Masked passengers wait for a train at Shinjuku station in Tokyo on June 17, 2021, after Japan announced that a virus state of emergency in Tokyo and several other regions would be lifted on June 20, just over a month before the Olympics. Photo: AFP / Charly Triballeau

Boarding a subway or commuter train in Tokyo, one often hears announcements urging riders to be considerate of public etiquette. No eating, no drinking, no loud talking, lest an unruly rider makes the train uncomfortable for others.

Generally, commuters comply. The result is often packed trains in rush hours moving in silence. People of all ages and walks of life stand awkwardly shoulder-to-shoulder but emit no ambient noise aside from overly loud headphones, ruffles of newspapers, and terse apologies among strangers bumping into one another.

The continued vigilance of government authorities and the general public about the risk of Covid-19 infections has only made this persistent Japanese “train etiquette” culture more commonplace.

Walking through gyms, shopping malls, or even restaurants in the center of Tokyo these days, one would find posters extolling the benefits of low voices, long distances, and short interactions for the prevention of Covid infections. It is as if “silence is gold” has become even more of a social norm, not just in train carriages but everywhere a significant number of strangers mingle in a crowded, packed space. 

Sacrificing mental health for public health

Indeed, the lack of public interactions among strangers has been a resilient feature of Japanese society well before Covid, with negative social consequences.

Many a foreigner newly arrived in the country notes that Japanese people simply do not approach others, with the country’s citizens some of the least likely in the world to offer help to those they do not know.

Survey results indicate that a large segment of the population feels lonely, as defined by not being able to name anyone they can talk to and rely on in times of trouble. The increased rates of remote work due to Covid have only intensified the sense of loneliness, especially among those in their 20s and 30s.

The mental health of the Japanese people has not benefited from the long-standing dearth of public interactions.

Yet as Covid infection and death rates in Japan remain below those among its global counterparts, some have hypothesized that the Japanese culture of distant social relations has benefited its public health.

Aspects of the culture, from voluntary self-restriction in excessive outdoor activities (jishuku) to the country’s generally high levels of civilized behavior (mindo), have been credited for the country, at least so far, having escaped relatively unscathed from Covid outbreaks.

The tendency for strangers to stay far away from one another, both physically and socially, certainly contributes to the supposed Japanese cultural superiority in keeping Covid at bay.

As such, the continued incentive for people to remain silent and distant toward strangers in public spaces threatens to negate any efforts to reduce Covid-related stress and loneliness.

If government authorities and members of the general public continue to suggest that the Japanese culture of social distance is an effective tool to keep the country’s Covid infection rates low, it will remain tone-deaf to promoting activities and behavior that encourage social mingling.

There will be fewer opportunities for people to seek new friends and partners outside their immediate social networks without triggering cultural backlashes. Invisible walls among strangers will only be entrenched, with new justifications on public health grounds.

Could Japan-style distancing go global?

The persistence of the Japanese sense of distant cultural relations has global implications. The relative success of Japan and other Asian countries in battling Covid has led to some in other parts of the world wondering whether some aspects of Asian culture should be implemented elsewhere for the sake of fighting the pandemic.

If casually speaking to strangers comes to be perceived as a vice in more places around the world, the idiosyncrasies of silent Japanese public spaces may persist not only in Japan but also in more places around the world.

The resulting “Japanization” of public social relationships would potentially sacrifice mental health around the world for the sake of pushing back Covid.

Of course, the persistence of distant social relations, Japanese style, is not a foregone conclusion. A growing number of studies outside Japan argue that Covid-related restrictions have reduced necessary socialization, especially among children and youth, leading to prolonged mental-health issues and difficulties with social interactions even after restrictions are dropped.

As large parts of the world begin to accept that Covid now is an endemic illness that cannot be eradicated, the desire by government authorities and the general public is to push for more interactions harking back to the pre-Covid era, not the persistent distanced one characteristic of Japan.

For all the hype about Japanese culture keeping the country safe from Covid, the appeal of its culture to foreign audiences may quickly fade as anxieties about the deadliness of Covid recedes.

Xiaochen Su

Xiaochen Su PhD is a business risk consultant in Tokyo, as well as the founder and managing director of the Study Abroad Research Institute, a Tokyo-based non-profit organization promoting international education. He previously worked in East Africa, Taiwan, South Korea and Southeast Asia.