Tuesday, January 26, 2021

How the Japanese ‘mitsu’ was changed by Covid

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Sometimes when Japanese academics choose the one written character that best captures the essence of the past year, there are surprises. In 2020, there could only be one choice: mitsu, meaning “close”, “intimate” or “dense”.

The selection attests to a word whose use has been recast by Covid-19. Almost a year after the start of the pandemic, the process of this overhaul has been vital. It places Japan in a group with Taiwan, South Korea, Vietnam and China, as theories form about societal factors that could have helped maintain their infection and death rates. relatively weak.

At the onset of the crisis, as governments scrambled to find public health strategies that had the magical combination of being cohesive and achievable, Tokyo started to urge people fear and avoid three mitsu – Close contact settings, tight crowds and confined environments.

The slogan proved to be linguistically and socially powerful. A word that had previously conveyed a warm and intimate feeling of closeness suddenly implied something claustrophobic and abhorrent. While public health messages from other countries often ruinously distorted, mitsu was a triumph. He simply ranked the most significant risks and then guessed (for the most part correctly) that a company already willing to generate and self-regulate new rules would do just that.

Investors, Nomura Securities analysts suggest in an unusual report titled “Discipline Delivers”, should see success as a reason for a global reassessment of regional risk.

The report attempts to frame Japan’s response to the pandemic (with those of other Asian countries where the number of deaths per million has been low) by distinguishing between the “tight” and “loose” cultures of individualism and collectivism. To do this, co-head of Asia Pacific equity research, Jim mccaffertyand his colleagues drew on a wide range of sociological, anthropological and psychological knowledge.

Conservative attitudes in Asian companies, the report concludes, “are reflected in the behavior of listed companies and governments”. As the year-end stock research reports go on, this is a brave way to launch stocks.

The report assumes that strategies for managing Covid-19 in Asia have generally had a better track record of success than in other regions of the world, including the United States and the United Kingdom. To begin with, he looks at the background for Taiwan’s effective control of the virus without resorting to a national lockdown.

In 2003, when Taiwan was affected by the Sars epidemic, complacency and rejection of directives led to panic and hoarding. As a result of this, argues Ming-Cheng Lo at the University of California, the crisis was “societal”. The problem has been reinterpreted as a societal crisis. When Covid-19 arrived, there was still a strong national memory that these threats had to be treated like a corporation. A similar phenomenon followed South Korea’s experience with Mers in 2015.

One of the most important measures to explain cultural differences in social behavior is the variation in the balance between individualism and collectivism. Japan, Hong Kong, China, and South Korea are at the collective end of the scale, while most Western nations are closer to the individualistic end. Collectivist societies – where unwritten rules often carry significant weight – are seen as more conformist and therefore better able to solve problems like a pandemic.

A high degree of conformity, the report notes, is the main reason why Asian societies behave more orderly than those in the West: individuals cede greater importance to the group and the clan has strong regulatory power. of people’s behavior.

A final observation highlights the theory of cultural “tightening” and “loosening” which reflects the power of social norms – such as wearing masks or avoiding mitsu – and how companies sanction them. A Survey of 33 countries conducted by psychologist Michele Gelfand produced national ‘stress scores’ based on how participants in a given country experienced certain behaviors (laughing, kissing, arguing, etc.) in different contexts (in libraries , during funerals, on buses). China, Singapore, South Korea and Japan are doing very well.

Nomura’s report brings it all, in a garish but plausible way, back to actions. Asia’s response to the pandemic is expected to pose much more difficult questions as to whether the country risk premia currently applied by global fund managers (which score China and Japan higher than the UK and to France) are still valid, said Mr McCafferty. If a word like mitsu can change its meaning overnight, what could be due to reassessment?

leo.lewis@ft.com

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