The direct flight from New York to Tokyo is one of the longest, thirteen hours and forty-five minutes, looping across Canada and the Bering Sea before paralleling Kamchatka and the eastern islands of Japan. It’s a long way to travel for humans and viruses alike … though I have to admit I hadn’t thought about the latter until we touched down at Narita International Airport and found among the departure cards we needed to fill out included one labeled “contagion.”
Alex Nicks and I have come to spend a few days filming tuna auctions at Tsujiki, the world’s largest fish market – all under one open air roof are sold four hundred different fish species (700,000 tons sold each year, taking in $5.5 billion a year) and employing 60,000-65,000 wholesalers, accountants, auctioneers, company officials and distributors. The next few days promise to be fun and wild, thanks to the constant whir of all those people focused on the matter at end: selling and buying big fish.
But when we land at Narita, even before we could stand and stretch after the long flight, the plane was boarded by a dozen Japanese men and women cloaked in blue surgical gowns, caps and masks. We were instructed to stay in our seats as one of the insurgents, carrying a portable thermographic imaging gun to detect fevers, pointed in our faces, clicked the trigger and quickly assessed whether or not we were swine flu carriers. As the besmocked team moved aisle by aisle through the plane one of the stewardesses whispered that they recently quarantined eight passengers who arrived on a Northwest flight “for five days.” While I have no idea what that encompasses – locking them in a small airport room, sliding sushi and water under the door? – I’m certainly hoping it doesn’t happen to us.
They are clearly looking for symptoms of flu, including coughs and colds. A week ago three Japanese were quarantined upon arrival in Tokyo after testing positive in preliminary checks. They were a high school teacher in his 40s and two teenage boys who had been on a school trip to Canada where they visited Ontario on a home stay program with about 30 other students, taking part in various programs hosted by a local high school in the town of Oakville. They were isolated upon arrival, on April 24, and are still recovering at a hospital near the airport.
Looking down the aisle as the blue-gowned, therm-armed team does its job I wonder if that’s our fate too? A couple days ago thirty-seven passengers and two flight attendants on an American Airlines flight from Los Angeles were detained overnight for similar reasons. They were released after tests revealed that an ill passenger was not contaminated with the new H1N1 influenza A strain, or swine flu.
Cleared after one hour, they gave each of us our very own face mask and sent us on our way. When we finally arrived in downtown Tokyo I spot random individuals on the street wearing white surgical masks. Taxi drivers, worker bees on lunch break. One thing I note is that it’s different here than in China, where many of the half billion city dwellers wear masks every day to keep away heavy airborne particulates created by coal burning, auto exhaust and general, everyday pollution of the air.
In Japan, as neat and orderly a country as you can find, it appears they are concerned only about swine flu. Stopping into a drugstore I ask the manager how the sales of masks are going and he says “about 50 percent higher than usual and we are running out …. If this keeps up, it’s going to be a very, very good year.” I think he was talking about his pharmacy’s bottom line.