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Where’s the holy water?

August 18, 2009

My young son and I were heading into Catholic church on Sunday in Tokyo when we noticed something odd: There was no holy water at the entrance.

It felt strange. What could be more Catholic than crossing yourself with a dab of holy water as you race into Mass to find a pew?


At least that’s my image from as far back as childhood, along with all the standing-sitting-kneeling action and kids squirming in their seats anxious to grab a pastry in the basement lounge area after the service.

But we were told on Sunday that the Franciscan Chapel Center was emptying and covering the holy water basins to help prevent the spread of swine flu.

The chapel center, which caters mostly to expats in a country where less than half a percent of the population is Catholic, is also requesting that parishioners greet each other by bowing — not shaking hands – among other steps.

It was the first time in a while I had thought about the threat of swine flu, which dominated the headlines only three months ago but then faded as most cases turned out to be mild.

But swine flu is back in the news. The Health Ministry said a man in his 50s from Okinawa had died from the H1N1 influenza virus at the weekend, Japan’s first fatality from the disease. Media then reported on Tuesday that a man in his 70s had died from the virus.


I guess the chapel center’s steps make sense: Physical contact such as shaking hands is meant to be an easy way to transmit the virus, and you can just as easily greet someone by bowing.

But I can’t help feeling a bit saddened. I always enjoyed greeting others at church with a friendly handshake — a nice change in a city where strangers rarely speak to each other and usually avoid eye contact. (In Tokyo, don’t expect any small talk from the convenience-store cashier or assistance lugging a heavy suitcase up the stairs in the train station.)

And take all the precautions you want, you’ll still pick up germs from all the door knobs, subway straps, escalator handrails and other items that are an unavoidable part of life in a big city.

Photo credits: REUTERS/Kiyoshi Ota (top), Kim Kyung Hoon (bottom)

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