The coronavirus is the closest thing to a worldwide shared experience since World War II. There are very, very few areas on the planet that aren’t being affected in some way by the virus and COVID-19. The Rockford Register Star is reaching out to Rock River Valley natives throughout the world to see how their lives are being altered.

Shawn Clankie, Hononegah High School graduate, Class of 1987. Now a professor of applied linguistics at Otaru University of Commerce in Otaru Japan. Otaru is on the northern island of Hokkaido. The situation in Japan has been changing rapidly. Clankie's responses are from April 2.

How did you end up in Japan and in that profession? After leaving Hononegah in 1987, I went to Southern Illinois University in Carbondale knowing that I wanted two things in life, to be able to live abroad and to be able to work in a profession that would allow me to travel the world. By 1989, I was studying abroad in Belgium and then France, and, by 1992, I had my first position teaching English at a university in Osaka, Japan.

How long have you lived in Japan? March 30 marked 23 full years in Japan and 21 in Hokkaido.

When did you first hear about the coronavirus? Probably about the end of December, when the first news was filtering out of China. If something happens in one of our neighbors to the west — China, South Korea, North Korea or Russia — Japan hears about it quickly.

When did it begin affecting your life? People are cautious here. Hokkaido, the island I live on, has been experiencing a tourism boom from East Asia, and particularly China, for the past 10 years. If a virus hits anywhere in the region, it will hit here within weeks, and it did. Our first case in Hokkaido was on Jan. 29, a week before one of our biggest events of the year for tourism, the weeklong Sapporo Snow Festival.

By mid-February, all that was on the news programs was about the virus. I went out to dinner for the last time on Feb. 22, when Hokkaido still had less than 10 cases. Even today, at day 66 since the first case, there have only been 183 cases and eight deaths in a population of 5.4 million people.

It’s because Hokkaido was out ahead of the game. They did two smart things. First, they were the first prefecture in Japan to close schools island wide, one day ahead of the national government doing so for the entire country. Second, we had a two week period where the Hokkaido government asked everyone to be particularly careful and not go out unnecessarily. This was prior to when they believed the peak would be, and during this two week period, the first weekend we were told not to go out at all. People largely obeyed.

What is life like for you now? What can you do? What are you restricted from doing? Where can you go? Our emergency two weeks passed and things from April 1 have slowly started to resume. Apart from schools, and entertainment venues such as concert halls, everything stayed open. There were just no customers. People in Japan are great at restricting themselves. We’ve been through this before with SARS 1 and bird flu.

Japan also has a mask culture, because a large part of the population has seasonal allergies. Basically, we can go anywhere in Japan, and flights are still operating but most are empty. I go shopping at a 24-hour supermarket at 4 a.m. once every 10 days or so rather than weekly during the daytime as I used to. I go to the university when I need to, but I don’t stop along the way unless absolutely necessary. Universities are closed until at least mid-May and most will be online from then on, until the government gives the all clear.

Hokkaido is watching Tokyyo carefully. The number one flight route in Japan is between Tokyo and Sapporo. If Tokyo has an explosion in cases, then Sapporo could be next. Hokkaikdo had the most cases in Japan for the first 57 days then was passed by Tokyo. Now, Hokkaido has fallen to fifth out of the 47 prefectures (states). There is resolve here to take it one day at a time. And, fortunately, this is a fairly sparsely populated island where social distancing is easy.

How long is your government saying this is likely to last? They don’t say anything at the moment about the forecast, at least as far as I have seen. They take it day by day, particularly because Tokyo is experiencing a moderate outbreak. Prior to canceling the Olympics a week or two ago, Tokyo tried to paint a rosy picture for the outside world because they didn’t want to lose the Olympics. But, once they were canceled, everything has been about slowly tightening control to keep the cases as low as possible while allowing people to live their lives.

We received a message yesterday (April 1) from the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo that entry from the U.S. to Japan — and all other Level 3 countries — will be banned beginning April 3. That’s a first probably since World War II. Postal services between Japan and currently 153 countries also has been stopped. Early on, Japan banned price gouging on masks and other essential materials, and banned the export of masks, etc., to other countries. This was smart and helped as well.

Are there any positives? Have you been using your time to finish a project, learn something new, reconnect? Oh yes. If anything, staying at home has caused me to slow down. I’m an academic and a writer. I’m always working on something, often 10 somethings at the same time, while getting ready to go speak somewhere. The weeks at home, now going on seven weeks since I last went out for an event, have allowed me time to think. I’m of course worried about the virus, but at the same time, I’m truly enjoying the quiet time. I have a book that has been sitting on my shelf for 20 years waiting to be read. I intend to read it.

How do you think life might change when this is over? I hope we learn from it.

Alex Gary is a freelance correspondent.