying so, of course, since it was just today that the New York Times published a list of one thousand names of those killed in the US by the coronavirus – it fills the entire front page of the newspaper, and it’s still only 1% of the dead. Looking through visualizations of it, one name at a time, each with a short one-sentence obituary, is numbing. Among 100,000 people you’ll find those of every age, every race and ethnicity, every walk of life. People who made great discoveries and accomplishments, people who did incredible things for their friends and family. People who relished in their hobbies and interests. People who were taken from us far far too soon, and people who might have had a good few more years if not for this. And so many of them, of course, forced to suffer their last X days or weeks without direct contact with their loved ones. … The crisis in the United States, and in many parts of the world, is far from over. And yet, I’m one of the lucky ones. For now. For now, thus far, thankfully, I have not fallen ill and neither have any of my family members, nor, incredibly, have I lost any friends. Astonishingly lucky, if “luck” is even the right word.

So, what can I say? It’s a weird place to be in, and I don’t mean to sound too privileged or out of touch… I’m just being honest about my situation. Thankfully, I’m far from the only one who has survived through this whole crisis unscathed (thus far), and whose experience (thus far) has been simply one of adjusting to a new normal, working from home rather than going to the office, and so forth. I’ve been cooking real meals a lot more; nothing too fancy, but even so, a little bit, here and there. Made some pasta sauce from scratch; I think it was too much bother, actually, in the end.

The Kandagawa, near Edogawabashi.

And now, Japan has just lifted the State of Emergency. We’ll see what happens in the coming days, but as of right now at least I haven’t heard anything at all about any museums, libraries, archives, or campuses reopening. To be honest, as much as I have been looking forward to visiting museums, archives, and libraries again, and to doing some traveling, I am not really looking forward to having to start commuting again, 9-to-5, to the office. In a sense, I feel like I’m only just now really starting to hit my stride – or, let’s call it a second wind, or third – in terms of getting used to the routine of being home. I wonder how long I’ve got before the office opens up again. I guess we’ll find out.

In the meantime, I’ve been avoiding public transportation entirely for I don’t know how long; at least six weeks or so, maybe closer to eight. And I’ve been walking places. Thought about getting a bicycle; this would have been the time for it, while there are fewer people on the road, but there’s nowhere at my apartment building to park a bike. So, anyway, I’ve been doing a lot of walking.

It’s been an interesting experience. 

Some random street corner somewhere in Bunkyô-ku.

Tokyo is, certainly, a city full of exciting things to see and do and experience, when they’re open. Hop on the subway and venture out to museums, bars, art galleries, theater, all sorts of different sites and institutions. But walking, Tokyo is nothing like, for example, Kyoto. Kyoto you can walk around and just enjoy the experience of the architectural environment of Kyoto. The architecture, the machinami as they say in Japanese – I wish we had a good word for it in English, but it means something like the “street scene.” Like a skyline, but from down on the ground – the visual experience of the street as a whole, from one block to the next or across whatever distance, longer or shorter. Here in Shinjuku/Bunkyo/Chiyoda-ku, the machinami is very much the same as you walk. Sure, it depends on what neighborhoods you’re in exactly, but for the most part, branching out from where I am living now, I found just more and more of the same busy main streets, and quiet but architecturally disunited, aesthetically chaotic, residential neighborhoods, all of it very modern, with bits of more traditional architecture here and there… Chaotic and all mixed up, but largely a mix of the same things, or mixed up in the same way. Lots and lots of grey concrete. And where there is a Buddhist temple or Shinto shrine, it’s usually set back a ways from the road, so it doesn’t really enter much into the feel of the neighborhood – doesn’t break up the endless rows of concrete & glass storefronts.

Back in the pre-corona days, there were a number of times when I walked from Omotesando or Harajuku through whatever in-between neighborhoods, to Shibuya, and from Shibuya through Shinsen to Komaba, and then maybe even on past there to Shimo-Kita, and it was interesting and kind of fun to see how the neighborhoods changed as you walked, from some of the busiest areas in the city to quiet residential neighborhoods, from the quirky youth energy of Harajuku to the upscale vibe of Omotesando, but I haven’t found that sort of experience walking around these neighborhoods…

Backstreets in a residential neighborhood in Setagaya-ku.

Another thing I noticed initially on these walks is that with my mask on I couldn’t smell the incidental smells so easily, or at all. One of the pleasant parts of going for a walk, one of the things that made me want to, is just all the incidental springtime smells you smell – flowers, food, incense. So, that felt like a terrible loss – missing out on the entire Spring, even more so than we already are. Fortunately, now that I’ve been wearing a different mask, I can smell it better.

You can capture sights and sounds to a certain extent on photo and video, but smells are one of those things you absolutely can’t. And there are so many smells here in Japan that I can’t even identify, can’t even necessarily say I miss when I’m back in the States, but when I’m here and I smell them, all sorts of memories come flooding back of previous times spent in Japan. The faintest of scents carried on the breeze alongside the warmth of the spring sun. That steamy smell in the air as you walk past a ramen place. Food smells, of course. But also, and I feel weird to say it, but clean smells, too; not that I’m yearning for the smell of industrial chemicals, but rather that whatever they use to clean places here makes me think of shops and restaurants and campus buildings over the course of my many trips in Japan. Temple incense, of course. But also countless smells I couldn’t name at all, but just which remind me of spring, and of fun and enjoyment and adventure of past times.

At Iidabashi Station. Feels weird watching trains go by. I haven’t ridden a train in weeks.

This is my fourth time living in Japan for any serious length of time. It’s interesting, and weird, and kind of disappointing, to realize how ordinary it feels in a certain sense. My first trip to Japan, I lived here in Tokyo for four months as a study abroad student. As I’ve probably talked about too many times before on this blog, it was my first time overseas on my own, my first time living anywhere on my own that was more than 4 hours drive from home (let alone overseas); it was a brand new city, a brand new country, and I was young and just so excited by everything. And, especially in light of the fact that I didn’t think I would necessarily ever come back. I thought this was like my one big adventure, and that after that I would just go back home to New York and be a New Yorker the rest of my life (something which a part of me is still very attached to, but that’s a matter for a whole other post).

The second time, it was a whole five years later; after five long years of thinking I might never go back to Japan again, boom, I was living the dream, living in Yokohama for nearly a full year. Again, definitely felt like an adventure. While I was spending the vast majority of my time in class or at home doing homework (or I suppose in various cafes? I don’t really recall), and even when I wasn’t, I was largely in Yokohama and not right in the heart of things in Tokyo (or Kyoto or Osaka or Naha), even so, I learned and gained so much during that year and had an incredible good time. It was my first time living in Japan for more than just four months, my first time on my own as a college graduate, as someone a bit more mature and independent, as someone with far better Japanese language ability than when I was in college. I was *living* in Japan, not just having some crazy study abroad adventure. … And then, I came back for three or four or six weeks at a time for quite a few summers. Six weeks in Kyoto back in 2010 (I can’t believe it was so long ago!) definitely gave me a feel for the city, felt like I was “living” there and not just visiting. I feel like I know that city better than most I’ve visited for less time (makes sense). I would *love* to live there again. But I’m not quite counting it.

Third time, was in 2016-2017 (I want to say “recently” but I guess it’s not quite that recent anymore…), when I was here on fellowship for dissertation research. Spent six months in Okinawa and five in Tokyo, blogged about it a lot. In part because Okinawa was so new – my first time spending more than a week there, my first time getting to really live there and experience it more deeply/broadly – this third time, too, was quite the adventure. In all of these trips, I felt like I was gradually becoming more and more a Japan Scholar, or Japan Hand, or Okinawa hand, or whatever the hell term you want to use. I’m not actually a big fan of the “China hand” “Japan hand” term, but in any case, it’s direct experience of having lived here, and traveled around Japan, experience of meeting people and making connections and experiencing all different sides of life here, that is so crucial to being … well, I hesitate to use the word “expert,” but, it’s crucial to feeling valid and justified in saying you’ve had those experiences. You know your way around.

This fourth time, I was excited to open a new chapter, to live and *work* in Japan for the first time. To be here on something other than a student or cultural activities or tourist visa; to actually live and work here. I’m not sure that I have any intentions of staying for the truly long-term, but at least it doesn’t feel temporary the way a 10- or 11-month program does. I don’t have any institution to go back to in the States right now. I’m for the first time in years and years not currently affiliated with or enrolled in any school in the US. I am University of Tokyo staff. A weird thing to consider. For the first week or so of this stay, it was really exciting. Look at me, I’m University of Tokyo staff. I’m one of those people now, who lives and works in Japan. Look at me, I’m going to go to conferences and it’s going to say University of Tokyo on my name badge and on my business cards.

Some beautiful but small and so far as I know historically non-significant random temple somewhere in the area.

But, being here, I really don’t feel like I’ve necessarily become all that much more … what’s the word? Local knowledge? Cultural capital? I don’t feel like I necessarily know Tokyo any better than I did before, like I’m becoming more expert. Maybe it’s still too early to say. I think the work environment has a lot to do with it – I spend far far far more time just going to the office and going home and going back to the office than I do networking; I haven’t gone to all that many conferences or lectures or workshops or anything, nor have I gone to very many meet-ups, stand-up comedy nights, or anything like that where I might meet people and get to know a scene outside of academia. I’m sorry to say it, but I find myself still very attached to the expat community; and I actually really like it that way. I love meeting other visiting scholars, expats, whatever word you want to use. And while I absolutely don’t want to live in some segregated expat bubble – I’m certainly not going to only English-speaking restaurants or Western-style cuisine places or something like that; I’m not trying to live an American or European life in Tokyo – I’m trying to live a Tokyo life and to enjoy and appreciate Tokyo alongside other people who appreciate it similarly to how I do, and with whom I can speak comfortably and stress-free in English. It’d be nice to have Japanese friends. It’d be wonderful. Especially if they might be true friends, to really meet up with and hang out with, and not have that awkwardness of being professional colleagues/coworkers rather than friends; it would certainly do wonders for my conversational Japanese. I feel like in Okinawa it’d be a lot easier. In part because there are fewer expats around, haha. But, when I was at Ryûdai, there was a small close community of ten or so Okinawan History grad students, and I sat in on their seminars and so forth, and every now and then they invited me along to welcome parties and going away parties, to end of year parties and karaoke nights and so forth. I wasn’t fully, truly, a member of their grad student cohort – I was only a visitor – but even so, living on a campus in a small town, if and when people are going to go out, well, they certainly didn’t have to invite me along but it was very kind of them to include me in the party as it were. And I think if I were to live there longer, one way or another, on campus or off, I would get to know people. Naha is just that small of a city, and that friendly and open of a place, I think; I mean, it’s complicated, because on the one hand, maybe as a tourist they’re just being friendly because they’re friendly to all tourists, but then again on the other hand maybe because there are so many tourists some people might appreciate me a bit more because I’m more serious, not in Okinawa for just a fleeting funtimes vacation. … Anyway, once this whole coronavirus thing is over with, maybe hopefully I can find a sanshin teacher here in Tokyo, and then maybe (fingers crossed) I might be able to actually make friends with people through that. I think having something in common, having a cultural group through which you meet people, is probably a good way to do it.

Meanwhile, I’m also not sure my conversational Japanese is getting any better. At all. … I didn’t mean for this post to be one about complaining, or being down on myself. Rather, I was thinking more along the lines of just isn’t it interesting how ordinary my life in Tokyo feels right now, rather than it being the kind of adventure that my previous times were. Isn’t it interesting how it feels so ordinary compared to what my excitement was in the first week or two. I think that not really being all that integrated into any kind of life on campus, but just keeping my head down and doing my work has contributed to this a lot. I also think that once things open back up again, and we’re able to travel again, and to have workshops and conferences and all the rest, that will help a lot. Being able to use this time while I’m here to meet people, to make connections and become situated as a member of a local network, and also being able to use this time to travel and get to see more of Japan, will help a lot. I think. We’ll see. We’ll get there.

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Seventy-five years ago today, on May 1, 1945, Jewish prisoners being marched through the snow by Nazi soldiers, out of the Dachau concentration camp and to their deaths, encountered members of the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion, part of the famous all-Japanese-American 442nd Regimental Combat Team, and were liberated by them.

Photo of liberated concentration camp prisoners by Sus Ito, a member of the 522nd. (Sus Ito Collection, Japanese American National Museum)

I cannot be 100% sure – after all, there were so many sub-camps, and different US military groups liberating different areas at the same time – but I believe my grandfather may have been among those liberated at that time by these Japanese-American (Nisei) heroes.

A record, I presume from some branch of the US military, indicating that my grandfather, Abraham Seifman, was “liberated during the march of death 1.5.1945.”

Lisa K. Menton, a scholar with the Hawaii Holocaust Project, an oral history archive of interviews with some of these Nisei soldiers, writes that “Understandably, the men cannot remember the exact place or date when some of them first began to see people, wearing what many of them describe as blue-and-white pajamas, straggling along the wooded roads of southern Germany. Most of them distinctly remember, however, that there was snow on the ground, even though it was late spring, and they indelibly remember the dead and the dying.”1

She quotes Barton Nagata, a radio operator for the unit’s commanding officer, as recalling:

I think it was around Schaftlach, in southern Germany below Munich when I became aware of these people in this little village wearing this striped uniform. Well, looks like pajamas to me. I kept wondering, “Who are these people?” Then I found out these were concentration camp inmates. So, well, at that time, you know, it just didn’t strike us how much these people had suffered. But as I saw more of them the next day along the road, I see them dead or dying, I began to realize how much these people had suffered.1

My thanks to Joey Kamiya for posting the following video on YouTube, featuring interviews with some of the soldiers and survivors:

Shortly after receiving these documents and realizing – because of the date – the possible connections with the 442nd/522nd, I happened to mention my “discovery” to an Okinawan-American fellow from Hawaiʻi who I met one night at the Okinawa America Association in Los Angeles, who told me that his uncle was in the 522nd and was there, or somewhere in that area, somewhere in that same snowstorm, that same liberation effort, that day. I don’t know that I would have ever expected to find such close connections between this community and my own family history. I don’t think my grandparents could have ever imagined that their grandson would someday visit Japan, Okinawa, and Hawaiʻi, would end up becoming a scholar of Japanese and Okinawan history and culture of all things, would end up meeting the relatives of some of those involved in the liberation in this way.

I am so grateful to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum & the International Tracing Service for providing me with this and many other documents pertaining to my family. For years and years I had no idea about this service, and neither my father nor anyone else in the family, so far as I knew, suspected that we would ever find any records at all about our family from that time. But then, in the process of repairs and recovery after Hurricane Sandy (which struck NY in 2012), we found a shoebox, which I guess had been way in the back of a closet or basement somewhere, full of old family photos. This spurred me to start investigating. And so I found the International Tracing Service, an incredible resource. You simply enter as much information as you can about the person you’re looking for – name, birthdate, locations if known before, during, and after the Holocaust – and “museum staff will search the records of the ITS Digital Archive free of charge for survivors, their families, and families of victims.” Then they send you digital files; far more than I’d expected could be found so easily. “The Museum honors as Survivors any persons, Jewish or non-Jewish, who were displaced, persecuted, or discriminated against due to the racial, religious, ethnic, social, and political policies of the Nazis and their collaborators between 1933 and 1945.”

I’m still in only very early stages of investigating all of this further; I’ve only made a few tentative efforts to find any further materials, and haven’t gotten around yet to asking anyone for translations either. I know I certainly have a lot of reading to do – World War II, the Holocaust, and Japanese-American history are not among my professional specialties, and there are dozens upon dozens, probably hundreds and hundreds, of books out there where I could learn further context for the places and moments my grandparents experienced. I hope someday to take the time to look into all of this more deeply, hopefully if I’m lucky to find a lot more, and to pull it all together more. But, on this initial step, my deep gratitude to Lily Anne Welty Tamai who generously shared from her research and expertise on photographer Sus Ito and the 522nd, and to Anne Yonemura and others who shared from their family stories and pointed out further books, articles, and archives to consult, when I initially posted the above document on Facebook last year.

The 442nd / 522nd were incredible people. So much has been said about this group, the most decorated unit in US military history – the group with the motto “Go For Broke,” who in October 1944 rescued the “Lost Battalion” surrounded by German forces in the Vosges Mountains in France – that I am not sure what to add.

You can read more about Sus Ito on the Japanese American National Museum (JANM) website. A member of the 522nd, he was (fortunately for us, for history and posterity) permitted to skirt the rules against carrying a camera, and brought home numerous photos of what he saw and did during the war. I wish I had gone to see this exhibit myself in 2015 when it was up at JANM. I was living in California at the time; I certainly could have gone. A terrible missed opportunity. Here is a video associated with the exhibit (for which, again, I expect we have Dr. Tamai to credit and thank):

Watching this video and seeing this one photo of Ito’s mother and sister in the Rohwer Internment Camp in Arkansas, I could not help but think of my grandparents, and two of their sons, my uncles, just babies at that time, who only a few years later were in Displaced Persons (DP) camps halfway around the world in Germany – camps which were, to some extent at least, run by the very same US government, the very same US military.

Photo by Susumu Ito of his mother and sister in the Rohwer internment camp, Arkansas. Early 1940s, presumably. Japanese American National Museum, 94.306.

My grandparents, Abraham and Zisel (Sophie) Seifman, and their eldest son, my uncle Chaim (David), in a Displaced Persons camp in Germany, late 1940s.

The brave young men of the 442nd/522nd, even as their own families were being held in camps, treated as enemy aliens by their own government, went and fought for that government, for that country, putting their lives on the line, and in the process helped to liberate a continent, and to rescue countless lives. My grandparents met, married, and had two children in the DP camps after the war; camps built on former German airfields by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA). They spent roughly six years in those camps, before coming to New York in 1951. Zeyde (that’s Yiddish for grandpa) came to own and run a luncheonette-style diner/sandwich shop, and then a newspaper stand, in Brooklyn; I imagine it as similar to what we today call bodegas, though perhaps I’m wrong and his shop wasn’t quite like that.

My father tells me that his parents, my Bubbe and Zeyde, never spoke much at all about their experiences before coming to the US, and I never got to know them, as they both passed away when I was a child. I would like to believe that they might have developed some kind of relationship with Japanese-Americans who came into my Zeyde’s shop, even maybe just one person, though I suppose that that fateful day in May 1945 was but one moment in a long line of unbelievable experiences, and that the demographics and ethnic politics of Brooklyn at the time, despite being literally one of the most diverse places in the world, may not have lended towards such encounters. I don’t know.

But I’m still thinking about it. As these events were happening at Dachau, at the same time, halfway around the world, US warships were battering Japanese defensive positions on the island of Okinawa, and US soldiers, having made their first landing on the island a month earlier, were gradually closing in on the military headquarters at Shuri. Fighting for Okinawa would not end until June 22. Some 240,000 people lost their lives, including according to some estimates as many as 150,000 Okinawan civilians. Japanese- and Okinawan-American soldiers saved lives there, too. But the island, sacrificed by Imperial Japan in an effort to protect “mainland” Japan, was devastated, and in some meaningful ways might be said to still be recovering.

My awe, appreciation, and sympathy for what Japanese-Americans and Okinawans each suffered through during this time, and for how each group has survived, rebuilding new lives, with a spirit and strength and pride, only grows deeper, stronger, the more I learn.

——
1. Linda K. Menton, “Research Report: Nisei Soldiers at Dachau, Spring 1945,” Holocaust and Genocide Studies vol 8, no 2 (Fall 1994), 262-263.

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I think that for a great many of us, the current situation has made us closer to family and friends, thinking about them more and valuing them more. It’s made us rethink our priorities, and what’s really important in life. Speaking for myself, I’ve been Zoom/Skypeing with people much more often, including a few people I honestly haven’t been in touch with very much at all in years. And I’ve reached out to more people on email or on social media, checking in, saying hello, seeing how they’re doing.

So, not to belittle that; I think for many of us, we’ve started to appreciate perhaps even more so than usual how much we value family and friends.

But spending so much time at home for the last six weeks or so, in addition to enjoying fresh parsley and cream cheese on toast, I’ve also come to really appreciate a number of little things around my apartment, which I thought I might share with you. It’s a weird thing to blog about, but, I dunno, maybe there’s some entertainment value in it? Or, maybe if others want to share their favorite things about their homes, so we can maybe try to benefit from each other’s tips and gadgets? Mine are pretty simple – you probably won’t learn anything here you didn’t already know. But, even so.

*This Vitantonio blender. I’ve been meaning to get a blender ever since I moved to Tokyo last year. I never used to be one of these smoothies people. But then I moved to LA. And moved in with a girlfriend who was all about making her own food and trying to watch her own nutritional diet and so on and so forth. Well, long story short, left to my own devices I eat too much of the same foods all the time, and having denied myself the option of going out to restaurants for however many weeks, one day I finally just lost any appetite for any of the foods that I had been eating. Blender to the rescue. Two bananas, one cup of milk, 1/3 tsp cinnamon, 1 tbsp almond butter, a nice hefty dash of salt, and boom you’ve got a really nice protein smoothie that’s cold and bananaey and cinnamony, a completely different taste profile than having eggs, cereal, and/or toast *again*. Lifesaver.

*Electric kettle – As pretty much any Brit will tell you, they (and I) don’t know why these kinds of electric kettles aren’t more common in the US. I grew up always making hot water for tea either with your standard old-school steel(?) kettle on the stove, or (*gasp*) by putting my tea mug in the microwave. But this guy is just wonderful. I don’t remember exactly how much I paid for it – hopefully no more than 2000 yen (~US$18.50) – but it heats up quickly, poses no electrical or heat danger (you won’t burn your hand on the plastic outside nearly as easily as with a steel kettle, and you don’t need oven mitts or whatever to handle the handle), has a super easy on-off switch, and even has a little lock on the spout so you can prevent it from spilling. This particular model is the Siroca SEK-208, and I love it.

*My office chair – I was worried when moving to a new apartment that I’d have trouble finding the right chair; that I would choose poorly and suffer from being uncomfortable (or worse, developing back problems, etc.) at my new desk, and have to deal with returns and exchanges and trying out god knows how many chairs before I found the right one. But I lucked out. I won’t say this is by any means the greatest, best, most luxurious office chair ever, but it most certainly does the job. I don’t even want to think about how many hours I’ve spent in this chair since it was delivered a mere month ago, but it is absolutely comfy enough. Rolls around, bends back just enough that I don’t feel forced stiffly upright… a good chair.

It wasn’t cheap, unfortunately; in the past, most often, I’ve obtained my work chairs either for free from some kind of “leave something take something” sort of situation, or secondhand/used in some fashion. For a simple chair like this that’s not one of those tall, black, leather executive chairs, I somehow had it in my mind that this would cost around $40. Well, what I ended up with was the Workchair Selt (Celt? Cert?) ワークチェアー セルト from Nitori, which with the additional 2000 yen attachable arms, set me back 11,990 yen (~$110).

*Daikin heater/AC unit. Thankfully not something I had to buy. One of the very few things pre-installed in my apartment (I actually did have to buy my own fridge and laundry machine, which was news to me since those sorts of large appliances are quite standard even in “unfurnished” apartments in the US). Pretty standard in Japanese apartments, this thing lets you set the exact temperature, operates as both heater and A/C unit, and even has a dehumidifier function for the summer. Probably other features I haven’t even played with. A lifesaver even in normal times, but all the more so when stuck at home for what’s starting to look like it might be all summer. And maybe even into the autumn :/

Three knobs. Imagine that. One on the left for controlling the temperature. One in front for turning the faucet on and off. And one on the right for turning the shower on and off. Simple. No need to mess around with figuring out the right temperature every single time, and no need to mess around with switching back and forth between faucet and shower. Genius.

*Shower. When I moved into this apartment, it was after a little bit of a process of looking at 10 or so other apartments with two or three different agents, finding almost all of them too expensive, too small, or otherwise undesirable, and then the one I really liked (and not even for any particular reason but just because it was big enough, cheap enough, in a good neighborhood and just sort of gave me a good feeling – sixth floor of an apartment building in a quiet neighborhood in Taishidô, had tons of sunlight and a great view over the city; something about it made me feel like it was a creative’s studio… Would have been great, but someone else got their paperwork in first while I was scrambling to find an emergency contact (as if that really ought to be necessary) and getting all my papers 100% perfectly into order. Boo. But, so, in the end, I’m sure I didn’t put in nearly as much time or effort or aggravation as most people; I gave up quickly, and just settled for this apartment, for which a friend said he could just introduce me to his landlady, skip over the intermediary agent, very simple approval process, nice and straightforward. No more difficulties or anxieties about whether I’d have a place to live by the time I had to move out of my previous place. And so, I just took it, not entirely sight unseen, but pretty much. And so, the one thing I was nervous about, but which I would just have to deal with no matter how it was, but which actually worked out great in the end, is the shower.

This apartment, like many hotel rooms I’ve been to in Japan, has a sort of prefab “unit bathroom.” Rather than being a room in which they then install toilet, sink, shower fixtures each separately, it’s like one bit unit that I guess they hoist up through the window or something (haha, I don’t know), in which the tub, floor, toilet, sink, are all one unit. Now, why should I care? Well, for one, it does mean that the bathroom is quite small, cramped. Thankfully, this one is not nearly as cramped as I have sometimes seen at some hotels. In any case, the key point I was concerned about here is that many of these unit bathrooms have a switch that switches the water over from the sink to the shower. Now, I don’t ever need to use both at once, but, even so, it’s just an annoyance. You turn on the water and put your hands under the faucet, and water sprays out of the showerhead; and quite possibly all over you, if the showerhead happens to be pointed a certain way and the shower curtain isn’t closed. Or, you’re in the shower and you turn the water on, and it comes out the faucet, and you have to sort of reach out of the shower over to the switch…

In my previous apartment, as most people I would imagine are quite used to, I had two separate knobs, hot and cold, and it took a while to figure out the precise balance – how much hot, how much cold. Pain in the ass. Fortunately, unlike in most showers I’ve had in the US, I was able to find that balance and then just leave the knobs in exactly the right place while I used a third knob to turn the water on and off without disturbing that balance (that temperature setting).

Long story short, the arrangement they actually have installed in this apartment is lovely. And it’s such a simple thing, I don’t know why we don’t have this more in the States. A dial that actually sets the temperature – I don’t know if it’s truly accurate, to X degrees Celsius, but at least it’s a single dial, and it stays where you put it, no need to play with trying to turn the hot knob and then the cold knob and then the hot knob a bit more, and then the cold one… And then two separate knobs for turning on the faucet, and the shower. No need to deal with a switch! So, that’s another little thing I’m very happy with in this apartment.

…..

All in all, I don’t know what it is exactly about this place, but somehow I feel I’ve really lucked out. Of all the places I’ve lived, moving apartments almost every year, this is probably one of the places I’ve felt happiest, most comfortable. If I had to get stuck anywhere like this, in self-isolation, this is a good, comfy, pleasant apartment to do it in. I hope you all are doing well also. Hang in there. Good luck, and stay safe.

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Well, I guess it’s time to post another update on life under self-isolation, or whatever we’re calling it – 自粛 (self-restraint). Mostly, again, for my own personal record. Nothing here is new information you won’t get from the news or elsewhere, and it’s most certainly not as reliable as the news or anything. So, if you’re reading this, it’s just… just my thoughts. Don’t take me as a reliable source on anything. I’m just posting this so I can go back in the future and remind myself what the situation was.

Prime Minister Abe finally declared a State of Emergency yesterday (4/7), in consultation with prefectural governors and others, such that Tokyo and six other prefectures can finally start moving forward on taking more serious action. Which, of course, they haven’t. Look, I’m no expert at politics, nor at epidemiology, and I am sure there are myriad extremely complex considerations to take into account, with profound implications. But at the same time, looking at how things are in the rest of the world, I find it difficult to not feel that the Japanese government; corporations, universities, and other institutions; and the people in following with them, have been dragging their feet. As one colleague said on Twitter, 「中途半端。永遠中途半端。」, which we might very roughly translate as “half-measures. Half-measures forever and ever” (or something like “half-assed effort”).

The hesitancy is just unbelievable to me. I don’t really know what’s going on inside any of these discussions, so I’m just speaking out of what I feel, what I imagine is going on. Please don’t quote me on this, or hold me to it. I’m not an expert on corporate culture, or anything. But, just spitballing as they say, I would bet that it’s not so much about head in the sand willful ignorance, a refusal to appreciate how serious the situation is, but more to the point an incredible hesitancy (and unpreparedness) to change. If it’s standard operating procedure that all faculty & staff are expected to be at their desks even though they absolutely could be doing that work from home, then so it is, until someone higher up says otherwise. … Maybe it’s a hierarchy thing? I don’t know.

But, even with this State of Emergency finally declared on Tuesday (4/7), after days, if not weeks, of thinking it might come any day now, even now that that’s officially declared, little has actually changed. Yes, ridership on the trains and subways and the general size of crowds and numbers of people on the streets seems to have decreased to some extent – albeit with very notable exceptions. The official statistics provided by the Tokyo Metropolis, for example, show a more than 30% drop in Tokyo Metro subway ridership on 3/30-4/2 as compared to “typical” dates in January. And we see photos on Twitter of trains where the seats are all full – not empty – but no one is standing; a very notable decrease from the packed-in-like-sardines commute that’s often typical. But then we also see photos of certain stations at certain times of day that seem to show still very considerable crowds. Not as large as usual, but not empty, not absent, by any means. … This does seem to have been the impetus that many workplaces needed to feel it was finally okay to implement stronger or more widespread work from home than they had before. For weeks and weeks, even as Italy and New York City and numerous other places all around the world went into (more or less, to one extent or another) lockdown, total stay-at-home orders, each of these individual institutions dragged their feet. Like they needed permission from higher-up, I suppose?

But, regardless, while some institutions have finally started to move more completely than before to “work from home,” or to temporary closure, from what I’ve seen in my brief jaunts out to the supermarket or whatever, it looks like something like 90% of storefront businesses are still open. It’s now looking like even despite the State of Emergency it’s going to be days again, until Tokyo governor Koike actually makes official requests – on 4/10 or /11, maybe – for certain categories of businesses to close. What exactly a “State of Emergency” declaration means if you’re not going to implement any kind of requests or policy or anything, I don’t know.

One thing I guess we should say for posterity, in case I didn’t say it in my previous posts – and, again, I’m not promising I have this right, I’m just writing off the top of my head and do not have the energy or the inclination to bother “researching”, googling, checking, the fine details. This is not a politics or law blog. But just from what I think I understood from Twitter posts and news articles I skimmed and so forth, it would seem that the Constitution, and/or particular laws on the books, prevent the executive – that is, the Prime Minister’s office, or I suppose the Tokyo Governor as well – from “mandating” or “ordering” that people stay home, or that businesses close. They can “direct” 指示 certain things, but in most other arenas the best they can do is “request strongly” 要請 (a term some have said should really be translated as “demand”). Hopefully, now that the government is much more explicitly making this a serious matter, hopefully people will finally listen, and actually take it upon themselves to go home, to stay home. I’ve heard secondhand that in many neighborhoods starting today or yesterday the public neighborhood loudspeakers have been telling people to stay home. But I think the most important step is going to be convincing businesses to take severe measures, and/or to adapt. One thing we’re learning out of this crisis if we didn’t know it already is the unbelievable extent to which Japanese workplace culture is just so totally unsuited for, or unprepared for, work-from-home. As I’ve seen for myself and heard anecdotally from friends and colleagues, and as The Washington Post lays out,

despite the image of Japan as a high-tech nation, it simply is not set up for telework. … Japanese companies lag behind their Western counterparts in IT investment, and many are still stuck 20 years in the past, with old software and little awareness of cloud computing or video conferencing tools.

I’m not sure I like the idea of a singular timeline of what constitutes “living in the past” versus “catching up with the 21st century,” or similar sorts of phrasing. Japan in the early 19th century wasn’t “in the past” because they didn’t have the latest military technology; they were probably the most “advanced” pre-industrial (or proto-industrial) society on the planet, with rough equivalents to nationwide banking, futures markets, extensive trade networks, a very active publishing industry and probably the highest literacy rate of any pre-industrial society, and so on and so forth. Not “backward” or “stuck in the past,” but simply along a different cultural path. And today, too, Japan is not “stuck in the past” so much as it’s just maintaining a very different workplace culture – a culture that has chosen not to embrace (or even necessarily to explore) certain possible new avenues, new ways of working, etc., has chosen instead to use technology in a much more limited way, and that I personally believe brings a lot of disadvantages.

But even if I don’t like it, don’t agree with it, even if I think it frustrating and frankly pointless at times, I don’t think it’s “backward” in the sense of “belonging to the past” that

IT departments are so paranoid about protecting intellectual property and confidential client information that they allow employees to access work systems only on office computers.

That’s not a thing of the past so much as it is just … an approach I don’t like. And just a lack of imagination, lack of willpower, to want to consider that there might be alternative ways of doing it. Thankfully, my current workplace does have a VPN set up, so if I need to, I can login in remotely and access the internal shared folders and so forth. That said, I haven’t tried it yet, and everything on their network is set up with multiple different logins, different passwords, depending on which thing you’re logging into, so I’m thankful I don’t have to rely on it actually working.

I’m still doing fine at home. For all of those who are terribly stressed, depressed, whatever over all of this, I feel you, and you have every reason to feel that way. I thank my lucky stars that no one in my family (and not even anyone among my many friends) has gotten seriously ill from this epidemic yet. And so I have the privilege to just stay home, and to think (and I hope it’s not naive to think this way) that if I just keep staying inside, I’ll most likely be safe myself, and I’ll be doing my part to not contribute to spreading it to others, and that’s the best I can do. Whatever happens outside – and I don’t mean to be too blunt; I wish I could think of a nicer way to say this, but, whatever happens outside, I’m feeling like hopefully I can just stay home and allow it to pass me by.

I am in a very privileged position to be able to work from home; my salary / funding isn’t in any immediate danger, nor is my visa status. I feel for those who are in a more precarious situation; people who are here in Japan on just a one-year fellowship and one-year visa, for example. What do they have to go home to? Where do they have to go home to? … The whole situation just desperately sucks.

But I’m fortunate to have my bed and my books and just all the basic necessities I need. So long as there’s still power and internet, so long as the supermarket stays open and the paychecks keep coming in and the sanitation workers keep working, I’ll be fine. And, yes, I know that there’s this whole huge massive thing about how supermarket workers, sanitation workers, etc., the people who are among the lowest-paid and most precarious and so forth to begin with, are extremely disproportionately bearing the brunt of how this is all playing out. I acknowledge that.

As soon as it’s properly feasible and responsible to travel once again, Naha is of course high on my list.

My main concern right now, today, is the question of how much longer this is going to last. Because if we can start going out to restaurants and museums and whatever, and traveling (even if only domestically), in June, or if not June then July, or if not July then August, then yeah I can hold out until then. But if it’s going to be Fall, or Winter, or next Spring…. I mean, obviously I’ll still do whatever has to be done. I’ll obey whatever guidelines there are, to help try to do my part. I’ll hang in there. I’ll endure. Simply staying home is hardly the worst thing in the world to have to endure. But it’s just a very discouraging thought to think that there’s no end in sight. All my summer conference travel is canceled, and that’s okay. My own little personal weekend travel plans, to go here or there within Japan, have been put on the backburner, and that’s okay. Even if I were to break protocol and say fuck it and “escape Tokyo” out to Sunpu or Sendai or Hiroshima or something, not only is that a deeply irresponsible thing to do but, it’s kind of pointless – which museums and so on and so forth will be closed once I get there anyway?

Okinawa Prefecture is trying to encourage people not to come to Okinawa right now, at all. On the day the State of Emergency was declared, one of the top trending topics on Twitter here in Tokyo was 東京脱出 – “escape Tokyo.” Fortunately, a great many of the tweets under that hashtag were people talking about why people shouldn’t “escape Tokyo” to the countryside – why it’s irresponsible and dangerous to risk spreading the virus into these places where it hasn’t spread yet. Of course, it’s a complicated issue, and whether because of a desperate need for tourist revenue or whether just in order to maintain face and their reputation for being welcoming or whatever, it seems like certain voices on Taketomi Island are still saying that visitors are welcome there, and not to feel that it’s their own travel that’s the cause. (「『死因はあなたの旅行です』と感じてほしくない」) *sigh* … But, at the same time, they’re expressing frustration or dismay at how many visitors to the island aren’t even wearing masks. 「せめてマスクを着用してください!」(At the very least, wear facemasks!), a local Taketomi committee is saying, according to a Yahoo News article I saw today. As the article explains, the island is home to less than 300 people, and more than 100 of them are over 70. There’s only one clinic on the island, with one doctor and one nurse, and if even just the one doctor gets sick, that means the “collapse” of the entire medical infrastructure of the island, basically. There are boats (and I would presume, if absolutely necessary, helicopters?) to ferry people to hospitals on larger nearby islands, but, it’s just not a good situation. At all.

Well, anyway. I guess that’s it for now. My lists of books I want to get my hands on once the libraries reopen keep getting longer. My list of places I want to visit – including for research purposes, i.e. not just to visit cities but to actively attempt to get my hands on documents or archival materials there – just sits. Someday, I’ll manage to make it over there. I’ll be fine for now. I can be patient, and just continue to remain home. But, for how long?

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I was originally going to write this as a comment on my last post; keep the “coronavirus diary” all in one place. But, as it’s gotten so much longer, I figured what the hell, might as well post it as a real post. We’ll see how many more of these I do. Whether I’m moved to do so. And to what extent I may get around to publishing posts in the coming days and weeks on entirely unrelated topics as well. We’ll see.

My workspace, now with newly-arrived comfy chair. All furniture from Nitori. A bit expensive, but saved me the bother of looking around from shop to shop to shop when I’m supposed to be self-isolating. I thought I’d saved myself the bother of having to assemble it all myself, too, but alas, no, I was mistaken.

3/27
It is now only a very few days later, and things have indeed begun to shift here in Tokyo.

The national government and the Int’l Olympic Committee have agreed to postpone the Olympics until 2021.

Whether by coincidence or by what factors exactly I won’t venture to say, but almost immediately afterwards, or in tandem with that solidifying, Gov. Koike Yuriko held a press conference – which I didn’t watch, but the gist I understand from what I’ve seen afterwards is that it’s about time to really start taking this seriously. Even with minimal testing, the numbers are rising, quickly, doubling every few days, just as in Italy, New York, other places among the hardest hit. And so, Koike suggested that this weekend (it’s Friday night now; I think she said this on Tues or Weds) people should stay home. It’s a small measure compared to what many major cities are doing in many parts elsewhere in the world, but it’s something. I don’t know whether there are plans to ask the Tokyo Metro, JR, etc. to reduce service, but a number of major stores, beginning with the big main 109 in Shibuya, have now voluntarily declared they’ll close for the weekend.

Almost immediately after the press conference, from what I hear, people started going to the supermarkets. Perhaps I shouldn’t admit that I left the house twice in one day, but I went to my local Maruetsu (full-size supermarket; not a Maruetsu Petit) in the early afternoon, and while the shelves were still largely fully stocked, the lines to check out went almost to the very back of the store – multiple lines, one for each register, each of them stretching almost all the way to the back of the store. But, still – I didn’t spy what other people were buying, but most seemed to be carrying just one shopping basket; not hoarding. And when I went back later in the day, many sections of shelves were empty, but even then, everything looked quite orderly. Not like I’d expect an American store to look, stereotypically speaking, like in a movie, where people are actively fighting over individual items, and the store overall has items strewn all over the ground, like the aftermath of some big panic. There was no visible, active panic here, just a busy shopping day.

But all of that we could hypothetically check, in future, by looking back at the newspapers or at Twitter archives overall. How am I doing?

Well, I guess I vacillate between being terribly worried and scared, at times, and being relaxed and comfortable and productive. I have been taking too many breaks, and spending too much time in bed; I haven’t been quite as productive as I might dream of. And I guess I have been finding myself at times glued to the phone, scrolling through FB or Twitter for tens upon tens of minutes… I’m worried about my family, and about my friends. With the US as a whole and NY in particular in only the early stages still of it getting much worse before it gets better, I’m scared and worried. We’ve seen people in Italy talk about moving from knowing people who lost their jobs to knowing people who lost their loved ones, or their own lives. As I said in the initial post, I know so many people all around the world; sheer statistics, sheer percentages, suggests that I’m going to lose friends before this is all over. I’ve lost enough people in my life already to have a hole in my gut, a space of just sucking void in my heart, when I think about them. I saw a thing online recently that I thought described my personal experience of this perfectly. Grief and loss are like a ball in a box. (https://twitter.com/LaurenHerschel/status/946887540732149760). It’s been very nearly 14 years since I lost my mother. I can’t believe it’s been that long. And something like 3 1/2 years since I lost my friend Bryan. I don’t feel that pain every day; I don’t think about them every day. The ball is small, and when it rolls around, or whatever the metaphor is, it doesn’t touch the walls all that often because it’s not so small. But, like the tweezers in the kids’ board game Operation, when it does touch the wall, when I do actively think about losing these people in my life, the pain, the sadness, is still there. It still feels like a cold, dark, black space – an absence in my life, an absence in the universe, where there used to be a person who was such a source of light and happiness and good in the world. I know so many young people who have so much potential; who still have so much to live for; people who bring such love and goodness and happiness to their friends, family, students, and to the broader world they live in. And I know many who are not quite so young, but who nevertheless still have so many potential years left – no reason to call them done yet – and who just the same bring so much light and love, so much good, into the world. I couldn’t bear to think of losing *any* of my friends, least of all my father. And so when I think about him, when I talk to him, I find I get emotional.

When I talk to anyone, these days, in fact, I feel a surge of love, stronger than I have usually. Of course I care about my friends; they wouldn’t be my friends if I didn’t care about them. But if there’s one thing that this whole situation has brought about – I don’t know whether to call it ironic, or perverse, or just normal – it’s that even as we isolate ourselves each in our separate places, scattered all around the world, despite being so isolated, or precisely because we are so isolated, I feel a stronger drive to connect with people. And I feel more emotional towards each and every one of them. I still haven’t figured out for myself the best phrase to say to people to express my caring; or the right emoji. I’ve been writing “take care. stay safe.” and things like that in many emails and texts. But it’s more like, I care about you, and I hope the best for you. All we can do is hope, and so even just saying “I hope” means acknowledging the possibility of things not going that way. I think all of this makes me feel so much more appreciative for each and every one of my friends, and to think of them, and to think, more actively than I imagine most of us ever do in the course of our busy workaday lives, just how precious each of our friends are. What incredible wonderful people they are. The things about them that make us love them. I love all of you, and I want the best for all of you. For all of us. Today, the bar is low. I hesitate to even say it out in words. But I hope you live. I hope you survive. Because you are so special, so precious. You are such a wonderful, incredible person. There are so many of us who could not bear to lose you; but more importantly, you don’t deserve that – you don’t deserve to have your life cut short. You deserve to live, to keep living and hoping and pursuing and creating. You deserve to keep achieving and accomplishing, to keep loving and being loved. I miss you all, and I hope we might Skype or Zoom or just talk sometime soon.

Small things. Supporting small businesses amidst this crisis. Ordered some cups from Yacchi + Moon, one of my favorite cute little shops along Okinawa’s “Pottery Street,” Yachimun-dôri. The “matcha chocolate” cup on the right is one of them. The one on the left is not.

But, as I said in my previous post, I have these thoughts, these feelings. These moments of feeling great love, and of feeling great sadness and pain, fear and worry. New York has… I don’t know the numbers… 1400 ventilators, is that right? And they anticipate they need 30,000? An exceptionally different number. And like Gov. Cuomo said, if we had a normal administration in the White House, everything would have already been mobilized, in an organized and professional way, with all due urgency, to provide New York with what it needs, so that as soon as New York is under control and is on the opposite side of that peak (i.e. when NY is starting to see a serious decline in cases), then New York can mobilize to send resources elsewhere, to help, to work together to deploy and redeploy resources all across the country in a systematic, intelligent, way.

But I don’t want to get into the politics. There are one or two people I’ve been communicating with regularly who just reiterate these same points – points of disbelief, of outrage. I guess maybe they need someone to vent to. Doesn’t accomplish much for me except to raise my stress levels and take up my time, to be blunt. If you’re telling me something I don’t know, that’s good – it’s good to be informed. But as for the rest; yes, we know that Trump and friends are the absolute worst. Yes, we know that tons of people here in Tokyo and elsewhere are (for now at least) being what we think is terribly irresponsible, and reckless, still being out and about when we all should have been exercising self-isolation more strictly for weeks already. What’s to be gained from reetreading that again and again?

But, as I said in my previous post, while I have my moments of stress, of sadness, of various other emotions, I am also finding this time relaxing and somewhat productive. Some have started to post “hey! this is not a writing retreat!” and other things about how (1) it’s okay to be stressed, to be discombobulated, to not be able to be productive during this time, whether because of personal mental/emotional stress, family obligations, and/or just general removal from any semblance of orderliness or stability that would allow you to make better use of the time, (2) we should keep in mind that many people are now home with children, or with parents or grandparents, and just simply do not have the kind of alone time that the rest of us are suddenly experiencing (and/or “enjoying”), (3) that there’s really something wrong with academia, and with all of us, to have this sort of work-oriented, productivity-oriented mindset, that even amidst a pandemic (!?!) we should be thinking about “doing work,” or moving forward on book reviews or journal articles or whatever such things that feel so petty all of a sudden.

Fair enough. And I absolutely won’t fault anyone for being in any of those situations. If you’re too stressed, or if you have hands-on obligations b/c of family or whatever it may be, or if for whatever other reasons this is not a time during which you can be productive, I don’t blame you. You do what you have to, and let’s hope we can convince our universities, and workplaces otherwise, to understand that. To recognize the exceptional circumstances, and to grant extensions and exemptions. A number of universities are indeed extending people’s tenure clocks; for grad students the situation seems more unlikely, more hesitant, but I sincerely hope that schools will start to step up to support their grad students – offering extensions on “norm time” and things like that, if not outright offering extensions of fellowship support.

But for me, I happen to be fortunate to be in a place, a situation, where I *can* actually take the time to be productive. Whether productive means progress on my “actual” academic work, or whether it means reading books I might not have otherwise, writing blog posts, or whatever it may be, I’m making the most of the time we have here, before I have to start going to the office again. And I’m enjoying it. I’m happy that I’m getting to be productive. Perhaps more to the point, feeling productive is one of the key ways I fight my stress and depression – I enjoy feeling like I’m moving forward.

Anyway. That’s where we’re at right now. We’ll see how things develop. Stay safe, everyone.

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I’d been thinking I wouldn’t post anything about the coronavirus epidemic, since I’m no expert at all, and since, well, I just have other things to do. But I suppose it would be good to record for posterity, so to speak, how I was feeling, how things were going, at this particular time. I do often go back through old posts myself, to remind myself when something happened, or how I was thinking about it at a certain time. Plus, I felt I should post something about it before I start posting more posts about various other topics – I’m thinking that this self-isolation provides a good opportunity to go revisit old drafts from months or even years ago that never got published, which means my next few posts might be on really scattered, different topics. Before I do that, I thought I should post something about the current situation.

(Note: Please don’t take any of the information I’m presenting here as accurate. This is not a news report, or advice from an expert in the field. This is my personal recollections of what I think I’ve seen and heard, and how I’m feeling, and how I’m doing. It’s not about getting it right. For *information*, go check out some real proper news sources and the like.)

It’s March 24 right now. I’m not even sure exactly how long it’s been since we first started hearing about cases in China, and then cases in Japan. It’s been a weird experience. Most museums are closed, most theatre performances and other events are cancelled. Many schools are closed. Travel restrictions are tight. South Korea has implemented widespread testing and lots of other good procedures, and everyone seems to be hailing them for doing it right. China, where the outbreak began and was initially the worst, seems to be seeing a very significant decline in the severity of the situation. Meanwhile, Israel has blocked off nearly all travel in or out of the country, and Italy and Ireland (and now, if I have it right, Spain and France as well, as well as parts of the US) have gone on even fuller lockdown, with mandatory quarantine procedures in place for, if I’m understanding correctly, *everyone* in Italy, all stores closed except for pharmacies and groceries, and from what we’re hearing the medical facilities are just completely overwhelmed – more sick people in need of emergency treatment than there is emergency equipment (and even just space, i.e. hospital beds themselves) to go around. The situation sounds absolutely horrendous. Iran seems to be digging mass graves.

The Trump administration’s response has started to come around, maybe, a bit, but is still rightfully being roundly criticized from all sides (well, most sides – not from the “Dear Leader can do no wrong” camp among the Republican Party and Fox News, but their horrific misinformation campaign is a whole other story); but things are getting worse in New York, and elsewhere. I read recently that New York had something like 5% of all confirmed cases in the entire world, and overall a higher “attack” rate (i.e. confirmed cases as a percentage of total population, as opposed to confirmed cases as a percentage of those tested, though I think that number’s also high in NY). I’m worried about my family.

Anyone who’s doing full-on hanami parties right now is being terribly irresponsible. But if I should happen upon a nice tree on my way to the supermarket, my only one little outing from the apartment the entire day, with a mask on, that’s okay, right?

But here in Japan, or at least in Tokyo, it’s hard to know what to think, what to believe. I spent at least a week, maybe two, being just terribly anxious, nervous, stressed out about the whole situation until I finally decided to cancel my trip to Boston and New York to attend the annual AAS conference. As it turned out, the conference got canceled anyway. But worrying about it was driving me mad. On the one hand, everyone keeps saying very scary things about how horrible this disease is, how it’s far more contagious than SARS or Ebola and far more deadly than your typical flu – between these two factors combined, making for a serious genuine pandemic threat.

I remember thinking three years ago, that as dangerous as Trump is, at least we don’t have a massive crisis such as a pandemic for him to fuck up. … Well, now, here we are.

And as for the Japanese government response as well, the US and Japan stand out at the bottom of the list among major developed-world countries in testing the fewest people. I’ve heard countless anecdotes about people both in Japan and the US who are being denied testing for the coronavirus on account of they don’t match precisely the right criteria, e.g. they don’t have severe enough symptoms or they haven’t been to China recently… These are people who are afraid they might infect others, and yet many are being told to just go home. I, also, was told by the US Embassy’s Crisis Hotline themselves that so long as I didn’t have symptoms I was safe to fly – no consideration at all given to whether I might be asymptomatic but contagious. (Granted, this was around March 6 or so, before things got more serious, but even so, I think it was serious enough already at the time that the nonchalant attitude of the fellow on the phone was just confusing to me: is this a concern, or not? The CDC, the Embassy, at that time, were still at a very “light” stage of things, saying “if you’re sick, then maybe quarantine, but if you’re not, no problem,” or something to that effect. Frankly, even all these weeks later, my office is largely saying the same; they haven’t suggested everyone work from home, they haven’t closed down the campus. In any case, the point is, especially at that earlier time, I felt like I was getting really mixed messages, and not clear information, and I found it very stressful.)

Many people are saying that the Abe administration, like Trump, has its eye mainly on preventing panic, protecting the economy, and protecting that the Olympics might still go forward – rather than actually doing what’s right, or what’s needed, for the safety of the people. (Now, finally, on Mar 22-24 or so, the government has started to shift from that, saying they may need to postpone the Olympics; I expect this will become even more solid within the next few days.) A lot of people don’t trust the government right now; and after Fukushima, why should they? I did see one article explaining that, actually, the Japanese government is operating in a reasonable and rational way, testing enough people to get a strong sense of the outbreak as a whole, not on the individual/medical level but on a society-wide epidemiological level, so that they can manage the spread. I’m not sure I buy it, but it was interesting to get a real explanation at least.

A snapshot from the live feed camera over Shibuya Crossing, right now, tonight Mar 24. Not nearly as busy as I expect it typically would be on a Tuesday evening, but still plenty of people out and about, not actively making sure to stay X meters away from one another; many of them not wearing masks, in part because so many stores are completely sold out of them.

But even as we keep hearing all this scary stuff, and even as so many events have been canceled, institutions closed, people encouraged to work from home or to adopt shifted working hours (so as to avoid such crowds at rush hour), even so, life goes on here in Tokyo largely unaffected. I’m curious (and terrified) to see how this might change in coming days and weeks, but for now, even as so much of the world is in lockdown to one extent or another, here, restaurants and shops are open, and a lot of people are still out and about, albeit fewer than the massive crowds we’re normally used to. To a certain extent, I’m glad. First of all, because for the first couple of weeks of March, I was right in the middle of moving apartments, and if stores closed, utilities companies or shipping/delivery companies stopped operating, or if more so than that we actually went into some kind of citywide lockdown situation, I would have gotten stuck either in a new apartment with no bed, no appliances, no internet, no hot water, or in my old apartment which I might have needed to vacate by March 16 (who knows exactly what exceptions might have been made… especially if they need the room so someone else can move in and themselves not be screwed by the situation). So, I’m glad I was able to go around and do my shopping for furniture, and to have appliances delivered, and to have the electric company answer the phones (especially since f***ing TEPCO has decided to not have any in-person customer service centers anymore, and that’s long before coronavirus).

Secondly, I was for a time glad things are still more or less running like normal, because in the early stages of this, or even in a situation like Italy’s where the hospitals are totally overrun and the whole medical system is breaking down, even there I would venture that the externally-imposed closings, quarantines, etc. and not the epidemic itself exacerbate the difficulty for most people multiple multiple times over. Between people who can’t work, people whose small businesses (or not so small businesses) are going to be terribly strained or even go under, and so forth. But, that said, of course, we now understand that it’s **essential**, absolutely essential, to lock things down as much as possible. We need to practice social distancing, on a society-wide level, and probably more than just “social distancing,” we need to isolate ourselves, self-quarantine, as much as possible, if we all, as a city, as a country, are going to slow down the spread of this disease enough that we can manage to keep it at bay enough that the medical system won’t get overburdened. Flatten the curve, as people have been saying – so that instead of an insane number of cases all at once, maybe there might be more cases that don’t happen until later, until after there’s been more time for preparation, the development of treatments, etc., and until after X number of people with the virus have recovered [or died, I’m sorry to say] and thus opened up hospital beds, ventilators, etc.

But what’s scary is the false sense of security. As some have started to say in the last few weeks, with a situation like this, it very often can feel perfectly fine right up until it’s not. Italy in particular, but Iran and other places as well, saw such rapid changes of circumstances over a matter of just days. Going right from having a nationwide number of cases in the 2- or 3-digits to 4-digits in a matter of days. Going from cautionary measures to full lockdown. New York, too. The days bleed together, time feels like it’s flowing at such a very different rate than usual, but I think if I remember right it was only a few days ago that New York was just not quite there yet. And now they’ve got 5% of the cases in the world, 5x the attack rate of most other places, and a city-wide “stay at home” order or whatever exactly they’re calling it in New York.

Japan seems to be way behind the curve, in terms of many workplaces still saying “stay home if you’re sick,” and just wash your hands and be careful, rather than “we’re closing down. No one come in to work” or the like. I gather that a great many workplaces – or mine, at least – haven’t budged from that level for weeks. But does that mean it’s because things are actually okay here? Are we going to get put on lockdown tomorrow or the next day or the next day? I’ve been asking myself that question for at least a week and a half. It’s impossible to know.

The 7-11 near my new apartment, with plenty of canned mackerel and Monster energy drinks right up front by the door, because obviously that’s what people need to be stocking up on the most.

It’s a strange feeling, to be amidst such an incredibly uncertain, stress-inducing, emotional time, and yet at the same time find it actually pretty relaxing. I don’t know if it’s really appropriate to compare, but when my mother passed away, it was in mid or late April, I don’t actually remember the date at all, but while it was in some respects the darkest, saddest day in my entire life, it was a sunny, breezy, happy day. The last few days before I heard that she’d gotten worse, before I knew that end was near, happened to be days of sunny warm weather, flowers blooming, birds singing.

When I read about the current pandemic situation online, or put my thoughts to worrying about it, I am in fact terribly worried, terribly scared, about how long this global societal shutdown might last, and the economic consequences. If “this is my life now” for so many of us, for how long might that remain the case? To say it might be a few weeks or a few months, well, that feels manageable. It’s only temporary, and there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.Though even if it does last just a few weeks, or a few months, who knows how that might actually feel on a day-by-day basis. The days certainly seem to be flowing much more slowly lately. The faster events change, the easier it is to feel like “I can’t believe it was only X days ago that this or that event happened.” Here it is, March 24, and so much has happened, I can’t believe it’s been only X days since we first heard of Italy going into lockdown, only X days before that that Elizabeth Warren dropped out of the presidential race, only X days before that that we first heard about the first cases coming out of China. … And now we’re seeing reports that according to some studies, some extrapolation models, we may need to stay in lockdown for up to 18 months (!?!), until such time as the vaccine can be mass-produced and administered to everyone in society, if we want to avoid millions of deaths. And, of course, that comes with tons of complications, whether the virus will mutate and the vaccine won’t be as effective.. All kinds of things. And in the meantime, whether it’s a (relatively mild) several-week or several-month slow down, or something like an 18 month lockdown, the economy is going to suffer hugely. How can we even think about the broader societal, economic, impact of so many small businesses going out of business, so many individuals losing their jobs (and then their homes, going bankrupt, etc., whatever may happen)? On a national level, on a national/global history level, this isn’t some blip. This has the potential to radically alter the balance of power, the quality of life, the status of conditions in many countries all around the world. As a historian and as a world traveler, I can’t help but think about that.

But as a person, of course, I’m also terribly worried and scared for my family, and more broadly for my friends and colleagues. My family has been lucky. From 9/11 to Hurricane Sandy to countless storms I don’t remember the names of, we’ve never lost a family member in any such disaster, and we’ve never lost our house. But my father and most of my aunts+uncles are over 65; my brother is young, and has no particular dramatic health conditions; but even so, contrary to earlier reports from China, Korea, and elsewhere, I’m now hearing that some significant percentage of young people who’ve gotten sick, 20-30% in some places, as high as 50% in some places, have developed truly severe or critical (whatever the precise technical term may be) cases.

If I should lose my father or my brother in this, I don’t know what I would do. It would be world-changing for me. I can’t even think about it. It would be so devastating.

And beyond that, I am fortunate to have so many friends and colleagues all around the world. Hearing that *any* of them have gotten sick and died from this – or even “just” lost their job, lost their house, whatever it may be – is a horrific thought. I just hope and hope and hope that we’ll all be okay, that we’ll all make it out okay at the end.

Not much to look at, I suppose, but, fwiw, on the left, some very simple french toast I made, with real genuine Canadian maple syrup which was a gift from a friend. On the right, my workspace, my world for the next X weeks.

But, even with all of that in mind, I can’t help but find this “self-isolation,” for the time being at least, to be rather relaxing and productive. Even while I am continuing to press forward on the work I’m supposed to be doing for work, devoting more or less the normal amount of time that I would to it (something like 20-30 hrs/wk), it’s wonderful to not commute, it’s wonderful to not feel that pressure of being in the office. I’m extremely fortunate to have a work situation where my supervisors aren’t present to physically see whether I’m ever in the office or not (they work in a different building), my coworkers aren’t interested in policing me or anything, and even on paper, officially, my schedule is pretty flexible: get the work done for our project, but also nip off and do what you need to as often as you need to, to continue making progress on your own research. That’s also part of the job, part of the professional obligations/expectations. I count myself exceptionally grateful to have landed such a position. But even despite the flexibility of that position, there’s still something about working a 9-to-5, going into the office, trying to devote yourself to a single project for 8 hours a day, that’s just tiring and draining… Being home, I find myself much more productive. And, we’ll see how I feel in a few more days, cabin fever and so forth, but for now at least, telling myself to stay home and to not go out to cafes or anything – forcing myself to stay home – has meant I’m not wasting time on my off-days traveling to some other neighborhood, walking around looking for a cafe to work at, getting antsy after just a couple hours, walking around looking for a different cafe to work at… or going to museums or anything else. So, while I’m definitely sad that so many institutions are closed and am missing that, the art, the theatre, the research trips, the little trips to explore different cafes/restaurants, being home means I’m actually getting a lot more done – whether that means actual work, or if it means blogging, connecting with friends, whatever it may be, I’m getting things done that I haven’t otherwise. And it’s a very nice feeling.

I know that’s an absurd note to end on. But this entire post is just tentative. Just some thoughts, somewhat stream of thought. Not truly fully considered, and it’s not meant to be. Just some thoughts, for now. We’ll see how things develop.

In the meantime, I am thinking about my friends and family all around the world. I hope you are all safe and healthy. I hope that you all remain so. This crisis is unbelievable. Larger and crazier and deadlier than most things we’ve actively, directly, had to experience and deal with in our lives. For most of us, anyway. Of course, there are those who are refugees from warzones, and who knows how many other different stories. But I think about my friends who are doctors and healthcare professionals otherwise, living an incredibly different life from the rest of us right now, devoting all of their time and energy, even more so than usual, to trying to save as many lives as possible amidst nearly impossible conditions. And I think of all the people I’ve met, however tangentially, in my life and in my travels, who for one reason or another, in one way or another, don’t have the luxury to just stay home. People without job security, people without health insurance. I’m worried about my home country, and about Japan, and about our world. But at the same time, I’m also at home, sleeping and eating and watching Netflix, and making more progress on my work than I have in months. I think the most any of us can do is to just do what we can, make do as best as we can.

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A shop along Naha’s Yachimun-dôri (“Pottery Street”) in the Tsuboya neighborhood, the center of Okinawan pottery production for hundreds of years. Today, heavily trafficked by tourists.

I visited Okinawa for just a very few days in late October last year (2019), mainly to spend time with my friend Vicky, who is a world traveler like no one else I have ever met, but who had never been to Okinawa, wanted to go, and wanted me to show her around. Since she has trouble with stairs and inclines and so forth – and with crowds – we skipped Shuri castle during that trip. I wrote the following thoughts immediately upon my return to Tokyo, but then before I finished writing more, polishing and preparing the post for “publication,” the unimaginable happened. I cannot believe it was only a very few days later that there was this tragic accident, this fire, which destroyed the most central buildings in the complex – indeed, I still can’t believe that it happened at all.

In late January (2020), I made another very brief visit to Okinawa, before going to Amami, and aside from the many things I could say about the palace and the fire, what I would write now upon this latest trip is largely the same as how I felt during/after that previous trip.

One of the things I’m loving about Okinawa right now – and I guess I should say, specifically, the capital city of Naha in particular – is that I feel like I know Naha in a way I know no other city.

It’s dumb and untrue, but I feel like it’s “my” city in a way… This is patently dumb and untrue because, first of all, by all means, everyone who’s Okinawan, whether they grew up there or in the diaspora, they have a special connection to the place that I could only hope to ever sense or experience the slightest taste of. And I do know plenty of people – Okinawan, Japanese, (white) American – who have indeed spent more time in Okinawa than I have, and who by all means do know and in a certain sense have “claim” so to speak upon the city more than I do. But I don’t mean to compare myself to those people, so much as I mean to say that (1) within my own experience, of cities that *I* know, I feel I perhaps in a certain sense know Naha the best and (2) out of all my Japanese friends, Japanese Studies colleagues, etc, it’s easy to feel I know Naha better than any of them. It’s my place in a certain sense, if that makes sense. You sit around and talk to people about how long they’ve lived in Nagasaki or Kôchi or Sendai, how well they know Fukuoka or Sapporo or Kobe – all places I have only the most minimal experience with – and talk about how all us all know Kyoto, Tokyo, Yokohama to varying extents. But, Naha, I go back to Naha, and I can show you around. If you’re going, let me know, I can give you advice.

The Naha city skyline, as seen from within the grounds of Shuri castle.

New York, of course, is home in a certain sense. In a certain sense, that will always be my city. But at the same time, in another sense, New York or LA or Tokyo can never be my city, because they’re just too vast and there are too many millions of people who know all different sides of it that I’ve never seen; different lives, different experiences, different neighborhoods. Naha is small, and while there are undoubtedly many sides to it that I don’t know, haven’t seen, at the same time, I feel like I know my way around like the back of my hand as they say. All the most major landmarks, at least, from the monorail stations to the shrines, temples, museums, shopping centers, etc. “Oh, that’s in Asato? No problem, I can walk there from Makishi, no problem.” “Oh, that’s in Wakasa? Oh, I see. Well, that’ll be a bit of a walk. But maybe I can stop at Chihaya Books on the way there.” “Oh, we’re meeting up at Ryûtan-dôri? What do you think about eating at Beans? I love Beans. Or, there’s that one place right on the corner that I’ve never been to.” People suggest restaurants to go to, and very occasionally, I’ve actually been to that exact restaurant before; or, if I haven’t, I know the area, I know the neighborhood.

And while anywhere else, even in Honolulu, I don’t really have my favorite places that aren’t exactly the same places anyone else might say are also their favorites, here I really do have my go-to places, my favorite bars, restaurants, bookshops…

And I have a certain relationship with the city that I can come back here and recognize what’s changed, every store that comes up or gets shuttered…. And many memories over many individual different visits. Walking around Heiwa Dori and thinking about Sakae-san and his Daiei Shokudo. Thinking about times spent with Simone, probably some of our happiest times, getting ice cream at the same little shop several days in a row, etc…. I feel privileged to get to have this kind of relationship with the city. I remember shops that aren’t there anymore; I got to see them before they were gone. I got to visit certain places when they were brand-new. Of course, Shuri castle is perhaps the biggest of these – I had the privilege of visiting it several times before the fire. But I also remember the Okinawa Monorail before they extended it into Urasoe, and the Makishi Market before it got closed down earlier this year, though I am a bit sad I couldn’t be there to witness the actual closing. And it’s those kinds of memories or experiences, that kind of historical/cultural local knowledge, that I think is just so precious, such a privilege, even if it is, in the grand scheme of things, not necessarily something that will ever actively come out onto the page (of my professional scholarship) or necessarily play out in any way at all.

Heiwa-dôri, a maze of covered shopping arcade streets in central Naha.

Heiwa-dôri is a special place for me. I feel like it’s the kind of place that if you lived in central Naha, if you spent enough time in Heiwa-dôri, you could really get to know the people there. Really get to develop a real feel of the place. During the day it’s packed with tourists, but in the evenings, it’s all small, individual bars, very local feeling. But tons of them – like the possibilities are almost endless. Feeling like if I did live there, I might be able to develop a relationship fairly quickly, having my regular bars, maybe even get the bartenders/owners to know me.

On my very first trip to Okinawa, the very first shop I ate at was a little shokudô deep in Heiwa-dôri, way back from the main touristy street, called Daiei Shokudô. As I’ve probably related on this blog before, Sakae-san, the owner, very kindly sat with me and talked with me, invited me to come back that night to play/sing folk songs with him and his friends. Somewhere I think I still have a shirt he or his wife gave me when I arrived soaking wet from the rain. That shop is now gone; it’s been more than ten years since then. But last I asked, I asked around random shopowners in the neighborhood, and they knew who he was and they said he was still in good health, very genki. Happy to hear it. But it’s that kind of neighborhood – getting to know the individual shops, getting to know the shopowners. Living in Nishihara for six months, and staying in Tsuboya (just a couple blocks from Heiwa-dôri) on multiple occasions – with my girlfriend, with another friend, with my Dad, and since then on several occasions on my own – I went up and down those alleyways, in early morning, in late evening. I can’t say I’ve gotten to know any of the shopowners, certainly not to the extent that they’d know me. But I do feel like I’ve gotten just a taste of feeling like I “know” Heiwa-dôri, like I feel just the tiniest bit at home there, far more so than in any shopping mall / shopping arcade anywhere in Tokyo. And if I were to ever write an ethnography of a neighborhood, an ethnography of a shôtengai, boy would it be Heiwa-dôri. Absolutely. Maybe sometime down the road, years from now…

Naha Main Place, the main shopping mall (I’d say) in Naha.

And Naha Main Place, the shopping mall. Now, that’s a funny one, too. Who has special feelings about a shopping mall? But the time I spent there, unlike any tourist would, the late evenings in Naha, not yet ready to want to take the bus back to Nishihara (the University of the Ryukyus is located in a fairly out-of-the-way area; only about 20 mins from Naha by bus, but even so, “rural”, or inaka as they say in Japanese; a whole other world from the “big city” of Naha). I don’t think there is any shopping mall or department store anywhere in the world that I feel like I know my way around like I do in Naha Main Place. That’s a weird sentence. Now, this is in part because it’s so small. But, I don’t how to say it, I just… being there makes me feel like I live in Okinawa, like I am, however temporarily, a local, and not a visitor. 在沖。It’s funny, it’s crazy ironic and weird, because it is such an utterly ordinary shopping mall – none of the textured feeling of history, of local community, that Heiwa-dôri has – but even so, when I think about the experience so many grad students and others have had of making their way through daily life in Tokyo or Kyoto, and here I am, X hundreds of miles away, in some other place, buying my cellphone plan at Naha Main Place, buying my groceries there before catching a bus back to Nishihara. Watching Kimi no Na ha there. Going back time and again to ogle the kariyushi shirts and to shake my fist at how expensive they are (I don’t care if it’s handmade by local artisans and costs X number of manhours to make from special local materials and so forth, what am I supposed to do with a $300 shirt? Or even a $100 shirt for that matter? It’s just too much to spend.) Spending time at Naha Main Place makes me feel like someone who is living everyday life in Naha, and not like someone who’s there for only a few days on a trip. Someone familiar with the city, yes, admittedly in the way that a tourist would be, but also in the way a local might be. Shopping there as my normal shopping, eating at whatever, Starbucks or whatever, the mall pizzeria or whatever, and being okay with that because I’m not on vacation, I don’t need to have that special “Okinawan” Kokusai-dôri experience.

This last time that I visited Okinawa, and an Okinawan friend said “why don’t we meet up at such-and-such restaurant in Sakae-machi?” I felt like she was asking me with a sort of unspoken assumption that I would know where that was. Which I did. She made no hint of that she felt she had to take me out touristy, or take me somewhere else to show me another side of Okinawa that I wouldn’t have seen… Even though she’s from Naha, born and raised, and has infinite more experience with and connection to the city, she treated me like someone who also knows his way around; she knows this isn’t my first time in Naha, and that I don’t need help finding my way, or need to be shown “a good time,” to make me want to come back, or anything like that, any of those various ways you might treat a tourist, a visitor; no, she treated me like someone who was already there, and within a context of just “let’s meet up for dinner. where should we go?”

I feel like Sakurazaka Theatre is another touchpoint for me, like Heiwa-dôri and Naha Main Place are. It is, I think, the chief indy movie theatre in the city. If it’s not, I’d be surprised; it would mean there’s some other theater I have just completely never heard of. Sakurazaka has regular films, indy films, international art films, documentaries, film festivals… But they also have a café, and they also sell tons of local music, all sorts of books and magazines and goods, and locally-made ceramics and glasswares. It’s not just a movie theatre, but it’s also in a certain sense a center of local arts. Not that there aren’t a zillion other “arts centers” in Naha. But, if it’s an art film, documentary, film festival, it’s probably happening at Sakurazaka. If you’re looking for CDs from a certain vein of local musical artists – not the super traditional ones (though they have those too) and not the big-name pop bands, but the ones who play local gigs at the venue owned by (or in some kind of partnership with?) Sakurazaka just across the way – the artists involved in Sakurazaka’s annual “Trans Asia Music Meeting” or the annual Shimauta mix album, that’s where you’ll find it. I’ve only seen a film there once or twice. Have never eaten at their cafe. I have bought things from their shop, or at least perused the wares, on quite a few occasions. But I have been to Trans Asia Music Meeting once; they get a whole bunch of different artists and bands from – well, ostensibly it’s all over Asia but the one time I went it was one band from Taiwan, one from S Korea, and like eight or nine from Okinawa, and that was it. But still, very cool – and these artists all mingle and exchange with one another in closed workshops for a day or three or something, and then they have a big multi-venue concert, for free. Spend a whole evening going back and forth between the two halls, hearing different music, from rock to Okinawan folk to synth-remixed-Okinawan-folk. Going to this event was probably my only time showing, or acting upon, any interest in the local music scene, haha; certainly I’ve never been involved in such things in Honolulu or Tokyo, let alone in NY or LA. But at Sakurazaka, I felt like I was engaging in something special, getting to know bands I would never have heard of otherwise. Bands that 99% of my friends will never have heard of. I was obtaining a certain special kind of cultural capital. A kind of Okinawa ‘cred.’ Or something. And that’s what Sakurazaka represents to me, I think: a touchpoint where, if I lived in Naha, if I had the opportunity to really keep up with what was going on at the theatre, that would be my portal into learning about bands, films, documentaries. That would be my portal to learning about “what’s going on” in Naha – within one particular avenue, at least. And seeing tons of Okinawan, Japanese, and other films that I might not see otherwise.

Kokusai-dôri in Evening Glow. A calm, quiet, beautiful evening along Naha’s main tourist street.

All of that said, though, on this latest trip I had a bit of a realization about the character of my relationship to Naha, which I actually found rather troubling and frightening. And I’m sort of wrestling with it. Because I actually really enjoy staying near Kokusai-dôri and Heiwa-dôri and spending time there. I enjoy being in the heart of what a lot of people would consider the very touristy part of the city – the Times Square or Waikiki of Naha. … To me, this is Naha. This is my Okinawa. Quick and easy access to the museums, to the castle, to the big bookstores. I understand that for a lot of people, places like Koza or Chatan are more the “real” Okinawa. At a distance from the tourists and from the cultural displays and performances crafted specifically to appeal to the tourists, these neighborhoods put you in much more direct proximity to the military bases, to the specific kind of urban life that’s grown up around the bases – grey concrete; heavily car-oriented; A&W fast food and shopping malls and taco rice and vintage stores and bars and clubs and so on – and, I presume, in more direct proximity to poverty and unemployment and struggles otherwise of modern Okinawan life today. Or, you could go out to a place like Ôgimi, or a dozen other small villages, far removed from the city life entirely. What exactly life is like there, I don’t know. I assume it’s not as idyllic, not as filled with music and relaxation and some romanticized imagined idea of “traditional” island village life as is portrayed in movies.

I want to be clear, I’m not saying I dislike Koza or Chatan, that I wouldn’t want to spend time there, or anything like that. Frankly, I haven’t really experienced other parts of Okinawa enough to say I dislike those areas, or like them less. If anything, it’s somewhat the contrary: I feel like because I’ve never lived in Koza or Chatan, never been on-base, that maybe I haven’t experienced “the real Okinawa,” or at least haven’t experienced as much of Okinawa, as others. I feel inadequate at best, phony at worst, when I think about these other parts of the island. And that’s not even to get into talking about the other islands in the prefecture, which I very very much hope to visit someday but have yet to go to.

One of the gates of Shuri castle (Sui gusuku, Ufugusuku), and the Okinawa Prefectural University of the Arts – Okinawa Geidai – just beyond.

But I do enjoy staying in Tsuboya or on Kokusai-dori, right in the heart of things. And I begin to worry that maybe that’s a problem. I certainly have moved away from the most explicitly touristy shops and activities – after my second or third visit, I’m far less interested in the sort of live bars where all the patrons are tourists, and I want to find somewhat more local places; I think I may be done with visiting the yatai-mura and noren-gai, these highly commercialized, brand-new restaurant streets pretending to recreate the authentic feel of alleyways filled with decades-old food stalls; I want to try to do better to figure out which shops are actually run by Okinawans. I still have my favorite shops, even if some of them are very popular with the tourists, e.g. C&C Breakfast, but I don’t think I really care about that being in some way a weakness or a problem. And I still love walking around Heiwa-dôri. But I’m beginning to appreciate more deeply, more genuinely, how locals might see Kokusai-dôri much the same way as we New Yorkers see Times Square; much the same way many who live on O‘ahu see Waikiki – as an over-commercialized tourist mecca that’s too crowded, too loud and too bright, too expensive, too plastic, and best to just be avoided. Not a place real Okinawans go. Or so I’m guessing – I haven’t had anyone say so to me explicitly, actually. But building upon what I do know about locals’ attitudes about Times Square and Waikiki and extrapolating from that, I’m embarrassed to have never really thought about that before quite as deeply, quite as seriously, in the Okinawan case.

Now that I’m no longer on such a shoestring grad student budget, I think I’m going to try to stay at Tsuboya Garden House from now on – a place I know is run by a local Okinawan owner, and not by a mainland Japanese conglomerate; even if it’s more expensive than a place like Abest Cube, and even though I absolutely can be fine with the tiny (“cabin”) guestroom and shared bathrooms at Abest and don’t need the full apartment you’re renting at Garden House, it feels like a place I’ve already developed a relationship. A place that’s decidedly less corporate, more local, a bit off the beaten path. But even there, I wonder if I’m still in a sense playing the tourist, or the expat; I will of course always be an expat, I’ll never be a local. And there’s something appealing, to be sure, about feeling like I’m the scholar, journalist, or whathaveyou, who’s been there X number of times, who always stays at the same hotel. There’s something romantic and appealing about that. But it’s also something rather elite/elitist in its way, and I don’t think I could ever really be friends with the staff so long as they’re, you know, staff, who are being paid to serve the guests and make us happy and so on and so forth.

A wonderful little thing I got in a gatchapon machine. Trying to catch them all, but at 500 yen a pop, I have absolutely no need to get the same ones twice :/ And the only ones I really want are the BEGIN guys.

Every time I go back to Okinawa I think about how much I want to live there. Of course, I do think I could be very happy living almost anywhere in Japan, and by all means could be more or less happy in various other places all around the globe. But especially now that I’m living in Tokyo, and am certainly content, and am certainly aware in an intellectual fashion of how exceptionally lucky I am to be where I am, to have the job/position that I do, and yet emotionally, I come back to Okinawa and I just immediately think about how much I would *love* to live there again. Not just contentment, but active enjoyment. I want to develop or maintain “regular” places – my regular cafés, my regular “haunts.” I want shopkeepers and the like to get to know me; I want to make friends. I want to develop stronger and deeper networks with people at the Ryûdai library and the Naha City Museum of History and numerous other institutions. I want to feel free to just do whatever – study at the Starbucks, see a movie at the Naha Q Cinemas, pop into the Junkudo – things I can’t or don’t or won’t do when I feel I’m on a tighter “I’m only here for three days” sort of schedule. And I want to gradually, eventually, get around to visiting all the different places that I might finally get to visit if I lived there more long-term, from historical sites, statues, markers, little things in this and that corner of the island, to in fact visiting other islands such as Kumejima, Iheyajima, even as far away as Taketomi or Yonaguni, something I might very well do just on a lark one weekend if I lived on Okinawa, and something I see as somewhat less likely living in Tokyo. And I want to be able to attend all the exhibitions, special talks and events, symposia and conferences, concerts, film screenings, all the things that go on throughout the year… And I also want to be there to witness big changes. Like the opening or closing of a new public market, prefectural library, or whathaveyou.

A good kitty named Donnie ドニー. Lives at the guesthouse. It was so good to see them again after so many years. And when no one was looking, Donnie even jumped up on my lap and let me pet them, for a really nice long few minutes.

And I think it’s okay to live in Okinawa, or want to live in Okinawa, as whoever you are. I will never be Okinawan. I will always be an outsider who’s there because of my interest and enthusiasm for history and culture. And I certainly try to do my best to be as respectful as possible of the historical, cultural, spiritual significance of sites, and to just generally try as much as possible to avoid being an obnoxious or bad tourist in whatever various ways. But, at the same time, am I not inevitably in some way a perpetual tourist? Am I not consuming Okinawa in a sense, and is that not unavoidably, irreparably, at the core of what appeals to me about visiting or living there?

I guess on this latest trip I came to realize more seriously, or more strongly, than I had before just how much my own experience is just so different from that of locals, the extent of the gap not only between how they and I do experience Okinawa, but also the gap between how they and I want to see, understand, know, experience Okinawa. Their Okinawa will never be my Okinawa, and while my feelings and attitudes and preferences and perspectives are constantly changing and evolving, I begin to have a worry deep in my gut… what if it’s not okay to be this different person, to experience and engage with Okinawa in this different way? What if on some fundamental level my entire approach to Okinawa, what I love about being there, is at its core orientalist or the like? What if on some level, to some extent, in some way, the really best thing to do is to either adopt the perspective of the “indigenous rights” activists, or certain other segments of the population, or else just leave, sever my ties to Okinawan Studies, admit that I was being Orientalist or colonialist or racist or something about it and go find something else to do with my life?

Just another view of Naha rooftops, from a hill right near Sakurazaka.

I would love to live in Okinawa again, and to be able to live a more everyday life there. I think being there for a longer time would in and of itself make it less of a “trip,” less of a “vacation”; it would allow me the opportunity to engage with Okinawa in a more normal, everyday way, in terms of using the shopping malls and department stores more in the way that locals do – to buy anything and everything, mundane things, things for the apartment; in terms of popping into museums, bookstores, and all the rest as a (temporary) local and not as a one-time (or, eighth- or ninth- or tenth-time) “tourist” visitor. Dropping by to see what’s going on that day, coming back another time, and so forth, rather than the energy of the visitor who is trying to squeeze in as much as possible into only a short few days, buying all the books they can now because they won’t have a chance next week, and like that. But regardless, even if I did live in Okinawa again more long-term, still I would live a certain life: the life of a scholar, the life of someone who spends a lot of time at museums and bookstores and academic events; the life of someone who’s deeply excited to be as active as possible in experiencing cultural events (concerts, plays, etc), and who is not here for family, for community activism of the same flavor as most local community activists – if I really were to be here more long-term I just might get involved with some cultural organization, like the Shuri machizukuri kai (roughly, “Shuri community-building association”) or some Shurijô-fukugen-nantoka-kai (“Shuri castle restoration something-something association”), but it’s just not who I am to get involved with the more “local community activism” kind of stuff like really grassroots community organizing, teaching kids indigenous knowledge, and so forth. For those who are doing those things, more power to them. I think you do amazing work, and it’s so important, and I wish you the best. But it’s not my place; it’s not for me, and I don’t think they’d necessarily want me there anyway, in spaces where it’s all about Okinawans claiming space for themselves and building their own future and so forth.

I have some friends in Okinawa – Okinawan, Japanese, and from other backgrounds – who I do easily imagine I could become even more regular friends with. Meet up from time to time for a beer. Ask how they’re doing, how their partner is doing, how things went with X thing that had been going on in their lives. Say hello to their cat. Connect and reconnect, say “let’s get together again sometime.” Not just academics, but a guesthouse owner, a magazine editor, a member of staff at the consulate. And who knows, I’d like to think that if I lived in Okinawa again, maybe I just might end up becoming friends with someone who works at the movie theatre or the t-shirt shop or the café or the pottery shop, though I know that’s a whole other complex can of worms – the retail/service industry people who are obligated by their job position to be friendly to you but are they actually feeling or wanting to be friendly? … But to actually become friends and not just collegial colleagues with people at the museums and so forth…

But I think that living in Okinawa I would also have to carefully navigate, and adapt to a constant state of perpetually navigating, my position between certain groups – including the core Ryukyu Studies scholars who are native Japanese language speakers/readers/writers trained at Ryûdai or elsewhere who will forever be the ones I am interacting with at conferences, symposia, etc etc and who, if I should ever get on the wrong side of any one of them or of the group as a whole I’m sunk; certain categories of indigenous and community activists who have particular politics which, again, I can’t necessarily jump on-board with a hundred hundred percent but who I also cannot afford to have them mark me as the wrong kind of person (racist, imperialist, orientalist, whatever) and get ostracized or defamed or whatever… Within the world of Japanese Studies in the West, or among English-speakers, or however one wishes to put it, I’m relatively free to be as I wish. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty to navigate there to be sure and I’m by no means alone in the field of Ryukyuan Studies, or Early Modern Japanese foreign relations, or anything like that. It’s not like I’m entirely unanswerable to anyone. And I certainly certainly don’t consider myself an expert, let alone the expert, on anything. I see my expertise as very beginner-level still, deeply incomplete, flawed, with massive gaps. But even so, on a more casual level, just in terms of chatting with whomever I may happen to meet in Tokyo, or at a conference in the States, or whatever, among those people I’m generally the only Okinawa specialist in the room, and if I’m not, I’m the only premodern / early modern Ryukyu person in the room, and so while I certainly would like to think that I’m a rather humble person and I very much hope that I am, there isn’t that context of a pressure, to have to be deferential to others who, whether because of their academic expertise (in the case of Ryûdai people) or their life experience and cultural/ethnic identity (in the case of Okinawan community activists etc.) I have to be very careful who I am around them, how I behave, what I say that I think or know or believe… Who would I be if I lived in Okinawa long-term, relative to those communities? For myself, I would enjoy myself and continue experiencing and engaging and learning and growing, I would continue reading and researching, and I would produce whatever I produced and shoot it off into the English-speaking world (e.g. journal submissions, conference presentations), but within certain circles in Okinawa I would be perpetually out of my depth, perpetually the one who is far behind and can’t keep up… and how would that feel? What relationship or role or lifestyle would that develop into?

Lots to think about. I guess I’ll just have to keep carrying this with me. See how I feel upon my next visit to Okinawa again. I’ve found Okinawan colleagues, friends, others, to almost always be so much more welcoming, accepting, easy-going about these sorts of things than I sometimes fear and worry about. They relieve my anxieties. I wonder if living there again, rather than this popping-in popping-out brief visits pattern, would make me feel more settled about a lot of this. But even so, if this last visit is any indication, I fear that ironically, conversely, I may be finding my relationship to Naha, and to Okinawa, growing incrementally less comfortable, and not more so, the longer I keep at it.

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Moving Back to Tokyo

The iconic Akamon, or red gate, entrance to the University of Tokyo.

I should have posted this months ago, but I strangely felt I didn’t have that much to say on the topic, I guess. And perhaps more to the point, things just got very busy, hectic, and so here we are, almost at the end of four months since I moved here to Tokyo, and I’m finally posting this now. Oh well, better late than never, I suppose. Even though I guess I’m not saying all that much of substance here, still I wanted to get it down, for posterity if for nothing else.

I’ve started my new job in Tokyo, and things are going really well. I cannot say how truly I feel I lucked out with this position, how fortunate I am. Being back in Japan is exactly the place I needed to be to regain a sense of calm, happiness, and balance after everything that happened in the previous few months. 

The Tokyo skyline as seen from high above Ichigaya.

As wonderful as it would have been to secure a proper tenure track position somewhere in the States, or a postdoc or whatever it may have been, and as happy as I could have been in any of those situations, I think that many of them would have involved “hitting the ground running,” the same levels of work and stress and endless busy-ness as in the final stages of the dissertation (if not moreso, what with class prep and everything). For any potential employers reading this, yes, I do think I would have done well, and strived, and been happy and successful in meeting such challenges, and I certainly look forward to hopefully getting such a position in the future, getting to teach students and engage with them and all the rest.
 
But for now, Tokyo is right where I need to be, to find my center and find myself again.

Getting some work done at the Aoyama Flower Market Teahouse.

I’m now a postdoctoral “Project Researcher” 特任研究員 at the University of Tokyo Historiographical Institute 東京大学史料編纂所 working as part of a team on a project creating an international hub for the Ishin Shiryō Kōyō 維新史料綱要, a collection of some 30,000 entries summarizing in a day-by-day fashion the key events of Japanese (“national” political) history c. 1840-1870. I am not sure when any of the products of this work will become available to the public, but we are working on a glossary of terms relevant to the collection, and English translations of the entries. Whenever it does go live, a few years from now, you’ll be able to search in English (or romaji) and see at an easy glance what events are pertinent to your search terms. For example, search the name of a shogunate official such as Ido Satohiro and you can trace his key activities, promotions, reassignments, and so forth across the period. Search for a placename, such as Shimoda or Yokohama, or Ryûkyû, Tsushima, or Matsumae, and you can see a listing of the progression of events pertaining to that place across the period.

Copies of the Tsûkô ichiran, a compilation of Edo period diplomatic records.

And I’m continuing to plug forward on my own research. I guess I’ve been sidetracked the last couple of months, thinking, reading, and writing about Shuri castle, but I suppose that counts as “my own research” too. I’ll get back to thinking about Ryukyuan embassies, diplomatic ritual, and so forth soon.

In the meantime, everyone at the Hensanjo has been really quite kind and supportive, encouraging me to take time to do my own research, that that’s included in the position and counts as part of my job – I don’t need to be working on the Project all the time. So, I’ve already started making appointments with museums and archives to see more Ryukyu embassy procession scrolls, buying books, and scanning tons of articles and book chapters to read later.

Ever since I finished the dissertation, it’s been such an incredible weight off my shoulders. There’s no longer a pressure to produce something complete and polished by a set date, and now I can just go back to gathering more and building up and building around my knowledge of the subject, seeing what develops, seeing what comes together. It’s a real pleasure.

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