Theory Teacher's Blog

Tokyo Diaries 1: Japan vs. Swine Flu

I just arrived in Tokyo last night, with seven students for the beginning of a 17-day study-abroad adventure that I have been planning for months with my usual stressed-out inefficiency. What I didn’t plan on was Japan’s paranoia about the H1N1 virus, a.k.a. “swine flu,” and it was stupid of me not to plan on this considering that I was forewarned about it by our diligent and conscientious host here in Tokyo and considering that every other country on the planet, including my own, hs been behaving… well… batshit crazy about swine flu for the past few weeks — yes, that’s right, I said that: in my opinion, batshit crazy. Before my experience yesterday, I wasn’t going to blog about my theories about the swine flu, in part because it’s almost too easy to demystify and so not really worth the effort... and in part because my theories are even more batshit crazy.

So here’s what happened. We had to fill out a form on the plane, a form that looked like it had been typed up by a student intern at Japan’s Ministery of Health and photocopied. The English version had all sorts of strange grammar, that is common on… for instance… a Japanese students composition for 11th grade English… or a mom & pop restaurant’s attempt to include English on its menu, but really odd for a Japanese government document. One question was barely legible, but basically the whole of the document wanted all the passengers on the plane to answer the question, “might you have swine flu?” The irony of this line of questioning is who’d want to admit any symptoms and risk getting quarantined? After we landed, we had to stay in the plane and close all of the windows, and then a troop of young people with goggles, surgical masks, and plastic gloves descended upon us to review our filled-out forms passenger by passenger. Meanwhile, another man came in with what looked like a fancied-up video-cam-corder but was apparently some kind of scanner that could read our temperatures.  He walked up and down the aisles pointing it at each of us, and looking at us from behind his goggles. After they finished their sweep and collected all the forms, they discovered a problem. One form was missing. Who hadn’t turned in a form? So we all had to wait until they figured it out…. Then they handed out certificates of passing the exam, a complementary mask, and… bade us good day.

Now, before I go further, I’m going to apologize for not doing what I usually do before I post a blog — a little bit of research on the old internet. But I’m in a foreign country, the computer in the dormitory we are using is all in Japanese (which is why my formatting is messed up), and… it’s four in the bleepin’ morning. The only reason I’m even blogging right now is because of jet lag. But from what I understand, this sort of scanning has been pretty common around the world, not just in Japan. What impresses me most is how expensive this kind of surveillance and policing of national borders must be. I sat there the whole time calculating the cost: six or seven personnel… for an hour of work… for every single international flight…. And all for the flu.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m all for the World Health Organization policing diseases and solving medical emergencies, but I’m sure that if you read this blog you’re all knowledgeable of the data here. On average, millions of people around the world get the flu every year, and thousands die from it… and this is all everyday reality. Now in the case of swine flu in the United States, we’re talking just a few hundred cases and just two deaths, and both deaths were to people with other health problems. Certainly all death is tragic, but what makes this swine flu cause for such alarm?


I have this batshit crazy theory that wacked-out medical emergencies are ways for the public to displace their fears about other things onto more conceptually manageable problems. In fact, my research on medical discourse in the eighteenth century has uncovered this kind of metonymic displacement and metaphoric condensation going on back then: for instance, the notion of small pox vaccinations really freaked people out, and so did diseases associated with transatlantic trade.

What we have going on right now is economies around the world in recession, unemployment rates rising… and the causes of this recession seem to be somehow caused by the chaotic nature of global capitalism. In other words, bad things are happening and these things are beyond our full comprehension and our control. So, enter a conveniently named disease: swine flu. The disease would seem to me to be a metaphor for the challenges of globalization, as stock markets and job markets struggle to risk being “infected” by the sub-prime loan virus.

And so it’s not surprising that nations respond to the disease the same way they respond to the vicissitudes of global capitalism… by being nationalistic. So, the tenor of the rhetoric in Japan goes something like this: “we don’t have such health problems here in Japan; that’s a problem lesser countries have… see how diligent and careful and clean we are here… how pure.”

And how else do we explain the government of Egypt’s batshit crazy decision to ban all pork. It’s one thing when the general public confuses the cause of the disease with its name, but when a government completely ignores scientific fact, the clear and present question on everyone’s mind should be, “what the fuck?”

Now, again, I apologize since unlike in other blog posts, I’m just talking here, and I haven’t done my research, but my guess is that banning pork in Egypt is yet another case whereby the response to a disease is just as much an expression of national identity as it is an expression of legitimate medical concern… just like in Japan. (And I’m not saying it’s not a legitimate concern, just that the response seems to express something else as well.) In the case of Egypt, Muslims don’t eat pork anyway, so banning pork isn’t a policy that anyone would call “radical” for a predominantly Muslim country. Like in the United States, banning the eating of whale meat didn’t exactly bother anyone.

So, the upshot of this blog post is that medical responses to disease sometimes seem to be as much about the reproduction of national identities and the displacement of other anxieties as they seem to be about the medicine.


May 12, 2009 - Posted by | Japan


  1. Steve, I’m sorry you have jet lag, and I wish you the very best on the rest of your trip to Japan. And I don’t think your ‘displacement’ theory is batshit crazy — in fact, I think it could be applied to a lot of different things, as you’ve explained with previous pandemic disease scares. Human beings displace all kinds of other emotions on the people surrounding them — why should displacing fear of one thing with fear of another be any different?

    Comment by Megan G | May 12, 2009 | Reply

  2. Hopefully the jeg lag will be over soon. We’ve had a relaxing day today.

    Meanwhile, for more on this incident… and for a picture of everyone with their certificates, here’s one of my students’ blogs about it:

    Comment by steventhomas | May 13, 2009 | Reply

  3. I don’t think the pig farmers in Egypt will agree with you that the decision to kill all pigs (I don’t mean it that way, you commie) was not a big deal… There were riots about it. Interestingly though, this is very much a choice that only affects the Coptic minority and apparently garbage collectors who use pigs for organic waste. This fits interestingly in your theory, in that only from a religious/cultural nationalistic point of view does can this be considered a healthy thing to do–since for the Muslim majority, pigs are unholy anyway, whether or not they are related to disease.

    Comment by Greg | May 13, 2009 | Reply

  4. As Megan G. said, your theory is not at all bat-shit. We are in the middle of a global recession, and so there is massive displaced freak-out. Although I haven’t read into this in a few years, I do remember either learning or noticing in Epidemiology that when epidemics and pandemics hit during times of economic hardship or war, the response to it is often amplified, often in the nationalistic, sometimes chauvanistic way. I’ll post again if I find concrete examples.

    FYI — contrary to what is incorrectly reported in newcasts, the “H1N1” virus is NOT a pandemic. According to most health agencies, pandemics are not only highly infectious, but also have a high mortality rate and affect a much larger portion of the global population.

    Comment by M--- | May 13, 2009 | Reply

  5. Hey Steve. I linked to your post on my blog. You are not batshit crazy. Good luck in Japan!

    Comment by Dr. J | May 14, 2009 | Reply

  6. […] Madoffian financial system, in much the same way that my colleague over there  in Japan right now sees the swine flu as a metonymic displacement of globalization anxieties. We’re crazy about Bernie, to put it […]

    Pingback by Seven Red » Bernieland | May 17, 2009 | Reply

  7. steve, nice blog. place is interesting, powerful, world changing perhaps (right person right place right time =…?). helpful thoughts on mastery of (traumatic?) fear by controlling things— swine flu. and interesting that you see it as a possible expression of identity. it is, i guess, although i feel like national expressions of identity are so rooted in mirroring and anxiety sometimes that it’s more of a decision under pressure…. but maybe the nation was waiting for the right moment to express itself. or did they just jump on the first scary, containable thing?

    i haven’t read blogs much, but you make me want to write one, it seems like it is a good way of experiencing things and then expressing them in a healthy waxing and waning way. and oh yea, i like that you shared that you prepared for the trip with stressed out inefficiency. funny. thanks again.

    Comment by Sara '93 | May 19, 2009 | Reply

  8. Follow Up:

    I was talking to one of my Japanese friends about this yesterday, and she pointed out something pretty interesting, in light of some sadly amusing news about a high school teacher whose Model United Nations club had contracted swine flu during their trip to New York last week. He cried on TV.

    My friend’s point, which I think is a good one, is that one of the reasons the average Japanese person is stressing out about the swine flu is that nobody wants to be THAT PERSON on the nightly news that has been singled out as THE CASE. So, people go out of their way so as to not be that person. And institutions such as schools go out of their way so as not to be that institution — the one that screwed up.

    But, as I thought about my friend’s point, I noticed that there is a strange paradox in media’s representation. The crying person on the news is both typical and atypical at the same time. He is atypical in the sense that he is the extreme case — he represents what everyone does not want to be. He represents the limit of Japanese-ness. But he is typical in the sense that the media implies that if you leave Japan and go to New York, it is highly probably that you will get swine flu.

    Of course, as my friend noted, the media never mentions the thousands of instances of people traveling between Tokyo and New York with no problem. It only mentions the one case in which it is a problem. And oddly, what makes the news exciting for the viewer is precisely the poor crying individual’s atypicality. And in reality, he is atypical, since it is actually highly unlikely that one will contract swine flu.

    What is interesting here is that at the same time that the media implies that you their representation is the norm, i.e., is factual, it relies precisely on the abnormality of the case for its news-worthiness, i.e., its value as information.

    And this is why TV news is shit.

    Comment by steventhomas | May 25, 2009 | Reply

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