[Viewpoint] Japan flu response rooted in history

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[Viewpoint] Japan flu response rooted in history

When Choi See-joong, chairman of the Korea Communications Commission, and his entourage visited Japan on May 10, they were held up at Narita International Airport for more than an hour.

During a quarantine inspection inside the airplane, health officials discovered that the body temperature of a journalist who was traveling with the group was 37. 8 degrees Celsius, or about 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Most journalists in the group were then isolated temporarily.

The Japanese government uses 38 degrees as the benchmark for quarantine when trying to determine if a person might have been infected with the new influenza virus A(H1N1).

But quarantine authorities have their own regulations: If a person’s body temperature can simply be rounded up to 38 degrees, the person is immediately isolated. When officials checked the journalist again, he recorded 37.4 degrees and the entire group was set free, fortunately. Just .1 or .2 degrees higher, and the group would have been held in isolation near the airport for a week.

Japanese companies employ very strict steps as well.

Dentsu, an advertising agency, makes its employees who have traveled abroad stay home for five days before returning to work. The company does not let visitors from other countries into its headquarters. If an employee must meet a visitor outside the company, the employee must wear a mask.

One journalist had to wait at home for 10 days before going back to work because he had traveled to Korea during the holidays in early May. The main gate of NEC headquarters has an infrared camera to check whether employees have a fever. On the streets and in the subway and just about everywhere, you see people wearing masks.

It seems that the Japanese are overreacting.

Although the number of Japanese infected by the virus has increased, none of the patients are seriously ill. The country has enough Tamiflu and Relenza, drugs that fight the new influenza, for 38 million people, or one-third of the entire population.

As I complained about all of this, one of my Japanese acquaintances gave an explanation.

“Hearing the word ‘avirulence,’ Koreans would think it is not serious at all, but it is the other way around for the Japanese. We think, ‘The Spanish flu that killed many Japanese was an avirulent virus in the beginning, too.’ We tend to interpret things in a totally different way.”

When Spanish flu broke out in Kansas in May of 1918, it was first called a three-day cold. In six months, however, the virus mutated. In Japan alone, 453,000 people died from the Spanish flu.

Just as the new flu had mutated so that it could be transmitted from person to person, it might also suddenly become even stronger because it it has the same structure as the Spanish flu virus. This is how the Japanese think.

It is difficult to compare today with the early 20th century, because there was no concept of a virus back then. The Japanese reaction to the H1N1 influenza shows their values in life.

The Japanese are more accustomed to avoiding the worst rather than choosing the best. When a businessman keeps a business open for a long time even if it does not produce big profits, it is much appreciated.

It is in the same context that the Japanese admire former leader Tokugawa Ieyasu, who endured all kinds of agony and always chose to avoid the worst. We should not mock their attitude.

Of course, it would be great if one could find a balance between Koreans, who get easily excited by best-case scenarios, and the Japanese, who worry about the worst-case scenario.

*The writer is the Tokyo correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Hyun-ki
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