Notes on Art and Current Events 94

Looking back on 2020: Covid-19 and the changing nature of our faces, hands and breath


Michelangelo – The Creation of Adam (detail) (c. 1511).


What exactly has changed about the way we go about our daily lives as a result of the global spread of Covid-19? Despite the rapid circulation of the virus over a truly wide area, the anxiety and fear we are experiencing lack the urgency of that experienced during the Tohoku earthquake and nuclear disaster. However, it was on March 11 this year (3/11 again?) that the World Health Organization declared a pandemic, meaning that for more than nine months now we have been continually exposed to the threat of Covid-19. Looking through my window at the scene outside as I write this, the sky is clear and blue, the sun is shining brightly, and there are no broken things, flames or people running around trying to escape. At the same time, however, the number of infected persons continues to grow around the country, hospital beds are full and our medical system is strained or on the verge of collapsing. But this does not mean that our streets have become deathly silent. While it is certainly unusual that nearly everyone is wearing a mask, at the time of writing (December 2020) the part of town where I live is crowded with people and bursting with energy. Perhaps one of the reasons for this is the belief [pre-variants] that the chances of young people developing serious symptoms is relatively low. That even if they did get infected, at the most they would probably only display mild symptoms, much like having a common cold, which makes telling them to stay at home and not interact with others rather difficult. But stores are still going out of business one after another. And to make matters worse, we cannot expect tourists from overseas.

During the nuclear disaster it was the opposite. It is thought that young people are more sensitive to radiation, and that the impact is less severe as we get older. Almost ten years have past since the Tohoku disaster. I wonder about the actual effects of the radiation, given that we were told there would be “none immediately.” It seems unlikely that there have been no unforeseen deaths due to cancer, but as to whether such cases are directly linked to the nuclear accident, one can only say it is impossible to know.

Radiation and viruses are similar in nature in that they cannot be seen with the naked eye. Even if they cause damage on a considerable scale over the long term, it is difficult to condense things that are invisible and cause “no immediate effect” into single scenes that become engraved in our minds like wars or natural disasters. Similarly, in the cases of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it is precisely because there were huge explosions and gruesome ground zeroes that these events remain etched in people’s memories for a long time, while the effects of radiation exposure itself are not all that visible. Certainly there are photographs of victims who suffered serious burns in the atomic bombings, but these show effects of atomic bombing, not the effects of radiation exposure itself. The effects of radiation exposure also occur at the genetic level, which is something we cannot observe. The same can probably be said of the incursion of viruses into the human body. Regardless of how often it is explained to us in diagram form, what is invisible is invisible. Even if we understand it in our heads, it does not become etched in our memories in the same way that something we actually witness does.

Which is why in this column I would like to look back on the fear that the spread of the coronavirus engendered in us as much as possible through my own bodily organs, which is to say through things that are visible.

Firstly, the status of the face changed dramatically. One aspect of this that immediately springs to mind is masks. Everyone started wearing a mask. Though these masks are different in appearance to the masks worn during rituals and festivals, masks were originally worn because they were seen as a convenient way of taking on the role of a different character, in which sense one cannot say that the self while wearing a mask it is the same compared to when it is not. But to the extent that their facial expressions are hidden, one does not know what a person wearing a mask is thinking or feeling. Perhaps this is why there is such strong resistance to wearing masks in some parts of Europe and North America. Facial expressions are a part of self-expression that is essential to the smooth conduct of communication, and if they are blocked from view, in the end it becomes difficult to judge whether the other person is a friend or foe.

At the same time, the video-conferencing program Zoom has spread rapidly during the coronavirus pandemic. At the beginning, like others I used it to hold remote drinking sessions and so on with friends due to its novelty, but it has now became common to use Zoom to conduct interviews, take part in meetings and research groups, hold lectures and conduct symposium-like sessions remotely. But even knowing that under conditions such as these it is contributing greatly to reducing the risk of spreading the virus, only being able to meet other people via Zoom feels incredibly wearisome. While on the one hand the time and energy usually spent on travelling can be saved, on the other hand it seems clear that communication via Zoom is extremely tiring. When I thought about why this is so, the first thing that occurred to me was that it is almost inevitably dogged by the kinds of malfunctions and failures that are peculiar to telecommunications. A certain amount of the available time is invariably spent ironing out such problems as audio breaking up, interference, reverberation and people forgetting to turn on their microphones.

And even when everything goes smoothly, speaking while continually looking at one’s own face is extremely unnatural and a constant source of anxiety. When people gather in real space, it is impossible to speak while continually looking at one’s own face. And even if it were possible, it would be like speaking with a mirror placed directly in front of oneself. And everyone would be speaking in this fashion at the same time. From a mechanism standpoint, I understand why there has to be a means of monitoring how one looks to other people, but regardless of how often I do it I just cannot get used to it. After all, it’s one’s own face. With the declaration of a pandemic, while in the real world it is deemed a good thing that revealing one’s face in this way is blocked by wearing a mask, in the world of remote communication one has to not only continue exposing this face, but also continue looking at it oneself. It is no wonder at all that fatigue due to uncomfortable feelings regarding such things is occurring on an unprecedented scale.

But there is something else about the face. I remember watching a BBC report at the beginning of summer, around when the number of cases increased suddenly in Italy and then in the UK and people started dying in large numbers, and seeing someone explain at length and in great detail how important it was not to touch one’s own face with one’s hands. If the virus adheres to one’s hands and one touches one’s face with those hands, because the face has a large concentration of open orifices with mucous membranes, such as the eyes, nose and mouth, it naturally offers ideal pathways of entry for the virus. So instructing people not to touch their face is a logical countermeasure. But for some reason I do not understand, warnings not to touch one’s face are no longer being issued like they were then. Perhaps it is now taken for granted that one should not touch one’s face. But at the same time, the importance of handwashing is still being emphasized, so it may be that as long as one keeps one’s hands clean, even if one touches one’s face from time to time, the risk is still much lower.

Either way, the rather strong instruction (it almost sounded like an order) not to touch one’s face surprised me like never before. Because as a human action, touching one’s face seemed to me like an ordinary act of self-awareness. Even after they stop sucking their thumbs as children, people continue to constantly touch their face with their hands. We repeatedly rub our own faces, put our hands to our cheeks and pinch, lightly massage and stroke our mouths. To a certain extent these are habitual actions. But I am also almost certain that people cannot refrain from touching their own face. It is almost like an act of self-verification, confirming that one is here now, and though if we are told to stop it, we may make an effort to stop immediately, a short time later we will almost certainly notice ourselves unconsciously touching our face again. And as a result people may become infected. And in some cases they may even die. Even if people understand it in theory, the fact that the virus enters the body via the face hinders this kind of self-verification, reminds us once again that our own face is full of orifices covered with mucous membranes, and may sometimes even make the face itself an object of fear. In this sense, too, wearing a largish mask not only prevents the spread of Covid-19 by blocking virus molecules that may be contained in exhaled air, but also serves to protect the wearer’s own face from their hands (a disutility of the smallish government-sponsored mask, dubbed the “Abenomask”). But now that I actually write this, I am perhaps more concerned about the kinds of stresses the extraordinarily divided psychology surrounding the requirement to protect one’s own face from one’s hands will bring to people everyday lives.


Kotaro Takamura – Hand (c. 1918). Photo Ichiro Otani. Collection The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo.


Naturally, this will change our awareness of our hands as well as our face. Even stronger than the recommendation to avoid touching our face is that to wash our hands and disinfect our fingers. Handwashing was something that was strongly encouraged when I was in elementary school, that is, in the early 1970s. Without exception there was a bar of soap in a mesh bag hanging from each faucet at school, and after physical education and before lunch we would all line up to wash our hands. But thinking about it now, perhaps that was more to prevent infectious diseases than to maintain hygiene. If so, it means that the reason handwashing is effective as a measure preventing infectious diseases is that after the war it became customary. Or rather, it would seem that it was after the large-scale spread of infectious diseases became a thing of the past due to the widespread implementation of vaccines that the significance of handwashing faded. In fact, it was in the 1980s and 90s, around the time Japan transitioned from the Showa to the Heisei period, that the custom of handwashing gradually dwindled. At the same time, handwashing does not come down solely to the use of soap, and as evidenced by the diversification of hand soap and similar products, the custom of providing wet towels in restaurants, the development of various antimicrobial products, the popularity of bidet toilets, and the adoption of such buzzwords as “morning shampoo,” individual washing habits have developed on an extraordinary scale well beyond simply handwashing. In other words, it is likely that the more such full-body care customs spread, the stronger the preference became for sterilized spaces, to the extent that it would not be an exaggeration to call this a collective obsession with cleanliness. And as one product after another appeared to cater to these demands, handwashing came to be practiced less thoroughly than it once was, though this did not have much of a detrimental effect on our lifestyles. However, things having come this far, “washing hands with soap” has made a long-awaited comeback. So let us take a look at some examples of this practice from years gone by.



For example, according to the image above, the song Te wo araou hai! sekken (Let’s wash our hands – here’s some soap) (lyrics by Akira Ito, music by Katsuhisa Hattori, vocals by Fusako Amachi) appears to have been released in 1972 by the Handwashing Movement Promotion Headquarters with the support of the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Health and Welfare (apparently there was an older version before that), which is consistent with my own memory from my elementary school days. The image also mentions that the “Let’s wash our hands with soap” campaign is “in its seventh year,” indicating that the campaign was launched in 1966. In other words, once could say that handwashing was faithfully carried out as a “new normal,” so to speak, in Japan as economic growth continued after the realization of the Tokyo Olympics in 1964. If so, I cannot help sensing the irony of history in the fact that in the year Tokyo was due to host the Olympics for a second time, we were once again being urged (to a degree much stricter than ever before) to “wash our hands with soap.”

On the subject of handwashing, I would also like to direct readers’ attention to what is referred to as “finger disinfecting.” It is not only the hands. It is also the fingers. To be more precise, it is recommended that cleaning over a wide area including around the fingernails and even as far as the wrists be adopted as the model for handwashing. Compared to other organs, are the human hands that much more susceptible to contamination with bacteria or viruses? Possible reasons include the shape of the palms, which taper toward the middle, the uneven gaps that arise as a result of several fingers adjoining each other, the actual surface area taking into consideration the finger prints and lines on the palms, and above all the overwhelming number of opportunities for the fingers to touch various things. Even so, the knowledge that the hands are this dangerous has imposed on us an abnormal state of mind equal to or in some cases even greater than that arising from the knowledge that, due to the pandemic, our own faces are pathways of entry for the virus. For surely the hands themselves also represent the very origins of “people” as living beings, in the sense that humans, or rather humankind, developed the ability to walk on two legs, unlike the apes that preceded them, thereby freeing their hands, resulting in their cerebral neocortex developing to the extent that they could use tools their thinking also developing to the maximum extent in accordance with this. It is these same hands that have now became the most convenient vehicle for viruses. In other words, for humans, our faces and hands have now become the foreign bodies we need to avoid most. A symbol of this being the handshake. There was a time when preventing others from seeing one’s face and not being able to exchange facial expressions by wearing a mask was regarded as rather discourteous behavior, but now hiding one’s face behind a mask and avoiding handshaking to an extreme have become symbols of the greatest consideration for others.

Finally, I would like to touch on the significance of breathing as a sensation of the living body brought about by the current pandemic. Initially, Covid-19 was called “atypical pneumonia.” The reason this term is hardly ever heard any more is that it has become clear that the symptoms associated with this novel coronavirus are not limited to inflammation of the lungs, but also extend to loss of the senses of taste and smell, inflammation of the skin on the fingertips and in some cases diseases of the meninges or spinal cord, and that they cannot be drawn together under the title of a single condition. But the significance of the initial naming of this infectious disease as atypical pneumonia remains great. In particular, examples of patients with severe symptoms having to be attached to ventilators and in some cases even extracorporeal life support continue to be widely reported on in the media. There is no doubt that Covid-19 is still symbolized by the rapid intensification of the inflammation of the lungs, or rather the malfunctioning of the lungs, thus directly related to a crisis in breathing.

For humans, nothing is more terrifying than being unable to breathe. This is clear if we look at the fact that many of the cruel torture techniques of the past involved impeding the victim’s breathing in some way. To a certain degree, people can continue to live without eating food or drinking water. But if they are unable to breathe they will soon expire. Such is the importance to humans of breathing as a basic function for maintaining life. Just as a fish taken out of water and no longer able to breathe through its gills soon stops moving, a human whose connection to air is cut off loses their life as if their neck has been severed. Breathing is evidence that people live in the atmosphere, or in other words it is the most easy-to-understand connection showing that people are inhabitants of Earth. “Atypical pneumonia” disrupts this. It completely cuts the connection between people and Earth. Even if the symptoms do not necessarily become this severe, it is difficult to imagine anything as terrifying as this.


Taro Okamoto – Beckoning Blue Hand, Beckoning Red Hand (both 1981). Collection / photo courtesy Taro Okamoto Memorial Museum.


In this way, Covid-19 has completely changed the significance of the face, the hands and the breath for humans. It goes without saying that these three things perform essential functions in the arts. In art, as well as music, theater and literature, the face, hands and breath place a huge role in determining creation. We tend to misunderstand art as a theoretical, conceptual activity, but we should not forget that before anything else, our bodies are connected to the Earth and that it is an activity inseparably bound up with facial expressions, hand movements and the way we breathe. Covid-19 has forced us to remember this in an almost fundamental way from the very core of our bodies and shaken us in the process. It has also forced us to confront a radical crisis. The significance of this is not something that can be overcome by “remote communication,” “audience-less broadcasts” or any of the other emergency measures that entail “moving online.” When people understand that the situation will hardly change even as we move into the new year, or that an even more serious situation will continue, the vast scale of the impact on the arts will inevitably and unavoidably become even clearer.

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