Why I’m Glad I Got Stuck in Japan During Covid-19

When the pandemic thwarted his long-held plan to leave Japan and return to America with his family, TW writer Tracy Jones felt desperate. Here, he reflects on why this feeling has changed.

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My six-year-old daughter, Kantra, was weeks away from graduating preschool when the virus spread. Japan’s infections had topped 1,000 with one confirmed death. I thought the virus was the flu by another name. I was sure Covid-19 wouldn’t affect our plan that had taken us almost a decade to reach its final phase. We were leaving Japan and moving to America, my home country. The World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a pandemic on the ninth anniversary of the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake. But in Japan, the number of coronavirus deaths had only reached 100. 

President Trump declared a state of emergency on the day of Kantra’s graduation. But here, under blooming cherry blossoms, hanami parties were everywhere. People were playing badminton and flying kites, and gangs of kids ran around unsupervised. With the nation’s schools closed due to the pandemic, parents, some of whom were teleworking, didn’t know what to do with their children. It was as if Orson Welles’ 1938 broadcast of The War of the Worlds was coaxing all of Japan to welcome the Martian invaders. Without panic, people smiled at the aliens and the spectral of their imperceptible threat. “Shoganai,” welcomers said. 

All the while, still preparing to make our desperate exodus, I was scouting schools, apartments and plane tickets. Then the 2020 Olympics got postponed by a year. Japan’s death toll hit 500. Prime Minister Abe declared a state of emergency. “We’re still going,” said my wife, Haruki. 

We debated moving earlier – in February – but we wanted Kantra to graduate first. She couldn’t wait to start elementary school in a galaxy far, far away. “You’re going to be an American girl,” Haruki used to say to her.

I’m African-American and Haruki is Japanese, and Kantra, on the skin-color spectrum, resembled my wife for the first few months of her life. But as she learned to walk, she started to become darker, like her father. In the summertime, she’s golden, living her life like Jill Scott. But here, Kantra’s brown skin contradicts Japan’s insular and homogenous society. As a toddler, Japanese kids cried and ran away from her, terrified. Some stood their ground, cocking back clenched fists. Looking at their fighting stance, she’d gasp, contemplating the greatest idea ever conjured. “Let’s play,” she’d say. “No,” kids would reply. Here, she’ll never be Japanese. 

“In America, she’ll meet other people that look like her, which is a refuge away from a majority that can’t relate to her experience.”

“We have to at least give her the opportunity to live in America. I’ll regret it if I don’t,” Haruki would say to me. We want Kantra to know that her skin isn’t a birth defect or a wondrous phenomenon. The human race is a continuum of hues and she is the embodiment of that fact. In America, she’ll meet other people that look like her, which is a refuge away from a majority that can’t relate to her experience. Prior to the pandemic, the locals watched our child grow up and, over the years, they got used to us. Our neighborhood became Kantra’s stomping grounds. “It’s okay, Dad, everybody knows me,” she’d say. Some of the playground kids even softened their defenses. In America, I would never let Kantra loose and turn my eye away from her, but in Japan, she’s become her own person, running up to random neighbors to say hi. 

Stuck in stay-home limbo now, Kantra hasn’t played with other kids in several months. When we go on social distancing walks, she sees kids on the playground. “Dad, why can’t I play outside? Please, I’ll stay away from everybody,” she begs. “No, honey, it’s not safe. I’m sorry. I know this sucks,” I reply. “This isn’t happening anywhere else in the world. Why is it just Japan?” “Honey, it is happening everywhere.” “America?” “India, Africa, China, Russia, all over the world,” Haruki says. “Well, why is everybody outside? Kids are playing on the playground,” asks our daughter. “In other countries, the parks are closed,” Haruki tells her.

“Stuck in Japan, feeling defeated, like a man with no country, I began to think about the nine years that I’ve lived here.”

In Japan, government officials refused to call the state of emergency a lockdown. People were determined to maintain life uninterrupted while incorporating some resemblance of social distancing. Respectfully, masks were worn in and outdoors – and still are. Patrons ate at restaurants that remained open. Those that closed, along with bars, organized takeout and street stands. Grocery stores remained crowded (although plastic curtains separated cashiers from customers). The parks swelled with parents letting their kids loose, dog walkers, joggers, cyclists and people watchers reeling from isolation and an acute awareness of the future’s uncertainty. Over the park’s speakers, a voice would tell people to go home. At times it felt like we were in a jail courtyard being told to go back to our cells, but with blankets spread and tents pitched, nobody would leave. 

Stuck in Tokyo, Haruki and I were devastated and stunned by this unfamiliar and sudden crisis. It was as if our years of tireless efforts to move were a raging trudge to a whimpering end. And while I thought it strange that Japanese people were acting as if nothing was happening, white men with AR-15s stormed Michigan’s state capitol to protest the lockdown. Louisville police broke into 26-year-old Breonna Taylor’s apartment, shooting her eight times. She died at the scene. Cops believed that her home was a narcotics drop spot, but no drugs were found there. Nor were the officers ever charged or arrested for her murder. 

“Though Japan seemed to escape the full wrath of the pandemic, Covid-19 was decimating America’s Black community.”

Two months later, a video surfaced of Ahmaud Arbery, a young unarmed Black man who was out jogging when two armed white men shot and killed him. Though Japan seemed to escape the full wrath of the pandemic despite Abe’s lack of leadership, Covid-19 was decimating America’s Black community while Trump explored ways to inject sunlight and bleach into the body. The American economy was almost free falling. Then, a second video of another unarmed Black man, George Floyd, showed him suffocating under a white cop’s knee pressing down on his neck. Lying on the street handcuffed, some of Floyd’s last words were calling for his mama. Like Eric Garner, Floyd cried, “I can’t breathe.” In a world that seemed to be soaked in bombing fluid, the incident ignited global riots and anti-racist protests that the world has never seen. 

For weeks, hundreds of thousands of Black, White, Asian, Arab and LGBTQ members have stood together. Unmoved by the police, they have taken direct but peaceful action. Even in Japan, thousands of protestors marched, chanting, “Black Lives Matter.” While cops have shot and killed more unarmed Black men and women, hours of video footage documenting police brutality continue to accumulate. Around the planet, slaveholder statues have been toppled and dragged through the streets. Journalists are getting arrested. People have lost eyes from police shooting rubber bullets. And in the midst of this looming virus that attacks the respiratory system, cops still use tear gas to subdue crowds, a chemical agent that is banned in war. Health officials warn that the gas could increase the spread of the coronavirus because it irritates the lungs, forcing people to cough. 

Stuck in Japan, feeling defeated, like a man with no country, I began to think about the nine years that I’ve lived here. No Japanese person has ever threatened my life or called me a racial slur. Watching the US death toll exceed 120,000, I looked at my wife and said, “I think we’re in the best possible place that we could be right now.” 

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