The Secret Behind Epidemic-Resistant Japan

When SARS broke out back in 2003, some of the worst hit nations were in Asia with Hong Kong taking most of the bite for its unsanitary living conditions due to congestion in its cities. Singapore was affected somewhat with one of its biggest chain stores One.99 go bankrupt almost overnight.

At that time, I remember reading a newspaper article that wrote on why Japan was able to avert this epidemic. The reason the article gave was due to language. “Language?” you say. I hear you alright. The author said that because of the plosive consonants in English, SARS was more proned to be passed on from one interlocuter to the next English speaker. The Japanese alphabet, however, do not have plosives. When I read that article, all that came to my mind was “WTF?”

Today, having been living here for over a year and working here for 9 months now, I think I’ve learnt why Japan was able to contain an outbreak back then and also the H1N1 virus a couple of years ago.

The Japanese wear masks.

Now, you’d think this happens in other nations too and the outbreak happened all the same. Here, when I see students wearing masks in school, I ask if they’ve got the flu or a cough. They almost always say no. They wear it because they feel a little unwell and just for good measure, the mask is in place. And if the students are sneezing or have a bad cough, you most likely won’t see them in school. They would’ve taken the day off.

In Singapore, things don’t work the same way. I do not know why but a cold, flu or a bad cough is not good enough a reason for us to take the day off from school or from work. At times, even those with a fever turn up in school or at work and – tell me this is not odd but – there’s some kind of pride in attending school or work when one is not feeling well. That’s the Singaporean mentality. We think we are superheroes until when SARS broke out, one of my lecturers started reprimanding a friend for turning up in school in spite of having a fever. She called her irresponsible.

Yes, I agree.

But that didn’t happen before SARS. Until 2003, we always got praises for being dilligent by attending school or showing up for work even though we were sick. You work hard, you succeed. That was the mantra.

The Japanese, however, take extreme care of their children. The sight of students who are on bandages, band-aids, casts and what not is not rare. Their fingers get hit by a basketball and the next moment, a bandage is on. Their hands hit the table when trying to do a smash in a game of table-tennis, their entire hand gets bandaged. When I first saw these, I was shocked because I thought they had met with major accidents. Because back home, we don’t do much about it. All we do is try massaging it by ourselves, let it swell and a few days later, it recovers by itself.

I was also surprised by the frequency of students turning up at the sick bay seeking medical attention for things I consider minor because, again, in Singapore we don’t go to the sick bay unless we’re having a temperature, when we throw up or anything worse.

That could be why the Japanese have really long lives. It’s not the diet. It’s not in the DNA. It’s how they protect their children.

As for Singapore, thank you for shortening my lifespan.

Disclaimer: That was just a joke. I love my country. But maybe I love Japan a little more…


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