After a slow start Japan’s national rate of vaccination against the coronavirus is rapidly advancing toward the top of the G7, but the insidious side effect of “corona bullying” continues to cause high levels of anxiety across the country.
Cases of corona bullying have been widely reported among school age children and by adults in the workplace.
The Japanese central government has been taking the lead to combat corona bullying, but discriminatory micro-aggressions are still difficult to prevent.
Even though the number of fully vaccinated people who reside in Japan is now approaching 80% of the total population and the number of corona cases has declined dramatically during the past few weeks, lingering just under the surface at many schools and workplaces is the guileful influence of a new phenomenon called “corona bullying.” There is, unfortunately, no quick remedy for this insidious side effect of the global pandemic.
What Is Corona Bullying?
Discrimination or Prejudice Due to Having the Corona Virus
Bullying is a sad event that can happen to anyone, at any time, for any small reason. Since the coronavirus made it to Japan there has been no end to the number of cases where a comment such as, “He has corona,” or “I heard that she has become a close contact,” leads to bullying. It seems that there is prejudice and discrimination due to the coronavirus not only among children but also among full-grown adults in the workplace.
Sometimes when a child has returned to school or when a company employee has returned to work after suffering from the coronavirus or after being suspected of being a close contact with a patient, they may be unjustly assaulted with verbal taunts such as “Stay away from me” or “Don’t touch me.” Even more likely, they may be excluded from conversation or outright ignored. Almost immediately after the beginning of the pandemic cases of discrimination were reported. “I can’t leave my child at nursery school” or “I won’t play with him/her because his/her parents are medical workers or working at welfare facilities” has, unfortunately, become an all too familiar refrain.
One child explained that someone had posted a sign on the door of their family’s home. It read,
Someone in this family has corona.
The child continued,
I was treated as a germ by other children at my school because I came from a city with many infected people.
It is enough to make you think, “Isn’t this against the law?” As if living in fear of the threat of the coronavirus was not enough, also facing the potential for bullying and discrimination can be overwhelming for some.
Corona Virus Bullying Among School Age Children
Here are some examples of actual cases of bullying and discrimination caused by the coronavirus.
One mother of two children, ages 14 and 10, named Ms. T, explained,
My husband contracted Covid, and, as a result of the whole family being in close contact with the disease, somehow only my eldest daughter, a junior high school student, contracted it. Her symptoms were mild. Thus, after recuperating at home she went back to school for the first time after about two weeks. At school some of her classmates greeted her by saying, ‘Oh my God, she’s here!
Ms. T. continued,
Even the kids who didn’t say it out loud somehow avoided her or kept their distance. My daughter came home that day in tears. I was worried that she might say, ‘I don’t want to go back.’ Luckily, some of her more understanding classmates told her, ‘I’m sorry that I can’t give you a hug right now because of the atmosphere, but I’m glad you’re better. You’ll be back to normal in a little while.
That case had a positive ending, but the experience definitely left scars on all those involved.
Another mother of two children ages 11 and 6, Ms. S, detailed what occurred after her son stopped going to school because he was asked to stay home during a contact tracing investigation,
My son is not going to school because one of his classmates in his 5th grade class contracted corona. This developed into a strange rumor among other children at his school who had no knowledge of the situation. It led to bullying. He was ignored and told ‘Don’t touch me” when he returned to school. It all proved to be too much, and now he has stopped attending that school.
Some of the bullying does not even involve an actual case of the coronavirus.
Ms. H, the mother of a 7-year-old daughter, exclaimed,
My daughter had strep throat and was absent for three days, but she was accused of having Covid. After recovering and returning to school, some kids started screaming, ‘It was corona, wasn’t it? It’s corona! Corona! Corona!’
Ms. H. continued,
After their teacher scolded the bullies and explained the situation, the children who made a fuss or did something terrible apologized. There were, however, other children who continued to talk behind my daughter’s back.
When my daughter asks, ‘What should I do?’ I tell her, ‘Just play with them normally,’ but it is a sad and difficult problem.
You would think that adults would be more tolerant.
Discrimination At the Workplace
Bullying is, however, not limited to children. Discrimination and corona bullying seems to occur not only among children, but even among adults at work, mothers, friends, and relatives.
Ms. K, a medical worker who is also the mother of a 5-year-old daughter, contracted corona and was quarantined at a hotel. She commented,
My husband and daughter were also considered to be close contacts. After several PCR tests, the public health center finally gave us the green light that all of us were fully recovered. Thus, we finally decided to send our daughter back to school.
At first, everything seemed like it was back to normal. Ms. K. continued,
My daughter’s nursery school teacher greeted her, ‘Long time, no see, A-chan! I’m so happy for you! It’s been a long time since you were here! You’re doing great!’
Her sense of relief was short-lived. Almost immediately another mother of a child in the same class approached. She had, apparently, been waiting to confront Ms. K. at the gate of the school. The woman grilled her about her PCR tests, but she did not seem convinced that Ms. K. and her daughter should be back at school. The experience caused Ms. K. to wonder,
Is this corona discrimination?
In another example Ms. U., the mother of a 10 and 8-year-old, described,
My husband was the one who got corona, and he was treated like a pariah at work…He was hospitalized for a few days and then recuperated at home. I also took a break from work until my husband’s recuperation period was over. After taking a PCR test, I returned to work.
Ms. U’s problems were just beginning. She continued,
I explained the situation to my boss, but somehow the rumor mill had already gotten started. When I coughed for a moment, he said, ‘Hey! Don’t spread the Covid!’ and then proceeded to make a big deal of wiping down the copy machine with disinfectant after I had used it.
To be honest, at that time I just wanted to disappear. I understand that everyone is afraid of corona, but I don’t think that this extreme fear is warranted…I’m seriously considering a transfer.
Sometimes discrimination can occur even closer to home.
Ostracism in the Family
Ms. E, the mother of a 3-year-old, explained how her mother-in-law, who lives in the same home, treats her and her husband as ‘germs’ just because they take public transportation to work. This is despite the fact that she and her husband have not contracted the coronavirus. Ms. E’s mother-in-law told her to stay away from her, spray everything with disinfectant upon arrival at home, not to take a bath before her (bathwater is often shared in Japan), and to cook separately.
To Ms. E, her mother-in-law’s draconian rules are also a form of corona discrimination.
Ms. E. mentioned, however, that there have been contradictions. She said,
My mother-in-law is lenient toward her grandchildren who go to daycare. She also neglects to abide by the same protocol for disinfecting after coming home from going shopping or to the hairdresser.
While it sounds as though Ms. E’s relationship with her mother-in-law was strained even before the outbreak of the coronavirus, the disease has certainly made things worse.
Numerous examples of corona bullying appear in the Twittersphere, too.
In Japan, inter-prefectural (state) travel has been frowned upon as a means of reducing the spread of the coronavirus. As a result, some drivers have taken to identifying where they live with homemade stickers next to their license plates.
Using the Japanese hashtag #コロナいじめ(“corona bullying”), Hirohige kicked off an intense Twitter exchange with more than 300 people by tweeting,
I snapped this photo of a car on my way to work this morning in Sendai. This guy went to the trouble of making a sticker that says “I live in Sendai,” because of his out-of-state license plate must have been causing him grief. Has the situation really gotten this bad?…
Most of the reactions on Twitter to this exchange were expressions of sadness.
All of this begs the question “What can be done about this problem?”
What Can Be Done about Corona Bullying?
While at the end of the day the solution rests upon everyone’s personal commitment to avoid misinformation, leadership from the nation’s experts and from those in power is needed.
Recognition by the Central Government
Japan’s central government recognized early on that something must be done. Beginning in August 2020 the Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) declared,
We must prevent discrimination and prejudice related to new coronavirus infections.
MEXT launched a new campaign entitled “Preventing Discrimination and Prejudice Related to Novel Coronavirus Infections” and developed a set of videos for teachers that can be used in class along with handouts for parents.
The videos address the issues of illness, anxiety, and discrimination. There are prompts to have children think about how to react appropriately. After watching the videos, children learn how to deal with infected people, close contacts, and people who are in contact with infected people.
The central government has also taken the lead to protect adults.
Prevention of On-the-Job (OJT) Discrimination
The most extreme cases of workplace discrimination associated with corona bullying have led to dismissal when a worker became infected. While those cases are rare, more commonly some workers have refused to send their children to on-site daycare (e.g., at a hospital) because of infections at the workplace.
To prevent these types of problems, the central government partially revised the “Act on Special Measures against H1N1, Influenza, etc.” in February 2021. It now includes provisions to prevent prejudice and discrimination. The intention is to protect the human rights of infected people, their families, and medical personnel. Although the national and local governments are continuing to strive to understand the actual situation and increase public awareness, there is only so much that they can do to inhibit microaggressions.
To a large extent the new, beefed-up rules are working to prevent overt and visible discrimination, but in today’s internet-savvy society there is a growing tendency to identify the names, residences, and actions of infected people and those who have come into close contact with them, and to publicize and condemn them on social networking sites. There is a theory that bullying, blaming, and discrimination due to the coronavirus are born from the psychology that due to anxiety about an invisible enemy such as a virus, people regard a specific target as a “visible enemy” and make it an object of dislike.
Although it took a while to get started, Japan’s national vaccination campaign has certainly picked up steam fast. While this is encouraging, it is important to recognize that the unwanted legacy of corona bullying is still lurking just below the surface. It is, moreover, likely to remain an issue for quite some time.
Mark Kennedy is a native of Chicago who has spent more than 20 years living, studying, and working in Japan. By day he is Country Head - Business Development, Nexdigm - Japan but becomes a writer after work. Mark is a lifelong student of the Japanese language and culture. He loves to travel throughout the country. Mark also is the author behind the "Real Gaijin" Substack, countryroadsjapan.com, as well as the Country Roads Japan and Coastal Sailing Japan YouTube channels. Photo supplied courtesy of the author who had stopped to check out the free-roaming horses and cows about half-way up to the summit of Mt. Aso, an active volcano in the center of Kyushu.