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Opinion | Why we can't emulate Japan in our fight against covid-19

Werner Herzog’s new film 'Family Romance, LLC' gives a glimpse into the anomalous culture of Japan

A scene from Werner Herzog’s film, ‘Family Romance, LLC’.
A scene from Werner Herzog’s film, ‘Family Romance, LLC’.

For 24 hours in early July, the streaming service MUBI offered a free preview of the celebrated German director Werner Herzog’s latest film, Family Romance, LLC. The film’s title refers to a real Tokyo-based firm called Family Romance, which hires out actors to serve as relatives and companions for social occasions. Yuichi Ishii, the founder of the firm, plays himself in the lead role, giving the film the air of a documentary, a feeling which is enhanced by Herzog’s rough and ready camerawork. It is, however, no documentary, but a carefully scripted meditation on the nature of emotional connection.

Tokyo seems an unusual setting for a film by Herzog, who has a penchant for extreme locations like the Sahara desert, the Amazon rainforest and Antarctica. His subjects also tend to extremes in their experiences: the final person to leave an abandoned leper colony; the lone survivor of a plane crash; a world-record-breaking mountaineer; a man chained indoors from childhood in complete silence; a conquistador who once chased an enemy on foot for 3,000km; and an environmentalist fascinated by Alaskan grizzly bears who was ultimately killed by one of the animals he loved.

Family Romance, LLC does share thematic concerns with Herzog’s more familiar mode. Most of his characters are connected by a thread of loneliness, an emotion rampant in modern Japan and conspicuous in his new film. Furthermore, the idea of renting family members fits easily into an oeuvre teeming with the bizarre. What disappointed me most about the film was its focus on touristy Tokyo: flowering cherry blossoms, bullet trains, a robot hotel, the teen culture hot spot of Takeshita street, the Shibuya Scramble crossing, a cuddly animal petting café, and so on. It struck me as instructive, however, that Herzog had brought his artist-anthropologist’s eye to bear on a crowded, technologically sophisticated city after decades of seeking remoteness and seclusion.

In the early years of globalization, the dominant view was that this new historical process would homogenize the world. People took differing moral stances about this development but the link between globalization and cultural erasure was accepted across the political spectrum. What commentators failed to acknowledge sufficiently was the dynamic interaction between local cultural traits and the products of transnational corporations. Take the coffee chain Starbucks and its clones, for instance: They sell very few espressos in India. Instead, the old Indian love of sweet, milky drinks has found a new avenue for satisfaction.

One of the many epiphanies I had on my first visit to Japan last year came in a Starbucks within Shinjuku station, the world’s busiest railway junction. After we paid for our coffees, we were directed to the other end of the counter, where we found the beverages waiting for us. There was no taking down of names and screaming them out when the order was ready. Having occupied the lone empty table, we found ourselves having to speak almost in whispers so as not to intrude into other conversations or disturb those absorbed in telephones or laptops.

Accustomed as we were to shouting across tables in cacophonous restaurants and cafés back home, the hush within the packed Starbucks felt unreal.

Equally astonishing was the maintenance of physical distance within crowded local trains. Commuters in Tokyo queue up along markers on both sides of where train doors open and calmly let people exit down the middle before entering. Once inside a compartment, if no places are vacant, they stand in a neat file facing seated travellers so that nobody in the seats is inches away from a standing passenger’s butt.

There are few public trash cans in Tokyo, and yet the streets are perfectly clear of litter. Despite the city’s hectic pace, residents finish eating food where they buy it and use the vendor’s garbage bin, rather than risk spillage by taking sips and bites as they walk.

I could go on about the toilets, the hotel rooms, the shops and the food, each of which provided its own revelations, but instead will skip to my realization at the end of the vacation, which was twofold. First, the most eye-opening incidents of the visit did not involve novel stimuli or glorious monuments but rather customs I had read or heard about, some of which could be classified as cultural clichés. The lived experience of these was of a very different order than anything I expected.

Second, many of the modes of conduct essential to the creation of Japan’s harmonious public life involve following codes of behaviour rather than rules. There is, for example, no law against eating as you walk down a street, nor is there a statute regarding which way to face while standing in a train, yet everybody adheres to the code. To explain this in terms of game theory, where there is a tussle between cooperation and conflict, between minimizing risk and maximizing potential individual profit, Japan has come down consensually on the side of cooperation. The system depends on the inculcation of civic consciousness at least as much as it is does on the enforcement of laws.

A good illustration of this is a fascinating YouTube video about school lunch in Japan that has garnered over 25 million views. It shows children in the fifth grade taking charge of freshly cooked school meals, serving food to their classmates, returning neatly stacked dishes to the kitchen, preparing empty milk cartons for recycling, and, during a second break, sweeping and swabbing the classrooms and corridors. It would be fair to say this is not the normal experience of school break anywhere outside East Asia.

As they prepare to serve and eat lunch, the children wear masks, gowns and hair nets. Most of the recent comments on this part of the video refer to the pandemic, which has made masks ubiquitous accessories. Japan is recognized as an anomaly in the disease’s spread, having avoided mass casualties without imposing a stringent lockdown. It managed this despite having a low testing rate and the highest median age of any large nation. Its success, still provisional it must be stressed, is due to a complex set of factors, some yet to be understood. There is no doubt, however, that the behaviour patterns I have described played a beneficial role. When national, state and city administrations asked people to wear masks, avoid crowds and stay at home if possible, Japanese citizens did exactly that without complaint.

What can India gain from studying Japan’s success against covid-19? In my opinion, precious little. It is impossible to transpose habits cultivated over a lifetime to a different culture and historical context. Trying to replicate them would be as futile as opening a business in India providing family members on hire.

Girish Shahane writes on politics, history and art.

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