Tokyo's #NewNormal, a COVID-19 #TrueStory, and The New #CultBrand

Updated: Jan 18, 2021

As of January 16, Japan has reported 1,809 new cases of the novel coronavirus. Tokyo has been on its second state of emergency, way worse than the first time it happened. Surrounding prefectures, including those that previously did not report any cases, have reported spike in numbers, and neighboring prefectures of Tokyo, like Saitama, Chiba, and Kanagawa, are also in SOE. Businesses have evolved to survive, and somehow, amid the pandemic, has been the rise of retail cafes, such as Fendi Cafe, which has been fully booked since it opened in December.

Because the media is regulated in Japan, one could hardly see the picture of a desperate hospital situation featured on television; scrambling nurses, dying patients, or beds and equipment running out. What is known in Japan is but a quiet battle of the crisis, compared to what is seen in the Philippines, in some parts of Europe, and a whole lot in New York. Pictures that depict chaos and hopelessness. But our brush with reality came when we heard that a friend of ours (who will not be named) tested positive. Friend X has been working here for almost a decade, with a stable job in an international company, secured with the usual government-mandated health insurance and pension, and a "gold credit card," which means X could and was willing to pay for medical care. But after feeling really ill for days and showing symptoms, X called the COVID hotline initially, to no avail. Eventually, X opted to call and pay an ambulance service. The medical staff checked X, but after the paramedics contacted several hospitals, no one could accommodate X. X was already spitting blood and another friend in contact with X had a confirmed case (out-patient) of pneumonia (though said to not be COVID-19). X had to call the ambulance service each time X wanted to be checked. X was willing to pay, but X could not be accommodated. This is our #covid19#truestory.

We have been very careful and most of us have been doing work-from-home since March 2020. But a lot of traditional companies, especially client-facing ones or those that need face-to-face interaction for productivity, do not have the option to do work-from-home. Although Japan has never forced any strict curfew or travel limitations, at the onset of the pandemic, the spread of the virus was controlled pretty successfully. Japan is a mask-wearing country. It is but courtesy in Japan to wear a mask, when a person has cough or cold (or even allergy sniffles). The culture has also always been one that speaks of "unity in harmony" and "doing as what others do." The request to cooperate for hygiene measures, temperature-check, and mask-wearing was not difficult to implement. There was never a need for force, for police dispatch, for riots, and dramas.

And then WFH fatigue happened. Japan has been on an all-time high with it's suicide cases, to a point that the numbers have been higher than the COVID-19 cases. Mothers were fatigued for having to take care of their children's needs, and manage a cramped home that also had to serve as a school and an office. Suicide, especially among women, peaked during the pandemic.

While the Japanese government has been generous with cash dole-outs (at one time, each resident, foreigners included, has received 100,000 yen), financial breaks for companies, business owners, and unemployed workers, the mental state and the psychological well-being of the people could not be addressed with these measures.

What came about, surprisingly, was the enthusiasm of most people, for the heavily criticized #GoToTravel campaign, which was partly subsidized by the government. In the campaign, hotels, trains, airfares, food, retail, and recreation offered crazy discounts from 30 to 50 percent off. The goal of the government was to revitalize the local economy and to allow mental health breaks. Of course, the repercussions were obvious: the spread of the virus, especially among asymptomatic cases.

The other #newnormal surprising response, was the rise of retail cafes, where physical stores have converted shopping aisles into cafe corners to lure people into "a third place."

Vegan and gluten-free.

One of my personal favorites is #Shiro and here's a peek at the #newnormal in Tokyo. It is near empty, one hour before closing time, months from its opening last year. #Shiro is the new cult brand in Japan, and on my every occasional train ride to work or grocery, I would always see someone holding its minimalistic yet striking branding reflected on its sleek, black, paper bag. It is a brand birthed in Hokkaido, the land of the creamiest milk, seafood, and butter. Shiro's claim to fame is that it uses natural and organic ingredients. Shiro has a kiosk at Takashimaya, walking distance from where I live, but the more interesting shop is its two-floor retail cafe in the posh area called Jiyugaoka, known as the residential area of a few celebrities.

Chic, clean, crisp. Like a breath of fresh air during the pandemic.

Au naturale from the land of all things good, from milk, to butter, to seafood: Hokkaido.

Extensive scent line for the body, the room, and even laundry.

Skin care, hair care, and make-up, of course.

Gorgeous gift ideas.

Everything is not back to normal in the usually bustling shopping areas of Tokyo, but everyone, businesses especially, has been adapting to the #newnormal and so are we. Masks, temperature checks, sanitizing, and social distancing still remain our 2021 essentials, and perhaps, a few #goodbuys like Shiro. How about you? What's your #COVIDstory and new normal?

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