H1N1, SCMS and the Japanese Bureaucracy

Alt-SCMS is over and done with - and not a single person sick or quarantined (so far?). It was a great success: nearly 250 participants, great help from Josai International and Waseda universities, and cooperation all around. You're used to many people taking too long to read their papers at conferences like this, but it was as if this time everyone understood the special circumstances behind this gathering and managed themselves admirably. The National Film Center put on a great screening of Ogino Shigeji animated shorts, including one, An Expression (1935), in color; a Saito Torajiro slapstick short; Naruse Mikio's Each Night I Dream; and Ishida Tamizo's stunning Flowers Have Fallen. And every film earned a hearty round of applause. The film directors Kurosawa Kiyoshi and Aoyama Shinji did a great talk on the state of their work and the industry (more on that later). And USC and the MacArthur Foundation hosted a wonderful final party at Super Deluxe. Markus Nornes, Akira Lippit and I ended up being the main organizers, but there was a lot of help from many directions.

It was one of the stranger conferences one could encounter. Everyone had to get a health check at the door (a body temperature of over 38 degrees C could have earned you a trip to the hospital and quarantine), fill out a form declaring your condition and whereabouts, wear a mask throughout the conference, declare which panels you attended, and use hand sanitizing liquid every time you entered and left a room. The atmosphere was a bit surreal:


The entrance to JIU with the health check.


My panel full of masked strangers! I wasn't sure if they were going to rob me or what! 

But everyone took all this in stride and actually had a lot of fun. 

Now I don't want to put down the seriousness of the H1N1 virus or the need to take precautions, but there was a lot that was questionable about the situation. First, the reaction of health officials in Japan. Putting aside the problem of implementing policies that still treated the virus as extremely deadly even long after it was clear it was not, or that concentrated so much on foreign viral invasions they ignored domestic infections, the policies were bureaucratic and political. On the day SCMS was cancelled, we saw NHK showing images of a major international sports festival taking place in Japan with lots of foreign athletes and visitors. Were any of them forced to wear masks? No, and probably because Japan wants to get the Olympics. Other cities or wards had international conferences, but with none of these restrictions. It really seems like Chiyoda Ward health bureaucrats just decided they did not want anything to occur on their turf, so they erred on the side of trying to cancel the conference (and according to the SCMS mailing, it was Chiyoda that tried to force cancellation even before a single case of H1N1 had appeared in Japan; some news reports in Japan erringly said it was just SCMS chickening out). They probably feared the media in Japan, which has been positively awful, exposing poor students and school principals to excessive public exposure just because someone came down with a mild case of the flu (with this kind of exposure, anyone with H1N1 is going to hide that fact - and thus spread the flu some more). One has to question a system where the bureaucracy rules by avoiding problems (and foreign impurities!), not by dealing with them; where the public demands a parental state to the extent of lashing out at even the smallest mistake; and a media which profits off of a subjectivity that, demanding an impossible perfection, remains in perpetual anxiety and in need of media frenzy. 

The day after SCMS was cancelled, NHK broadcast news that Governor Ishihara had announced a new program of public support for international conferences. Hah! Don't make me laugh! Maybe the lesson of SCMS is this: you better think twice about holding an international conference - or the Olympics for that matter - in Tokyo.

There was blame to spread around. Perhaps JIU shouldn't have gone to the health office in the first place (is there any legal requirement to do that?). Perhaps SCMS could have been more courageous - and not have sent out such a gloom and doom e-mail when surveying the membership. And perhaps a lot of those who cancelled could have been braver themselves.

But it was their loss. We had a ton of fun, and an experience we'll never forget. Some events like the NFC screening got a much better attendance than they would have otherwise; and Japanese cinema really took the center with some great panels. Everyone was united with a common purpose by the absurd environment. SCMS should always be like this!


Signed: Your masked avenger!

UPDATE: I found a video online showing the event.

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