Blog by the Dean of the College at Jiyu Gakuen: A Message after Sometimes, go see the sea by Kenji Watanabe
#145:Our True Humanness Is Tested at the Time of the Coronavirus Outbreak(Feb. 29, 2020)
Jiyu Gakuen will be closed from March 2 because of the coronavirus outbreak.
Toward the end of February, during an internship report meeting with students from the college and again at the chapel talk at the girls’ dorm at the junior and high school, I gave a talk about the coronavirus problem.
The point of my talk was this: The vast uncertainty we face now questions the values of our humanness. Both in public and at home we should interact with each other with the utmost kindness.
I would like to add a few more comments on this topic.
Japanese society as a whole is now being challenged in a critical manner in terms of its response to the coronavirus problem.
Of course, we should prevent the virus from spreading further by constantly washing our hands and taking other necessary precautions. Each of us should be reasonably and “correctly afraid” of the illness. We should also continuously evaluate how the government has been dealing with the issue. If we want to find the best solution to this difficult problem, and fast, maintaining a rational and critical approach will be necessary.
I’m repeating myself, but what needs to be stressed yet again is the crucial importance of planning and executing any and all measures necessary to get over the virus—individually, at schools, and at the level of the nation as a whole.
Having said this, I would like to focus on another aspect of the “fear” surrounding the epidemic. Last year, as an Edo culture specialist, I was given two opportunities to talk at medical research conferences about how epidemics were treated during the Edo period. During the reception after one of my talks, I chatted with one of the internationally renowned epidemiologists. I will never forget the words that left his mouth during our conversation. He said, “The outbreak of an epidemic is scary of course, but what is scarier is people’s prejudice and discrimination against the illness.”
The history of epidemics tells us that long after a special drug has been invented to cure the infectious disease in question, and even despite experts’ repeated assurances that there is no risk of contagion from person to person contact, harsh discrimination against those infected remains. The policy of isolating people with leprosy is one of the well-known examples of such
discrimination. A more recent example may be found in the discrimination from potential employers against those applicants who are HIV positive. Even those with non-infectious diseases face cruel reactions from others. Minamata disease patients were often harshly mistreated, and even their children suffered from unjust discrimination. Such violence is not limited to those with illnesses, either. Recently, children who were evacuated from Fukushima because of the radioactive contamination caused by the nuclear plant explosions were bullied when they tried to fit in at their new schools.
Today, according to an article by a special correspondent in Berlin in the digital version of the Mainichi Newspaper (Feb. 29), prejudice against Asian people in connection with the coronavirus outbreak is rapidly spreading in Europe.
This kind of prejudice and discrimination is inexcusable. We must find the courage to fight against it.
We shouldn’t repeat our history of erroneous and negative reactions to infectious diseases. Instead, we need to be keenly aware of the inner crisis implied in such reactions. We should know that it is a crisis that each of us faces individually and on a day-to-day basis—a crisis in which you and/or your close neighbors may suddenly lose your usual kind selves. It is as if we are standing at the top of a cliff that opens on to an abyss, which is ready to engulf
and take away our dignity. Because of the degree of this danger, we need tofiercely fight for the values of humanity and humanism.
The fear and uncertainty created by the coronavirus outbreak surely shakes our minds and spirits now. Know, however, that it is precisely at these moments of crisis when our human dignity is tested. In the face of that, let us remain resolute and attend to one another with the utmost kindness.
As the school is closed, dorm students all return home. You should, of course, pay careful attention to prevent the virus from spreading. At the same time, what I want the most is for you to contribute all that you can when you are at home. I hope you are nicer than ever to your younger sisters and brothers, that you do some of the household chores for your working parents, and that you sensitively care for and support your aging family members. I believe your youthfulness gives you the toughness and energy to put that into action. I hope each of you –whether you’re a junior, high school, or college student—becomes a strong supporting stone at your home. Thanks to your youthful sense of justice and your flexibility, you have the powerful potential to turn your homes and society as a whole into spaces of compassion and kindness. Try to become someone whom others trust and rely on.
I believe such contributions of yours will be the first step for our society to overcome all kinds of discrimination and prejudice. The measures we take against the coronavirus are not just about suppressing the illness. They are also touchstones which test and direct our fight for a discrimination-free society. In other words, this crisis can give birth to the true bonds of human connectedness.
Breathe deeply, filling your chest with kindness, and march into a better tomorrow. Even belatedly, spring is sure to come. See you then at school.