OP-ED: No handshakes, more face masks: What I learned from Japan about battling COVID-19

Michael Lev
Chicago Tribune (TNS)
Japan's Princess Aiko, daughter of Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako, wearing a face mask following an outbreak of the COVID-19 coronavirus, bows as she attends her graduation ceremony at Gakushuin Girls' Senior High School in Tokyo on March 22, 2020. (Issei Kato/POOL/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

When the pandemic lifts, what will you look forward to doing? Choices include getting a haircut, going to a baseball game or exchanging palm sweat with strangers. I’m sorry, I meant, shaking hands.

To defeat the coronavirus and prevent future outbreaks, Americans need to reassess some ingrained social customs and lax sanitary practices that once were no big deal but during this crisis generate a collective “ewww.”

Shaking hands is one. I’m also wondering why we didn’t previously embrace the use of face masks in public to prevent contagions from spewing. And while I’m at it, have you ever considered how Americans regularly traipse into strangers’ homes wearing their dirty, germy shoes? Like I said, ewww.

I’ve been thinking about pandemic protections because I lived in Japan, where the traditions of bowing instead of handshakes, using face masks and removing shoes before entering homes are deep-rooted and hygienic. It’s too soon to know if practices common to Asian cultures have helped reduce the rate of COVID-19 transmission there, but it would make sense.

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I arrived in Tokyo as the Chicago Tribune’s correspondent in February 1996 — in other words, during flu season. One of the first stories I wrote explored a fascinating phenomenon: Why did city streets look like surgery wards? Why did so many people — especially the elderly — wear face masks?

The answers I got were both practical and cultural. The Japanese told me they wore masks because they didn’t want to share their sniffles with anyone else, and to avoid the latest bug spreading through Tokyo’s packed commuter trains. They wore masks to reduce the effects of airborne pollen and just to keep warm. Some applied the reasoning of Eastern medicine: A mask helped preserve the delicate balance in nature between dry winter air and a person’s inner moisture. “When you get older, there’s less fat in your body, so you get drier,” one older gent said, explaining his theory to me. “The mask shuts down cold and dry air from coming into your body. It’s good for health.”

It remained an oddity to me until 2003 when I was reporting from China on the SARS epidemic. I couldn’t decide what was most eerie about Beijing in the grips of an epidemic — the normally packed Xidan Mall being devoid of shoppers, or the white masks covering the faces of all the sales clerks.

For my 1996 Tribune article about face masks, I wanted to understand how much of the Japanese tradition was based on cultural norms vs. universal practicality. In other words, was the concept exportable to the U.S.? Tadahiko Kuraishi, a professor of folklore at Kokugakuin University, told me he saw numerous ritualistic connections. Tradition holds that one covers the mouth with a white piece of paper when touching a sacred object in a shrine, he said. Samurai warriors did the same while polishing their swords.

Other customs embedded in Japanese culture include bowing instead of handshakes and the removal of shoes before entering a temple, shrine or home. None seem likely to gain widespread acceptance in the U.S. So much for identifying new tools to beat the coronavirus.

But then I thought about the many Americans who made Japan home and embraced the culture. People like Karl “Tuffy” Rhodes, a former Chicago Cubs outfielder who went on to have a spectacular playing career in Japan, where I interviewed him in 2004. The key to Rhodes’ success, I wrote, was his learning to speak Japanese and adapt to a tradition-bound culture that often is wary of foreigners. One time, after being suspended for charging the mound, Rhodes performed the required ritual of formally apologizing to the team president, the manager and his teammates — in Japanese — for hurting the team. With each apology, Rhodes bowed. “I am very sorry,” he said. “I won’t be allowed to play for three games. Please do your best and wait for me to return.” Imagine a member of the Cubs or White Sox doing that after a brawl. Rhodes changed his behavior because it was required for him to have success.

So maybe, under extreme circumstances such as the threat of a pandemic, American cultural practices can change. Maybe it’s already happening. Look around at the supermarket. We’re doing what’s necessary to keep safe. We’re all wearing masks. Take a bow. And leave your shoes at the door.

— Michael Lev is a member of the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board.