Japan: ‘Virus Vigilantes’ Threaten People for Coronavirus Violations

People wearing facemasks as a preventive measure against the Covid-19 coronavirus, commute late evening in Tokyo on November 17, 2020. (Photo by CHARLY TRIBALLEAU / AFP) (Photo by CHARLY TRIBALLEAU/AFP via Getty Images)
CHARLY TRIBALLEAU/AFP via Getty Images

Japan’s Nikkei Asian Reviews highlighted the emergency of “virus vigilantes” in the country on Tuesday: enforcers that use peer pressure to keep people from violating lockdown restrictions without actually having any legitimate authority.

Observers view the behavior as a symptom of Japanese society’s emphasis on conformity, which some argue has increased feelings of social suffocation during the pandemic, possibly contributing to recent spikes in Japan’s suicide rates.

Hiroaki Murata, the owner of a bar and music club in Tokyo, told Nikkei on Tuesday that he received a warning from a virus vigilante in April at the height of Japan’s coronavirus outbreak that left him and his wife feeling “frightened.”

“For safety, refrain from opening live music clubs until the state of emergency ends,” read a typed note taped to Murata’s store sign. “If I find you opening again, I’ll call the police.” The note was signed simply, “a neighbor.”

On the day that Murata received the typed message, he and his wife had livestreamed a performance at his establishment conducted “behind closed doors, in accordance with Tokyo Metropolitan Government guidelines,” according to the Nikkei. Murata, his wife, and the singer were the only people inside the venue at the time.

“I was very sad and anxious to think that we didn’t have any friends around the neighborhood,” Murata said of the incident.

While Murata was disappointed at the virus vigilante’s choice to threaten his establishment, he explained that he was not entirely surprised by the behavior. Live music clubs in Japan are typically small and crowded. Often located underground, the clubs are usually poorly ventilated. The combination of factors caused the venues to emerge as infection hotspots during Japan’s initial coronavirus outbreak early this year.

During that time, Murata said he “heard from musician friends about strangers attacking them on the street for carrying guitars.”

“During the war, people were harshly accused of just wearing nice clothes or singing songs,” he told the newspaper, referring to Japan during World War II. “What happened to me was just like that. Japanese people haven’t changed much.”

Japan’s virus vigilantes have cropped up across the country during the pandemic as the most recent iteration of jishuku keisatsu — literally “self-restraint police” in Japanese. According to the Nikkei, their appearance highlights Japan’s “social propensity for conformism that is adding to an existing atmosphere of psychological suffocation expressed as being literally ‘hard to breathe’ [in Japanese].”

With a comparatively low infection and death toll rate internationally, Japan is viewed by many observers as a successful model for coronavirus containment. The Nikkei‘s report suggests that the “flip side” to this apparent success may be “an increasing feeling of collective surveillance” pervading Japanese society. This feeling of being critically monitored by peers may have contributed to increased levels of stress and anxiety for many Japanese people during the pandemic.

Some have blamed increased stress and anxiety levels caused by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic for a recent spike in Japan’s rate of suicide over the past few months. Japan’s suicide rate in October surged to the highest level recorded in over five years.

“[T]he total number of suicides for October was 2,153, an increase of more than 300 from the previous month and the highest monthly tally since May 2015,” Japan Today reported on November 11.

“Of October’s cases, 851 were women, a rise of 82.6 percent over the same month in 2019. The number of suicides by men rose 21.3 percent,” the newspaper added.

October marked the fourth consecutive month that Japan recorded an increase in its suicide rate. Some observers have linked the recent spike in Japan’s suicide rate to the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic. Layoffs and reduced working hours during the pandemic have disproportionately affected Japanese women, as they are more likely than men to work non-permanent jobs in the retail or service industries.

Japan’s rates of suicide “had been falling steadily until July but then the economic impact of the coronavirus outbreak hit home and the numbers started rising,” Japan Today noted.

Japan’s suicide rate remains the highest among the Group of Seven (G7) major developed nations. The high rate is attributed in large part to overwork stress caused by Japan’s emphasis on an extreme work ethic. According to the Japan Times, the country’s suicide rate was “16 per 100,000 people,” as of June.

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