Those Who Come Early: Reflections on the Social Standing of Senior Citizens in the Time of the COVID-19 Pandemic in Japan

This article is part of the series:

Morning Queues

The drugstore opened at ten in the morning in a Tokyo suburb. Despite it being a cold, rainy Monday at the beginning of April, seven people were already standing in a queue waiting for the store to open. They were there to buy face masks, even though there were signs on the front wall stating, This shop will not sell masks during opening hours.

An older woman stood next to me (Erika), reading the sign. “Well, it’ll be five minutes or so [until the store opens].” She said it to me as if she needed an excuse to wait.  A few minutes later, all the waiting customers streamed into the store and went straight to the corner where the masks were usually displayed. Of course, there were none. Marking their absence was a hanging leaflet explaining how to sew fabric face masks (see figure 1).

Figure 1. Instructions on how to sew fabric facemasks.

“Well, I knew it.” The woman shrugged and went looking for hand sanitizer, which was also not on display. Others followed the same pattern, cursorily searching the store shelves without much hope. During the pandemic, none of these high-demand products had been in stock. 

While Euro-Americans have only recently started the practice of mask-wearing,[1] it has been fairly common for Japanese people to wear face masks in public areas when they have mild cold symptoms or hay fever. They are widely available not only at drugstores, but also at convenience stores, 100-yen discount shops, and many other places. In 2018, there were approximately four billion masks sold in the Japanese market.[2] However, since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, masks have become scarce, and people started forming queues to buy them.

This shortage of masks has led people to criticize those who wait in these queues.[3] Online tabloids claimed that because of these “overeager” customers, other people were unable to purchase masks and hand sanitizer. But who are these customers? According to the tabloids, they are elderly people. They wake up early, and so they have plenty of time to wait in queues, unlike younger people who have to go to work. Because of these “selfish old people” stockpiling face masks, they accused, younger generations cannot buy masks at drugstores. As a result, most drugstores have stopped selling masks in the morning and have posted stern warnings aimed at anyone waiting for doors to open (see figure 2).

Figure 2. A drugstore warns customers to not enter the store before opening. It warns that the store may call the police.

I continued my little impromptu fieldwork by visiting drugstores and supermarkets in the morning to check their queues. On sunny days, there were about fifteen people in front of each drugstore and more than sixty people in front of supermarkets. Most of them looked like they were over sixty years old, just as the tabloids contended. But “selfishness” is not the only possible explanation. Many face masks were for sale online, but these people were unlikely to be accustomed to online shopping because they were not raised with the internet. The harsh tone of the tabloids and drugstore notices seemed wildly disproportionate with my impressions of the people quietly waiting in front of these stores. Where were the “aggressive” customers I was warned about? 

The disconnect between the affectively charged images of older “selfish hoarders” and the quiet earnestness of the people I met hints at the devilish ways the COVID-19 pandemic reveals the structural weak points of societies. Each country has its own politico-economic arrangements and responses to COVID-19; the public images of patients and the responses those images conjure are culturally and socially unique. In some cases, immigrants have come under public scrutiny. In others, ethnic minority groups have been identified as suffering more than most. In Japan, where the “low-fertility aging society” has been a source of public concern for decades, accusations towards retired seniors and young students have deepened of the already existing split between the young and the old. 

The Profiles of COVID-19 Patients

Japan was one of the first countries outside of China to have COVID-19 patients. However, politicians here only started considering locking down cities and preparing medical equipment two and a half months after the first patients were diagnosed in January 2020. Also, no large-scale polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing was done in Japan because of structural and bureaucratic obstacles. (e.g. As of May 1, 2020, about one hundred and fifteen thousand PCR tests has been conducted[4]). Instead, tracking the networks of patients has been the primary countermeasure of the virus’s spread. A group of epidemiologists called “a cluster tracking group” from the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare has started issuing analyses on where the virus has spread the most.

From the beginning, the press has constructed personal profiles of COVID-19 patients. The first group highlighted were people working part-time jobs in convenience stores, pubs, and fast-food restaurants at night, despite having full-time day jobs.[5] They took second jobs because they could not sustain their daily lives with income from their day jobs alone.[6] In the early stage of the pandemic, economically disadvantaged workers became patients. Another group of patients were the passengers of a cruise ship, the Diamond Princess. Most of them were seniors enjoying a trip abroad after their retirement.[7] Some of the passengers got off the ship without diagnoses, went about their daily lives, and spread the virus. There was sensationalist coverage of one passenger who visited a fitness center and made contact with more than 170 people.[8] Even though the passengers of the cruise ship were not extremely wealthy as trumpeted by media, press coverage in the early stages of the pandemic undeniably drew a contrast between the poor young and the rich old.

As the number of patients grew, a third wave of patients came under scrutiny by mass media and the public. These were young students returning to their rural hometowns from studying abroad or on their spring break trips. In one particular case, a student who came back from Europe unintentionally spread the virus to over seventy people at her university in Japan. Since then, this university’s students have been subject to severe discrimination (e.g. they have been refused entry to pubs and have been put in separate rooms for job interviews).[9] This time, it was the older generation who blamed the young for their reckless behavior or even for just returning home. 

The Fragmentation of Society

Diseases have always had the power to transform patients (victims) into enemies. HIV, cancer, and tuberculosis have all stigmatized patients by becoming metaphors that have linked pathology to other cultural and moral meanings.[10] Yet infectious diseases are not mere metaphors. Epidemiological numbers become irrefutable facts. Unlike animals or cities, these tracked or profiled humans are not seen as kindly “sentinels” or “whistleblowers” as Frédéric Keck described[11] — they are criminalized.

Generations in Japan are fragmented. Society lacks structures to create solidarities between them (which is a very Western, and thus foreign idea anyway). Is it naïve to think the brutal fact of a higher COVID-19 mortality rate for the aged might inspire sympathy rather than division? The criticism aimed at seniors queueing at drugstores has been just one of the everyday side-effects of COVID-19, one that naturalizes moral judgements against older bodies in public spaces. If we are not careful to reflect on this now, lines will become cracks, fragmenting us further, rather than connecting us when we need it most.

Erika Takahashi is an Associate Professor at the Graduate School of Humanities, Chiba University. Her research is on the eldercare system, its privatization, kin care, and aging. She has also written several chapters on the anthropology of aging in Japanese textbooks for cultural anthropology. 

Jason Danely is Senior Lecturer in Anthropology at Oxford Brookes University. He is author of Aging and Loss: Mourning and Maturity in Contemporary Japan (2014 Rutgers University Press) and editor of Transitions and Transformations: Anthropological Perspectives on Aging and the Life Course (2013 Berghahn). He currently works on research related to family care and elderly ex-offenders in Japan and England.

“The Age of COVID-19” is a series being cross-posted at Somatosphere and the Association for Anthropology, Gerontology and the Life Course (AAGE) blog and is edited by Celeste Pang, Cristina Douglas, Janelle Taylor and Narelle Warren.

[1] Stephen E. Nash, “The Masked Man,” Sapiens, April 29, 2020, https://www.sapiens.org/column/curiosities/history-of-masks/; Wilkinson, Clare M. 2020. “What’s in a Mask?” Anthropology Newswebsite, May 8, 2020. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1401.

[2] “The statistics of face mask production.” Japan Hygiene Products Industry Association, http://www.jhpia.or.jp/data/data7.html. (Retrieved on May 7, 2020)

[3] “Troublesome senior customers in drugstores during COVID-19.” Career Connection News, March 26, 2020, https://news.careerconnection.jp/?p=90155.

[4] Data on COVID-19 positives and PCR testing.  Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, May 2, 2020, https://www.mhlw.go.jp/content/10906000/000627445.pdf

[5] Notice on a COVID-19 patient.Kyoto City Task Force for COVID-19, March 3, 2020, https://www.city.kyoto.lg.jp/hokenfukushi/cmsfiles/contents/0000265/265801/200303oshirase.pdf.

[6] “False statement by a COVID-19 patient.” Yomiuri Newspaper, March 9, 2020,https://www.yomiuri.co.jp/national/20200309-OYT1T50152/.

[7] “COVID-19 cases in the Diamond Princess.” National Institute of Infectious Diseases, February 19, 2020, https://www.niid.go.jp/niid/ja/diseases/ka/corona-virus/2019-ncov/2484-idsc/9410-covid-dp-01.html.

[8] “Bath house in a fitness center used by a former passenger of the cruise ship.” Mainichi Newspaper, March 2, 2020, https://mainichi.jp/articles/20200302/k00/00m/040/004000c.

[9] Death threats against the university students. Mainichi Newspaper, April 16, 2020, https://mainichi.jp/articles/20200416/dde/041/040/036000c.

[10 ]Susan Sontag. Illness as Metaphor. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1978).

[11] Frédéric Keck. Avian Reservoirs. (Duke University Press, 2020).

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