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Kaleidoscope of the Heart: Think of others before stocking up on masks in Japan

Rika Kayama

I'm currently studying Chinese, and I attended a lesson the other day. There, I saw a Chinese teacher wearing a face mask, so I asked them about it. The teacher apparently thought people taking lessons would be concerned about the new pneumonia-causing coronavirus if they didn't have a mask on.

"You can also put on a mask too, " they added. I smiled and replied, "You've been in Japan for a long time. I don't think that's necessary."

My teacher told me that face masks have disappeared from the racks at their local drugstores. They are apparently being sold for exorbitant prices online. Many of us are very cautious, and are probably so worried about the virus that we feel like we must be prepared, even if it means buying up products.

The situation reminds me of when batteries vanished from convenience stores in Tokyo after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake due to concerns over planned power outages. Water and food items were also scarce in the capital.

Around that time, I was scheduled to hold a lecture in the Kyushu region and traveled to southwestern Japan. The stores there still had plenty of stock, and I became tempted to buy a lot of these items to take back home. I remember thinking, however, "No, no, it would be odd to buy things I don't even need, even if they are right in front of me."

There are probably two types of people in the world: those who stock up on daily commodities and basically everything else before they run out, and others who go out to buy goods after they run out.

The former type is often believed to be earnest and well-organized, but psychologically speaking, such people can find it difficult to cope with changes and unexpected events. When they're left for too long in those kinds of stressful situations, some can apparently develop depression.

On the other hand, the latter type can be rather sloppy, but can also respond flexibly. Because they take action only after something occurs, they are less prone to being overwhelmed by stress as a result of worrying too much before anything happens.

Looking at Japanese society's reaction to the new coronavirus, I was reminded once again that many people in Japan are cautious but can't easily adapt to change. Buying up masks may be an indication of how careful they are. But if some people buy up face masks to stock up for the far future, there's a danger that others who need them will not have access to them, which could cause the coronavirus to spread even further as a result.

People should be cautious in times of need, but refrain from worrying too much about the future, and also think about others. This, of course is ideal, but hard to do.

There's a Japanese saying, "Be prepared and have no regrets," but being too prepared -- and buying up products -- may actually result in a regretful situation for someone. We need to be calm and think of others when doing something.

(By Rika Kayama, psychiatrist)

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