Why travel bans trigger news addiction

These days I often hear things like “come on, you should give up now, get a job somewhere else! Why do you want to go to such a country?” And then “maybe it is your dream to go to Japan. That’s why you’ve been so patient, right?” But the truth is more complicated. I doubt anyone stuck with the Japan travel ban was ready for such a long wait. The truth, I believe, is that many of us have become addicted to waiting.

Checking the news is the new smoking

Growing up in the nineties, addiction is a word I was taught to associate with dangerous drugs, and the image of some desperate bearded men with filthy hair. Tobacco, cannabis, alcohol (except for a good glass of Bordeaux, this being France), these were the kind of things that caused addiction. Physical dependence was a real danger, psychological dependence merely a debated side-effect. Or so we were taught.

A few years later though, as a student in Paris, I was addicted to playing la coinche, a four-players cards game, highly popular in my previous school. I knew I was addicted, because I had read Wikipedia’s academic definition of addiction, and checked nearly all the boxes. I played with classmates late in the evenings. We played especially late on days before exams, especially when none of us was prepared, and especially when we were all already sleep-deprived. The Wikipedia page was scary, but I had managed to turn three good friends in total addicts just like me, so we had good fun. Except for the sleeping-in-class, and for the exams of course.

Fast-forward to the 21st century, we now live in an age when addiction is ubiquitous and rarely a drug thing. In fact, addiction has somehow become so casual that it is now the business model for the world’s most successful tech companies. “Because”, as Bill Mayer said to the camera in May 2017: “let’s face it, checking your ‘likes’ is the new smoking” (quote from Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport). Well, for those waiting for months to restart their studies, research, work, relationships and family lives in Japan, chances are that “let’s face it, checking news from Japan is the new smoking”.

Over the last few months, my relationship with the news, and especially news about Japanese politics, has gone from largely unconcerned to compulsively addicted. Before the pandemic, I knew of a few friends and colleagues addicted to the news, but this was something I could not really understand. Why would one spend hours on reading online newspapers, when there are so many more fun things to do? And it’s all pretty much bad news anyway, right? Asking a news addict why he’s wasting his time, is the same as asking a smoker why she’d purposely destroy her lungs. It is just missing the point. But compulsive news-checking is not quite the same as smoking. In some ways, I would like to argue that it is even worse.

We’re all gamblers in a pachinko

Luckily, travel bans are much safer for our lungs than smoking. But I do think they can truly mess up with our brains. When you smoke, you get a fix. But when you check the news about Japan’s borders these days, you never know what you get. It’s a gamble.

A lesser known and not-so-glorious aspect of Japanese culture is the pachinko. When I lived in Japan in 2018 and 2019, I did a bit of bicycle touring. When cycling into a small country town, I typically found a non-branded convenience store, public baths, a small restaurant, and, hidden on the woody outskirts, a love hotel bearing a nonsensical French name written in pink katakana, and an equally shabby-looking building labelled “pachinko”. Japan’s pachinkos are like casinos in Europe, except that they are many more of them, and that they inspire misery instead of luxury. Sometimes I used my bike early in the morning, and while most activity in Japan begins quite late in the day, I was surprised to observe long lines of middle-aged men waiting to enter the pachinko. I think their faces looked very much like my own face as I squint to read latest news on Japan’s border closures every morning.

There is a scientific explanation as to why the gambling industry is addictive, and therefore lucrative. In 1965, psychologists Michael D. Zeiler and Aida E. Price published a set of now-famous experiments on pigeons. It had been known since World War II, that pigeons can be taught a habit to peck a button for a systematic food reward, which the US Navy even successfully used to test mechanical, pigeon-guided missiles. But this later study showed that rewards delivered randomly were, in fact, far more efficient than systematic rewards at conditioning the pigeons’ behaviour. This is what makes slot-machines and Facebook’s like button addictive, even when you’re loosing money, even when no one actually “likes” you. This is also what, I believe, makes this travel ban miserable.

To those who have been waiting for months to restart their work and lives in Japan, checking the news is like going to the pachinko. With the uncertainty of the pandemic, and added uncertainty of the volatile political response, it is almost impossible to predict what you get when opening the news. But wait, pachinkos attract customers because of the occasional random win. So why are we stuck with a travel ban that has been all about loosing so far? What keeps so many of us playing a game where only a tiny minority of 0.03% ever won? Again, science gives an explanation.

“In 2010”, writes Charles Duhigg in The power of habit, “a cognitive neuroscientist named Reza Habib asked twenty-two people to lie inside an MRI and watch a slot machine spin around and around. […] But what was really interesting were the near misses. To pathological gamblers, near misses looked like wins. Their brains reacted almost the same way. But to a nonpathological gambler, a near miss was like a loss. People without a gambling problem were better at recognizing that a near miss means you still lose.” Quarantine reduction half-measures, border pseudo-reopening measures, and in my case, a flight and quarantine cancelled on the last day. I think the Japan travel ban has given us its share of near misses indeed, and that our addicted brains keep asking for more.

It does not cost much to spend an hour in the pachinko, but it is well known that if it becomes a habit, gambling can ruin your wallet. I think there are two differences between pachinkos and Japan’s travel ban. The first is that pachinkos are designed precisely to ruin your wallet, which despite worrying signs I still hope is not the purpose of the travel ban. The second difference is that in our case, it is not only money that we gamble. It is our social life, our work, our homes, and meaning or, as the Okinawans put it so well, our ikigai.

A tentative word of advice

Thanks to initiatives from Rossi-san and many others, there is a sense of community growing around people affected by Japan’s travel ban. Because everyone’s situation is different, it is difficult to give some kind of generic advice. But if you are reading this and also feel “addicted”, let me share what helped a bit in my case.

Last month, I could get a visa. We booked the flight, the two-weeks quarantine. I passed the PCR test. For a few days or weeks, I truly believed that I was going to Japan and back to work. Then on the day before my flight, we had to cancel everything, and excitement turned to anger. In the following days, all kinds of inconsistent and disturbing news came from Japan. More anger. But in the end I am grateful for that excitement, and I am grateful for that anger, for these feelings lifted me up above the nebulous cloud of languish that had fogged my horizon for months before these events. Instead of waiting for the border to perhaps reopen at the end of the month, I used that short burst of energy to prepare a plan B, and to share this story.

My plan B is to do remote work for the university that wants to hire me. It is not a satisfactory solution for anyone involved. The pay is poor (weak yen not helping), and my employers are dealing with hefty paperwork again. To make things more difficult and embarrassing, my future boss is on a long-awaited and stressful fieldwork in Antarctica and only reachable by satellite phone. But I am not exactly ready to give up, I do not have better offers yet, and, most urgently, I need something to keep me off the news. So it is a temporary solution, but it does feel like a good temporary solution.

Again, I realise that everyone’s situation is different. For some, a plan B will be a kind of temporary compromise or remote work like me. For others, it will be a plan to live outside Japan. For others yet, it may be a kind of new activity that does not depend on the borders status. At this moment, there are real reasons to be angry with Japan’s politics, and there are real reasons to be worried about our future. Often, anger is egocentric and unjustified. But sometimes, it can be reasonable and constructive to be angry. I believe this is one such time. I hope that each of us suffering from Japan’s travel ban will make a good use of that anger to secure their own alternative path out of this strange addiction.