The Real Reason Why Coronavirus has scared the Toilet Paper Out of Japan

Anyone who accessed any medium of media knows that Coronavirus is sending waves of panic throughout the world. Japan being one of the most heavily hit countries outside of China, is facing the challenge of calming its restive plebeians in its own unique way. Closing schools down, calling on people to avoid social gatherings, and reminding citizens on what hygiene is, is just the Book for Dummies manual for governments. What’s particularly concerning though, is that there is a different kind of virus spreading exponentially faster throughout the Japanese internet. I’d like to call it the Toilet Paper virus (TPVID-20).

In January, surgical masks were in high demand across infected countries, and there was a huge influx of imports of them from those countries which were still pandemic-free. In Japan, for the passed two weeks, everywhere from Costco to Amazon to your local Mom and Pops store has been showing off the shelf space in the toiletries section. That’s because everything from surgical masks and disinfectants (the typical victims), canned food and rice (hmm a bit of an overreaction…but ok) to paper towels, tissue paper, tampons, and of course, Toilet Paper (what, really?), have fallen victim to Corona. Unfortunately they don’t have souls so aren’t in the WHO statistics, but people are freaking out, with fake news spreading all sorts of ridiculous rumors about paper goods, and with the government and TV stations frantically trying to reassure people that yes, there is enough toilet paper for everyone alive, with flash documentaries to prove it.

The point I want to make today is about how different the psyche is in Japan from what you would usually expect. Now normal paranoia is something along the lines of “Oh my God, people are dying. I need to get disinfectants and surgical masks so that I don’t get the virus. Oh and I saw on Twitter that people are lining up for toilet paper, so I should probably get some too before I run out.” It makes sense to get panicked in times like this, and naturally you would see stuff getting sold out. But, unless you completely distrust the media, if it was announced that masks are clinically proven not to prevent you from getting infected, and there is plenty of toilet paper to go around for the whole population, wouldn’t you calm down and return to your normal buying routine? That’s basically what Japan has done here-in response to the bank rush, they’ve effectively taken all their deposits out of the coffers and put on display their precious assets as people came to withdraw their money. And yet people still want their bank rolls. Toilet Paper rolls I mean.

So let’s contrast the normal paranoia thought process above with the Japanese one. The initial reaction will be the same. “Oh my God, people are dying. I need to get disinfectants and surgical masks so that I don’t get the virus. Oh and I saw on Twitter that people are lining up for toilet paper, so I should probably get some too before I run out.” Now said Japanese person hears that masks do not prevent you from getting infected. “But even if that’s true, I need to make the impression to my friends/colleagues that I care about the threat of Coronavirus, so wearing a mask is the best way to show that. So I still need to buy some.” Now said Japanese person, sees live news broadcasts of toilet paper factories pumping out loads of toilet paper. “Ok, I see that there is plenty of toilet paper. But I don’t see any at my local shop, and my friends said they don’t either. So just to be safe, I’ll line up to get some until I am stocked up for a while.” Yes, Japanese like insurance and assurance alike, so tend to be make more conservative decisions. And don’t forget about the psyche of the people who do most of the shopping: mothers. Rather than the usual “I should stock up for my family while I still can” followed by a sigh of relief, here we have the reaction “But if we do run our of tissue paper or toilet paper, and my kids start talking about, then what will our neighbors and the teachers think of our family? We can’t risk the embarrassment, I need to go stock up.” And so, the panic doesn’t subside.

The point is, no one in Japan really cares if the initial rumor about hygiene products running in short supply or the fact that surgical masks offer no protection is true or not. It’s all about the perception of society. As long as you as an individual or as a household appear in good order and are not leaving a negative impression in any way that others can judge you on, then you have done your part in society. But if you look irresponsible by not wearing a mask when everyone else in your community is, or you look “lowly” when your children start telling their classmates to be careful with how much tissue paper or toilet paper they use, you’ve just earned your scarlet letter. The reactions in Japan will tend to be prolonged, but as long as the media wasn’t lying, everyone will get the paper that they deserve.


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Matt Anzai

A critical calligrapher and martial artist. Language, politics, health… I write about anything that may relate to Japan or its culture.