This post is also available in: Japanese
My husband is currently tanshin funin, (a Japanese term meaning living alone away from family for work reasons) working in a boarding school just too far away to commute home every day. His apartment is in a building which used to be a sanatorium, for isolating people with tuberculosis, before WWII. Before a pharmaceutical cure was discovered, the thinking was that fresh air and sleeping outdoors was the way to cure tuberculosis. Unfortunately, this means there are huge, drafty windows and doors in the apartment, so it is freezing cold, even though there is central heating.
Although fresh air and sleeping outside does not actually cure tuberculosis, it transpires that having well ventilated rooms was a very effective way of preventing other people from catching tuberculosis. Similarly, sleeping outside was not a cure, but staying horizontal helped relieve the symptoms.
Europe’s public plagues, cholera and typhoid
This story of how tuberculosis was treated in Europe and now the spread of coronavirus around the world highlights how cultural differences might be rooted in each country’s history of disease. It also means there are still cultural barriers to selling healthcare products worldwide.
Medieval bubonic plagues in Europe were spread by fleas* and were controlled by quarantining households, cities and even regions. The cholera and typhoid epidemics in the 19th century were mainly caused by contaminated food and water, and controlled in industrialising northern European countries by improved public hygiene and sanitation for food and water supplies, and cured by the invention of antibiotics.
Japan’s household smallpox
Japan suffered more from smallpox epidemics – since at least the 8th century. These mostly affected children. Smallpox is transmitted by prolonged physical proximity, particularly skin to skin contact. So smallpox epidemics in Japan were mostly managed at the family or village level.
I wonder whether this history explains why Japanese people to this day do not shake hands or hug and kiss as much as the Europeans do. It could also explain why Japanese people are still in the habit of carrying a handkerchief around for drying their own hands, rather than blowing their noses into it, as Europeans do.
In the UK, to prevent being infected by the coronavirus, we have been told to wash our hands with soap, or use hand sanitizers if water and soap are not available, and to blow our noses, sneeze or cough into paper tissues and then dispose of them immediately. We’ve also been told to avoid handshaking, which we do less than Germans do anyway, and we never kissed and hugged as much as the Italians do.
As a consequence of government advice, British shops have run out of hand sanitizers, but apparently the incidence of other flu varieties (which can kill 1000s a year in the UK) has dropped dramatically. Maybe we British had become too reliant on state healthcare and intervention and are now learning we have to take the initiative ourselves and go back to old methods – just as my husband did. He has bought an old-fashioned hot water bottle to keep himself warm. Old familiar ways provide comfort in times of crisis.
*Although there has been some interesting research suggesting the Black Death may not have been bubonic but an Ebola type virus
This article was originally published in Japanese in the Teikoku Databank News on 8th April 2020
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