I was reviewing the SARS Worldwide Infection Count, and I noticed something I thought intriguing. Though Japan often receives a great deal of prestige and respect in certain areas within the world, the lack of SARS cases can be used as an indicator of one of two things. It either indicates that despite Tokyo’s reputation as a major international destination, it has remained farther outside the interconnectedness that has come about through the process of globalization over the past ten years, or, that Japan’s healthcare system is inadequate and unable to identify the disease.
Dogs and Demons, a well-written examination of modern Japan, paints a critical picture in both these areas. According to Kerr, doctors, inventors, and other professionals, often at the top of their professions, are leaving the country to head overseas. Corporations, too, are looking outside Japan; Sony was willing to take massigve losses in Hollywood when it purchased Columnia Pictures: there would be no purpose in buying or developing Japanese movie studios, since the Japanese movie industry had almost completed collapsed. The Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO), set up a fund to invest in entrepenuers, but JETRO has a condition that young tigers move to the United States and learn how to do business there. Okabe [owner of a company that makes software for digital effects] sells software in the United States because he cannot find buyers at home. But perhaps the most distressing point he makes is the fate of the ex-pat community.
The elite of fast-track investment bankers who were stationed in Japan transferred to Hong Kong and Singapore in the early 1990s, leaving second-string players in Tokyo. Long-established foreign communities in Kobe and Yokohama, dating to Meiji days, have shrunk to nearly the vanishing point, and international schools are closing.
This alone would seem to account for much of the discrepency among the SARS case count. After all, even as domestic tourism waned, the number of Japanese traveling abroad nearly quardupled, from 5 million in 1985 to almost 16 million people in 1998. By 1999 this had risen to a record 17 million, with no end to the increase in sight; significantly, a high percentage of these travelers were what the Japan Travel Bureau (JTB) calles “repeaters”, for whom travel abroad is a “habitual practice.” So, it is very likely that in fact tourists and business travelers have come and gone to Hong Kong and other infected regions. Why, else, then might there not be a larger incidence of SARS? After all, even Vietnam has identified more than sixty cases.
A single quote from the book, which is an exercept from an interview with a section chief at the Ministry of Health and Welfare, from March 29, 1997.
Interviewer: Does the Ministry of Health and Welfare have any policy for dealing with dioxin?
Section Chief: There is no policy whatsoever.
Interviewer: Has the MHW conducted any investigation concerning dioxin?
Section Chief: No idea.
Interviewer: Do you have any idea how much dioxin is out there?
Section Chief: No, we have not.
Interviewer: Have you set any guidelines for dioxin?
Section Chief: No, we have not.
Interviewer: Do you plan to?
Section Chief: No.
Interviewer: Do you have controls on dioxin emissions?
Section Chief: No.
In an example of incredible ignorance, a government official is essentially indicating that, in 1997, they have no concern over one of the most toxic substances known. How can it be that the second largest economy on the planet is run by a government that, in 1997, indicated it had no awareness of the issue. According to enjet.org, The International Agency for Research on Cancer [IARC] –part of the World Health Organization –announced February 14, 1997, that the most potent dioxin, 2,3,7,8-TCDD, is a now considered a Class 1 carcinogen, meaning a “known human carcinogen.” and that A draft report released for public comment in September 1994 by the US Environmental Protection Agency clearly describes dioxin as a serious public health threat. Would it then be any surprise that such a government would not be able to adequately identify any potential SARS cases, even if there were more than 2?
I truly enjoyed my time in Japan (both times) for the culture, both modern and “historical”. I specifically read news articles from Japan, enjoy consuming Japanese anime, and try to search out translated works of Japanese literature. I plan to take up the language (I’m registering for a language course at the Japan Society in New York at the end of May/beginning of June). But when I read Alex Kerr’s book, it had confirmed something I felt was strange during my two week trip and reconfirmed during my brief stopover in January. The homogenous nature of the population, the intensely youth-focused populare culture, and the “concretization” of the landscape are all very obvious, once you really look. It is unbelievable that a country could have no non-concrete-basin rivers, or, of that size, to have more dams than the United States. Reviewing the SARS cases just brought home some of the points made in the book.