Commentary: Japan opened my eyes to how privileged life in Finland is

Yle journalist Elena Leppänen, who came to Japan for the Olympic Games, writes that nowhere before has she missed Finland so much as being in quarantine in a Tokyo hotel room.

I know many Finns who fell in love with the land of the rising sun during their travels. In Japan, they were greeted by friendly people, melting in their mouths Japanese cuisine, stunning landscapes and a kind of spiritual brotherhood of two very special cultures, Japanese and Finnish.

I can’t say for the whole country, but in Tokyo during the Olympics, a foreigner is greeted with isolation , endless bureaucracy and a stream of news, which runs through the idea that the majority of the Japanese are against the games.

In recent days, the number of infections in Tokyo has increased to 800-900 per day. This forced the authorities to declare a state of emergency and ban the sale of alcohol in bars and restaurants. And at the same time, the city is entering the home stretch for a major sporting event, for which athletes, their support groups, sports bosses and officials, as well as journalists are expected. A total of about 90 thousand people.

The Japanese administration and the organizers of the games faced an impossible task: to arrange a large-scale and warm meeting of the peoples of the world in the Olympic spirit and at the same time isolate people from each other. And they try to solve this problem, coming up with rules, more rules and even more rules.

One of these rules is mandatory quarantine for arrivals from abroad, which in my case lasted four days in a Tokyo hotel. During this time, it was possible to leave the room only once a day for a quarter of an hour to buy food at the nearest grocery kiosk.

A security guard was sitting in the hotel lobby, who noted the time of departure and arrival of guests. Then these lists were sent to a higher official. And the permissible 15 minutes could not be exceeded in any case.

Four days later, our film crew was able to get to the Olympic facility and the Embassy of Finland, but only on a special bus. After 14 days in Japan, it is allowed to use public transport and move around in a crowd of ordinary people. True, for this you first need to obtain special permission from the Japanese authorities. This rule, however, may still change during the Olympics. The mask should be worn everywhere except in your own hotel room.

In four days of total quarantine, I sent countless emails, memorized an incredible number of different forms and petitions, and got too familiar with the Japanese bureaucracy.

A gray office building visible from my room and standing in front of to them, the sad office workers began to seem to me already members of the family. I found that watching sumo on TV has a calming effect as the 18 square meters push more and more every day.

Inside the four walls, I was struck by the thought of how privileged life in Finland is. I could have traveled all over the world, saw brilliance and poverty, but never homesickness overwhelmed me as much as it does now. And I couldn’t even imagine that, of all the places in the world, this would happen in Tokyo.

And it wasn’t the ever-changing rules, the weird culture, or the lack of knowledge of the Japanese language in a country where few people speak English that caused my intense culture shock. And it is connected with the fact that in this environment I become a hostage of my own mind.

Man was created to move. Even a few days in a cramped room without the freedom to choose where to go and what to do can get on your nerves. The thought of jogging in Helsinki or the smell of the Baltic Sea that I can breathe without a mask on my face seems pretty damn attractive.

Politeness and distrust

In culture shock Westerners certainly not the fault of the Japanese. They could hardly have thought in 2011, when bidding to host the Games, that this would be the strangest Olympics in history.

The largest sporting event in the world has become a gold mine for the International Olympic Committee. As the examples of the past decades have shown, a host country can easily spend tens of billions of euros on organizing games. This means that the bar for canceling the Olympics is very high, no matter what ordinary citizens feel, who financed a significant part of these expenses with their taxes.

At the moment, they mostly feel anxious. The most ardent opponents of the Olympics fear that the games and foreigners will bring the coronavirus into the country. They demand the cancellation of sporting events every day, appealing to their constitutional right to life.

And with all this, the Japanese remain themselves: polite and caring about the observance of the norms of social life and behavior. At the Narita airport, arriving workers are greeted by smiling and bowing employees who direct tourists from one checkpoint to another. Even a cute little dog that sniffs passengers for illegal substances seems more gentle and affectionate than at other airports.

The word “sumimasen” is heard everywhere, simultaneously expressing gratitude and apology. The guards at the hotel bow down all the time until the doors of the elevator that the guest entered is closed. Excessive politeness is flattering, but in these times creates a sense of improbability of what is happening. It is difficult to shake off the thought that you have become a part of some kind of performance.

The Japanese are known not only for their politeness, but also for their deeply rooted distrust of foreigners. The coronavirus and numerous restrictions only spur this tradition.

In recent days, there has been a heated debate about the decision of a hotel in downtown Tokyo, whose administration during the Olympics hung signs “only for Japanese” and “for foreigners” on elevators. After a small scandal on social networks, the hotel refused the signs and apologized, but the case speaks of the fear that languishes under the seemingly calm surface.

One English journalist who came to the Olympics, who has already been vaccinated with two doses of vaccine and tested countless times, told me that the Japanese automatically move two meters away from him when he enters the subway car.

A curious soul cannot help but feel at least a little sad. Dutch historian Rutger Bregman, who specializes in the development of humanity, wrote in his bestseller Humanity: A Promising Story that the best cure for stereotypes is a live meeting of representatives of different cultures and origins. They teach that we are not all that different after all.

And in the Tokyo Olympic bubble, these meetings, at least real ones, unfortunately, very little happens.