Come on, play along: picture ‘influenza’ as the title for a low-budget horror B-movie, complete with the stuttering title frame, ‘INFLUENZA! It’s coming to get you!’ And cheapo “dun-dun-daaaah” music. Because that’s exactly how Japan reacts to the flu every winter: like an invisible Godzilla.
So, right about now in Japan (January-February) is the ‘flu season’. I remember this period all too well last year, when I still taught at schools. The second one student slouches off to the nurses office and shows the signs of インフルエンザ (“Influenza”, so terrifying it is referred to in full name here, like Voldemort, only the other way around) the school launches into quarantine/siege mode. Tables with hand sanitizer sprout up on every corner like some kind of Red-Light District for hygiene, the windows are bolted shut, and a Whiteboard Memorial chart tallying the fallen students goes up under the school schedule. It’s a teacher’s solemn duty to erase a ‘2’ and write a ‘3’ sometimes, as though sending a telegram to the parents. Then, of course, sanitize their hands after. Dirty, dirty whiteboard marker.
I can’t speak for other schools, but in our staff room, stoves are wheeled in. You see, Japan doesn’t do radiators. If there was anything I could introduce to Japan, it would be a toss-up between radiators and Dandelion and Burdock. But stoves are the next best thing. They do the job reasonably well, except they can often befoul the staff room with the stench of oil (this includes classrooms too). This, however, I can deal with. What I find hard to abide is how the tops of our stoves have hulking great bowls of water boiling away on top of them. This, combined with the lack of air-circulation due to everything being shut, means that some 30-plus adults sit in a stew of each others exhalations for several hours each day, which is a recipe for catching the flu if ever there was one. That, and the humidity makes me feel oddly giddy. Add to this the tea-lady’s well intentioned serving up of hot lemon, and I even I wonder if I’m already ill.
I don’t mean to come across as though I know better by default, but I have to admit I find the ‘flu season’ in Japan fascinating, not just in how it copes with it, but how it prevents it. Everywhere you look, for kids and adults alike, are signs encouraging you to wash your hands, gargle and mask up (see above). No doubt, Japan works harder than any other nation to avoid falling ill, particularly the flu, and yet just as many people seem to tally up on the flu board as I recall during my own school days, if not more so. It’s surprisingly common for whole classes and entire schools to shut down because the flu has crippled their numbers so badly. Make of that what you will.