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 hand: selling and buying big fish.
But when we land at Narita, even before we can stand and stretch after the long flight, the plane is boarded by a dozen Japanese men and women cloaked in blue surgical gowns, caps and masks. We are instructed to stay in our seats as one of the insurgents, carrying a portable thermographic imaging gun to detect fevers, points it in our faces, clicks the trigger and quickly assesses whether or not we are swine flu carriers. As the besmocked team moves row by row through the plane one of the stewardesses whispers that they recently quarantined eight passengers arriving 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. Next to me, Nicks coughs.
Of course our boarders 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. They were isolated upon arrival and are still recovering at a hospital near the airport.
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. Looking down the aisle as the blue-gowned, thermo-armed team works its way through cattle class I wonder if that will be our fate too?
Cleared after one hour, they give each of us our very own face mask and send us on our way. When we finally arrive in downtown Tokyo I spot random individuals on the street wearing white surgical masks. Taxi drivers, worker bees on lunch break, students. It’s a different scene here than in China though, where many of the half billion city dwellers wear masks every day to keep away 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’ll find on the planet, it appears they are still very concerned 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.