Tokyo is functioning at 100% as usual.
Except a slight feeling of apocalyptic panic by the shelves in the supermarkets where you can usually find many many types of surgical masks.
The mask: a very common item in Japan throughout the year, used not only for reasons such as the common cold or a new virus. I usually don’t think much of it, except at times when a person who wears it is talking to me, and I find myself wishing I could see the lower part of their face.
The shelves are all empty of masks. Everywhere.
Today, I went around my neighborhood in Chiba on a quest to find masks, thinking it is far enough from central Tokyo, so I should be able to find some. After several konbini (convenience stores) and medical supermarkets, empty of masks, I realized the task might be more challenging than I thought.
At the next place I entered, I asked about the masks right away. The lady looked at me and I could see a sad smile behind her own mask. She apologized and said they run out. I asked about Alcohol-based hand sanitizer bottles instead. Pointing at a small, traveling size one that I have attached to my backpack. She went with me to the area of soaps in the store, where we discovered another empty body of naked shelves. She apologized again and straight bowed her head.
It seemed like everyone around me was looking for the masks. Some people were talking about how rude were those who bought more than one package at a time, so nothing left for others.
This made me think that the kind of life I am experiencing is pretty organized and comfortable. In every country I lived in there were systems and laws and expectations from society to behave accordingly in order for everything to keep on going, more or less, the same way as it did yesterday.
In Japan, I feel like this is especially highly valued.
But sometimes, an unknown obstacle slips into the comfortably functioning system, threatening to pull it all into an unknown place of fear and chaos.
I felt it during the couple of earthquake drills I’ve been to (though they were very organized), before the big typhoon a few months ago (no water bottles or flashlights anywhere to be found), and today while listening to an elderly couple standing by the empty masks shelves and wondering aloud where are the masks.
The notion that life, as we know it, might end tomorrow, and we must be ready, is a feeling no one likes very much. Especially the unknown part about it.
I do not know much about the new virus to be honest. But I have some masks left that I started putting on while on the train, and I am washing my hands a bit more often than usual.
I am hoping everyone will be okay, and that winter and its microscopic friends will be over soon.