Chinese or Japanese? A Tale of Viral Fever

Satoshi Ikeuchi, Professor, Religion and Global Security, University of Tokyo

Sini willa Yabani? (Chinese or Japanese ?)” This is a common phrase which has been thrown countless times upon Japanese travelers and dwellers, often accompanied by shrill voices of laughter and obscene gestures of ridicule, in the Middle Eastern countries particularly in some of the Arab countries. Most of the time, it is expressed by flocks of uneducated Shabab (Youths) on the street.

It annoys not only for the undeniable sense of ridicule evidently involved in these unsolicited approaches by the Arab youths, but also for their deplorable lack of knowledge of Asia, particularly of the East Asia. It becomes clear in these unwanted encounters that young people on the street of the Arab world seldom differentiate between Chinese, Korean and Japanese and very often look them all as something strange and inferior even though those youths have to live the Asian century in which the East Asia is the center of the world economy together with the United States across the Pacific Ocean.

However, this long-annoyed question “Chinese or Japanese?” come to be heard taking a serious tone and urgency because of the outbreak of coronavirus in China.

I’m now traveling in the Middle East. Every time I go through airport checkpoints, scared voices and whispers are heard from multiple corners, asking me or each other “Chinese or Japanese?” This time, it is not expressed by unpolite youths but by the stern and solemn looking interior ministry officers.

There is nothing wrong in singling out possible carriers of virus and prevent them spreading it, but doing so just by seeking after someone who looks like a “Chinese” is a primitive way.

Of course, the coronavirus, dubbed 2019-nCoV, is the subject of global concern and should be dealt with seriously and systematically worldwide. But there seems also to be a symptom of global social-psychological fever which arises from prejudice and ignorance on Asia. The Arab world seems still not cured from the disease of disdain on the East Asia.

It remains unknown whether the coronavirus is more harmful than influenza which kills tens of thousands of people each year worldwide. The unknown nature of coronavirus is the source of fear and concern and it must be dealt with quickly and decisively. There are justifications for overreaction in these critical initial stages.

But the world should return to normal as soon as the disease’s route of transmission is comprehended, the range of symptoms and the rate of mortality are known, and the scale of pandemic is determined and contained.