The Final Countdown, Part 5


   I began writing this column when I became the chief administrator at Matsuzawa Hospital in 2012. The present issue is the 18th in the series, which I began with a self-introduction and greeting on assuming my new post. I noticed on the other day, quite by accident, that the previous years’ issues until No. 13 in 2019 have a rather relaxed tone, but that from the October 2014 issue (No.14) on, in other words from the start of the current mini-series, which I have entitled the ‘Final Countdown,’ my tone has become rather more formal, not to say forceful. On reflection, I realized that issues 1-4 in the Final Countdown miniseries all dealt with COVID-19 and that my terse and polemical tone stemmed from my anger at the state of affairs surrounding the pandemic. I am planning two more installments, including the present issue, in the Final Countdown series, and since the next issue is truly to be the final one, I hope to moderate my anger starting from the present issue and return to my erstwhile, gentler tone.
When I was a junior high school student, my parents bought me a textbook entitled BSCS Biology, which I was told was from America. It was filled with lovely, glossy illustrations that made the Japanese textbooks of that time look shabby by comparison and awakened in me an admiration for a nation that was capable of producing such exquisite textbooks. Among the illustrations was one depicting a gas collecting bottle containing a quantity of garbage which had attracted a swarm of flies. For some reason, this illustration remains etched in my memory. The caption explained that the illustration was of an experiment that a certain scientist had performed in an attempt to prove his hypothesis that flies were generated spontaneously from garbage.
Every morning, as I walk from the train station to the west entrance of the hospital grounds, I make it a habit to pick up any cigarette butts that I find lying about. In these moments I invariably recollect the illustration in the textbook showing the bottle with the flies, only my own hypothesis has nothing to do with flies but rather with the notion that cigarette butts and litter, when left alone, increase through self-replication. As long as we diminish the number of cigarette butts lying about on the streets through our relentless collection efforts, the more likely will smokers feel some reluctance to litter the streets with them. Ergo, as long as we do not slacken our efforts, we can keep our city generally quite clean. On the other hand, as soon as we relax our efforts the cigarette butts start appearing in greater numbers until there is a veritable swarm of them in no time at all, presumably because the presence of litter conduces to further littering.
As I go about collecting litter on my way back from the hospital to Hachiman-yama station at the end of the day, I notice how the areas fronting shops and private residences are usually quite tidy but that spaces around small apartment buildings and convenience stores and along the fence enclosing the Chubu General Mental Health and Welfare Center are gathering spots for a fair amount of cigarette butts and litter. My theory is that the parts of the street directly fronting private homes and shops are kept tidy on a regular basis. While the interior of convenience stores is kept in good order by diligent employees following instructions in a manual, scarcely any thought is given to the street outside, where the customer eats the microwaved fast food which he has just bought. Many convenience stores nowadays place their bins inside the store to prevent passers-by from dumping their household garbage, but there isn’t always enough room inside the store for customers to eat or drink the food they have just bought so that they have no recourse but to consume their meal on the street outside and leave the wrappers behind.
The automatic vending machines on the streets have an accompanying bin for empty cans and plastic bottles, but these are emptied only at fixed intervals so that by morning, the spaces around the bins are littered pell-mell with cans and bottles that didn’t fit, along with a motley collection of other types of rubbish. The area on the inside of The Chubu General Mental Health and Welfare Center enclosure is apparently a favorite dumping ground for empty drink cans but is cleaned only once every several days with the result that the piles of rubbish continue to mount until the next cleaning day. If the rubbish were being left outside the fence, I—or anyone else—would be able to collect it every morning. What is it, then, that prompts someone to toss the rubbish inside the enclosure where the growing mounds of litter are just as visible to anyone passing by? Perhaps the litterbugs feel less reluctant to toss their garbage inside the fence rather than in the comparatively cleaner areas on the street outside the fence. Of course this corroborates my earlier hypothesis that litter begets litter, but my observations also give rise to yet another hypothesis, that anonymity discourages social responsibility.
  People who litter are anonymous. You might hesitate to litter in the presence of someone you know, but if no one’s looking, you feel much less inhibited. Urbanites rushing to the nearest train station become anonymous the moment they step outside their home. Apart from the long-time residents of Hachimanyama, most commuters no doubt make it to their workplace every day with nary a greeting to their neighbors. I suppose this is a measure of our average level of public morality. But if this is the case, a community in which people know each other by sight and greet each other has a higher level of public morality than the heedless and faceless masses who populate big cities.
Cities can have a face or be faceless. Privately owned shops and homes have faces, but convenience store franchises do not, just like the automatic vending machines on city property. These are examples of Anonymity (with a capital ‘A’) in society. When Anonymity decides to clean up its surroundings, it’s usually in response to complaints from neighbors. A manual might be written to deal with complaints related to litter; a convenience store might include regular tidying up of the storefront in the employees’ daily duties, and a public institute like the General Mental Health and Welfare Center might expand the responsibilities of the contract workers to include such work. But at facilities like these, responding to complaints has become the default setting, and keeping their environment clean is not due to any moral incentive but is simply a knee-jerk reaction to angry neighbors. In contrast, people who keep their home or storefront tidy do so because they have the moral incentive of wanting to keep their city clean.
The housewife putting out the trash or the little boy riding his dad’s bicycle to school around the time very morning when I collect the litter on the street are people I know by sight, and when we see each other, we exchange greetings. The confectioner’s wife on Akatsutsumi Street was the poster-girl for the business in her youth although she’s quite old now. I’ve known her by sight all these years, and even if we can’t quite remember each other’s name, we have a personal bond. The daily good mornings and thank-yous have the cumulative effect of creating a safe and clean community.
To digress for just a moment—I usually walk the 40 to 50-minute distance from Matsuzawa Hospital to my home in Tsurumaki, going from Akatsutsumi Street to Suzuran Street, and from there I pass through Kyodo Station and proceed along Nodai Street.
The shopping arcades of Suzuran Street and Nodai Street, which are separated by the train station, contrast strikingly. Many of the shops along the Suzuran Street arcade have been there since the early days of the arcade and possess a highly individualistic character, both in their appearance and in their wares. I myself sometimes shop at one such establishment called Seiwa-do, a stationery store located just a little before the station. On the other hand, once you exit Suzuran Street via the station and come to Nodai Street, the entire aspect of the town changes. Chain stores line the street, and the atmosphere is much livelier. The franchise stores are all very familiar, but no one knows who operates them. Nodai Street is the abode of Anonymity. The larger amount of foot traffic and bustle may indicate greater economic success, but I feel that Nodai Street is somehow noisy in a way that detracts from my peace of mind. When the second Emergency Declaration in the current pandemic was announced, all the shops along the arcade on Suzuran Street reduced their working hours at once, making the area even darker and more quiet than usual. But the bustle of Nodai Street hardly missed a beat. It was clear for all to see which of the two arcades was contributing more to containing the spread of the virus. Individuals with names operate with a moral imperative to take the initiative in preventing the spread of infection whereas Anonymity, as long as it is not constrained by laws or regulations, is hardly motivated to cooperate in such activities at the expense of its earnings.
Tokyo is swiftly becoming the abode of Anonymity. Perhaps many people feel more at ease living in such an environment, and I imagine that the high turn-over of large franchise stores along shopping arcades is evidence of economic efficiency.
Our society is regulated by individual morality, social norms, and legal norms. There are punishments for breaking the law, and violating social norms makes it difficult for one to continue living in that society. On the other hand, there are no legal consequences or social sanctions than can be imposed for the violation of individual morality. One is susceptible only to the pangs of one’s own guilty conscience. Preserving public morality in the abode of Anonymity is a difficult thing indeed. Pangs of conscience, when felt too often, dull the moral sensitivity. In the abode of Anonymity, social order cannot be maintained without vigilante groups, which we see more frequently nowadays, to enforce the narrowed bounds of public morality or without new laws with fines and punishments to threaten violators. But is such a society, tied down by law, a truly comfortable place in which to live? Would one truly feel at ease in a society that is ready to string up violators, as it were, with laws it has spawned without adequate deliberation merely to enforce public morality? I feel that in prioritizing the economy, we have unwittingly created a society which trades on the thought that profit justifies everything and anything. I think that this explosive pandemic has given us the opportunity to pause and reassess our lives, if we are but wise enough to realize this.
  I started out talking about cigarette butts and ended up again talking about the COVID-19 pandemic. The desire to keep one’s town clean, not because of the coercion of law but from a genuine sense of community and the desire to contain the spread of the pandemic through self-discipline and action–these are much the same thing. I prefer a community with faces that quietly engages in sensible self-control without any legal bidding to the abode of Anonymity. Our society stands at a significant inflection point. What sort of world will we be living in just one month from now, at the end of March?