Among the Japanese public, the Olympics is a dirty word
A Dubliner in Japan hoped to ride the wave from the Rugby World Cup to the Olympics
Killian Barry is a 36-year-old teacher from Dublin who has been living in Japan for two years. He works as an assistant English teacher in Ehime prefecture, Shikoku
Killian Barry is a 36-year-old teacher from Dublin who has been living in Japan for two years as part of a career break. He works as an assistant English teacher in primary and junior high schools in Ehime prefecture, Shikoku
The last time I found myself among Irish accents was in Kobe, Japan’s beef capital, back in October 2019. I was in the stands to watch Ireland’s rugby team defeat Russia, having arrived in the country only a few months before. The spectacle of that World Cup was due to herald a new chapter of international cultural exchange and act as a test run for the Tokyo Olympics which was scheduled for less than a year later in 2020.
Life carries on, albeit with hand sanitiser, ubiquitous temperature checks and the mask-wearing that was already de rigueur in Japan
That was then. In Japan, it’s customary to prepare an emergency pack in case of earthquakes or typhoons, but this virus has been a bit of a curveball. My time here has, of course, coincided entirely with the fallout from the ongoing pandemic. As a compulsive planner who takes it personally when arrangements go awry, it’s been an unwelcome learning curve.
The coronavirus was slow to take hold in Japan and, relatively speaking, case numbers have remained low. There’s no legal basis for a lockdown here and the resulting whack-a-mole approach has allowed me a surprising degree of freedom, with the caveat that any events scheduled or plans made are likely to be scaled back, if not entirely derailed. We are urged to avoid the “3Cs” of closed spaces, crowded places and close-contact settings. Pleas for cooperation issued at both national and regional levels have been largely met with compliance.
To some extent, life carries on, albeit with hand sanitiser, ubiquitous temperature checks and the mask-wearing that was already de rigueur in Japan. Businesses are mostly open and some small-scale events proceed with restrictions in place. For a while, a contentious government campaign incentivised domestic travel to keep the economy ticking over. Back in February 2020, Japanese schools were among the first to close; they reopened three months later without precautions as extreme as those in Ireland, making my working life less complex than it might have been back home. However, with Japan now in the midst of a fourth wave and the rollout of vaccinations yet to start in earnest, there’s plenty of trepidation in the air.
Japan may be home to the most concentrated urban centres on the planet, but Tokyo and Osaka are worlds away from my rural environs. I’m fairly sheltered from a virus that until recently existed as a nebulous external threat represented mainly by the stimulus money and face masks that turned up in my letterbox.
Inevitably, though, the pandemic casts a shadow over my Japanese adventure. Limitations on domestic travel and social gatherings have denied me many of the unique experiences I came for. The cancellation of any one of the traditional festivals for the first time in living memory might have been a regret; a clean sweep of an entire calendar’s worth of events is one of my biggest disappointments.
While I’ve had more time to decipher the buttons on my kitchen appliances, I’m yet to endure the monotony that seems to characterise lockdown life. Instead, uncertainty, false hope and lamenting missed opportunities that may or may not come back around have been worst.
When Japan last closed its doors to the world, they didn’t reopen for 220 years. This time, the Olympics was to celebrate our return to normality
Entry bans and mandatory hotel quarantine have been in place for most of my time here. When Japan last closed its doors to the world, they didn’t reopen for 220 years. This time, the Olympics was to celebrate our return to normality. But as the ersatz version of a torch relay trundles by, people’s optimism has long turned to apprehension. There had been no question that the rescheduled Games would take place this summer and the authorities remain determined, but the stubborn persistence of this virus was not anticipated. Among the Japanese public, the Olympics is a dirty word.
I sometimes wonder about Dublin. I recognise that everything has been turned on its head, though it’s a tad too abstract to comprehend from here. The face masks I sent home as a novelty gift at Christmas 2019 turned out to be grimly prescient, but until I step out at arrivals at Dublin Airport, I can’t really grasp the impact on the life I’ve left on hiatus.
Visiting home has been out of the question. For a long time, I would have been refused re-entry to Japan if had I left, while I abandoned notions of returning for Christmas after my third set of flights was cancelled. Between reduced flight schedules, PCR tests that can cost upwards of € 300 and predicting which transit points might avoid hotel quarantine, moving home is a fiendish logistical quagmire, the reward for which is less likely to be family reunions with welcome banners than the Irish Defence Forces with nasal swabs.
At times I’ve felt short-changed, but Japan has been one of the better places to ride out this pandemic. I’ve had the luxury of venturing far from my apartment as well as privileged access to nifty shrines and castles without the crowds. I’ll miss the classroom, the cuisine and my efforts to crack kanji. I’ll also yearn for Japan’s reliable public transport, exceptional courtesy of service and hot drinks from the vending machines. It’s been a chaotic test of my adaptability, but compared to the trials and tribulations back home, the sheer novelty of it all is something I wouldn’t change for all the beef in Kobe.
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