The latest post in our Outbreak series looking at the coronavirus pandemic and its aftershocks. Daniel Nakanishi-Chalwin in Japan explores the new language of infection and William S. Burrough's claim that the 'word is a virus'.
lives in Nara Prefecture in Japan. The author of an unpublishable novel about a man being stalked by insects in Tokyo, he has been a regular contributor to Dark Mountain since 2015.
They don’t know what they’re doing, those bigwigs in their suits and ties. No one quite knows where this will end. There is no all-seeing, all-knowing Power.

The first eight months of 2020 have been defined by a sense of powerlessness. Exposing the vulnerability of human flesh and the myth of human ‘dominion over Nature’, the pandemic has left us swirling, weightless. The sheen of unreality has been exacerbated by the fact that our main frame of reference is the disaster movie, our chief source of information the television screen, emitting its simulacra of simulacra of simulacra… To stop the swirling, to pin down a pattern in the chaos, some went so far as to set 5G mobile phone masts on fire. Those machines have been spreading the coronavirus; take them out. Ridiculous, right?

And yet, and yet. Also impeccably logical. Through text messages, on the Internet, through social media, ideas go viral. The web is a memetic spreader, a vector of transmission. All those unruly words and pictures endlessly replicating themselves. Now I can hear a voice in my head. A relentless, desiccated, deadpan voice, like a beetle boring through wood. It’s William S. Burroughs with a word to the wise:

The word is now a virus. The flu virus may once have been a healthy lung cell. It is now a parasitic organism that invades and damages the lungs. The word may once have been a healthy neural cell. It is now a parasitic organism that invades and damages the central nervous system.

One of the most distinctive thinkers in 20th century literature, Burroughs was a connoisseur of control mechanisms, big and small. Utilising the tropes of pulp fiction – lurid alien invasion sci-fi and gumshoe paranoia – and splicing them with such elements of psychic manipulation as pornography, drug addiction, consumer capitalism and advertising, his work suggests that the fallacy of human agency extends even to our most intimate of inventions, to language itself. Yes, we can think in pure imagery, in sounds or smells, but in an instant the mind gets to work, labelling, denoting, verbalising:

Modern man has lost the option of silence. Try halting your sub-vocal speech. Try to achieve even ten seconds of inner silence. You will encounter a resisting organism that forces you to talk. That organism is the word.

Modern man has lost the option of silence. Try halting your sub-vocal speech. Try to achieve even ten seconds of inner silence. You will encounter a resisting organism that forces you to talk. That organism is the word.

For Burroughs, writing was an attempt both to enact and to subvert this rampant promiscuity of language, literally to dissect it on the page. The cut-up technique involved randomly re-ordering fragments of text, while the fold-in took two texts, folded them in half vertically, and set them side by side to produce a new composite piece. An example is in order, which I propose to select using the time-honoured method of bibliomancy – allowing the book (in this case, The Ticket That Exploded) to fall open and then blindly selecting some phrases:

Shift body halves – Vibrate flesh – Cut tourists [.]’

Two pages later these words reappear in a different form:

Shift linguals – Cut word lines – Vibrate tourists [.]

Then, on the following page:

Break photograph – Shift body halves [.]

(I know what you’re thinking: those quotes are suspiciously apposite. But the novel is full of these repetitions, ghostly echoes, viral mutations).

Although such experimental wordwork, whether cut-up or fold-in, forms the nucleus of a number of Burroughs’ novels, he also interwove more conventional linear narrative. After all, if we’re stuck with this damn word virus, we may as well turn it to our advantage now and again. His preferred mode was satire, and like all good satirists he had a solid moral core that produces moments of biting lucidity:

You can run a government without police if your conditioning program is tight enough but you can’t run a government without bull shit.

From bat shit to bat bodies, possibly via some intermediate species, to humans. From Hubei Province in China to the rest of the world. In Japan, where I live, the first cases of Covid-19 were reported in January. As the disease spread over the following months, I began to notice something strange happening to public rhetoric here – a shift in the linguals. The virus had jumped the language barrier.

All languages constantly absorb, alter or repurpose words and concepts from other languages. Le week-end. Algorithm. Schadenfreude. A curiosity of Japanese is that it is able to mark such borrowings at the level of the written script itself. There are three discrete forms. The logograms called kanji represent nouns and the stems of verbs and adjectives. Of the two purely phonetic syllabaries, hiragana and katakana, the former is curvy in shape (あ, と, わ etc.), and employed for particles or verb and adjective inflections. The latter is more angular (ア, ト, ワ etc.) and most commonly used to write loanwords. These are usually transliterations from English, although the limited number of phonemes in Japanese can leave the originals radically mangled. Thus katakana renders ‘television’ as terebi テレビ, ‘radio’ as rajio ラジオ and ‘Internet’ as intānetto インターネット. As any single piece of Japanese writing will typically mix all three scripts together, the foreign imports stand out clearly in all their spiky otherness. The text is infected with a new strain of the word virus before our eyes. In contrast, unless we choose to italicise, English is liable to appear asymptomatic. ‘Shampoo’ and ‘bungalow’ lose their Hindu identity, ‘anorak’ ceases to be Greenlandic Inuit.

Since the science and jargon of epidemiology originate in mainstream Western medicine and the English-speaking world, it was inevitable that Covid-19 would reach Japan shadowed by its linguistic equivalent. Suddenly the news was riddled with unfamiliar katakana terminology: rokkudaun ロックダウン (‘lockdown’), kurasutā クラスター (‘cluster’), sōsharu disutansu ソーシャル・ディスタンス (‘social distance’), sūpā supureddā スーパー・スプレッダー (‘super spreader’), pandemikku パンデミック (‘pandemic’). COVID-19 itself is referred to as koronauirusu コロナウイルス (‘coronavirus’). This is sometimes prefixed with shingata 新型, meaning ‘new-type’ or ‘novel’, and frequently truncated in everyday dialogue to simply korona コロナ. Such an abrupt influx of strange sounds undoubtedly amplified the sense of extraordinary crisis and left many people bewildered. I remember one elderly man on the news talking anxiously about the possibility of a rokkuauto ロックアウト – a ‘lockout’.

Accompanying these katakana neologisms are a number of Japanese terms that nevertheless adhere so closely to their English forebears – sometimes word for word – that they retain the intimidating air of alien technical language. ‘Droplet infection’ is himatsu kansen 飛沫感染, ‘contact tracing’ is sesshokusha tsuiseki 接触者追跡, and ‘second wave’ is dai ni ha 第2波. Sometimes Japanese translations gloss their inscrutable katakana twins. In the early days of the disease, ‘social distancing’ was defined somewhat verbosely as shakaiteki kyori no kakuho 社会的距離の確保, literally ‘ensuring social distance’. Unfortunately, the translation is so literal as to convey almost nothing. (Though, come to think of it, without any context ‘social distancing’ is hardly crystal-clear even in English. The act of becoming a hermit? To ostracise a member of your peer group?)

When they aren’t wielding it to obfuscate and deflect, governments require rhetoric to condition our behaviour. At least some of the time it must, therefore, communicate – or, in the parlance of virology, be communicable. One uniquely Japanese formulation has been mittsu no mitsu 3つの密 or ‘the Three Mitsus’, referring to three nouns that all begin with the kanji for ‘denseness’ or ‘closeness’: mippei 密閉 (‘enclosed [spaces]’), misshū 密集 (‘crowds’) and missetsu 密接 (‘close contact’). Avoid these three and prevent infection; conventional medical wisdom, perhaps, but expressed in properly home-grown terms. There is, however, one corona catchword, invoked almost daily by both the government and the media, which has no English antecedent at all, whether conceptually or etymologically.


Jishuku 自粛 or ‘self-restraint’ implies limiting one’s own behaviour without any external pressure to do so. Appearing most often in the phrase gaishutsu jishuku 外出自粛, ‘to refrain voluntarily from going out’, it highlights one key feature of the pandemic response in Japan – there has been no technical lockdown. No regulations to restrict movement, no police on the streets issuing admonitions or fines. With curfews private and self-imposed, rather than the result of state coercion, the emphasis has been on cooperation, on pulling together, which is, after all, a social imperative in a country frequently rocked by natural disasters. In fact, the last significant spasm of national self-restraint was in 2011, following the catastrophic earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown. What began as a practical response – protect the damaged power grid by conserving electricity, avoid panic buying and the stress it would place on fragile supply lines – soon developed an overt moral edge. The mood was dark, the shock deep, and anything frivolous or celebratory was deemed improper. Sporting events, festivals, cherry blossom viewing and product launches were cancelled or postponed, even in regions far from the disaster epicentre. A similarly sombre mood, and a similar clampdown on the unseemly, attended the final illness and death of Emperor Hirohito in January 1989. People refrained from holding New Year parties, some called off their own weddings.Jishuku, then, may seem to arise spontaneously from the individual, but in reality its content is determined by the expectations of the group.

The tendency to prioritise the group over the individual goes back to at least the Edo Period (1603 – 1868). With overseas travel prohibited and trade with the outside world severely curtailed, Japan turned in on itself, opting to self-isolate for over 200 years. A rigid class system based on occupation strengthened group identity, since social mobility was almost impossible, while a form of collective punishment meant stepping out of line had ramifications for one’s entire community. In the absence of a stable, published criminal code, that line was vague at best, making self-censorship and the internalisation of social norms a necessity. It is in this context that jishuku serves as a potent trigger word for tapping into a valuable cultural resource. It may partly explain Japan’s relatively low Covid infection rates so far. You can run a government without police if your conditioning program is tight enough…

And yet, and yet. Abstract nouns are more diffuse than concrete ones. A spade may be just a spade, but one person’s sensible self-restraint is another’s self-flagellating overkill. Even conformist Japan has its contrarians and thus a need for the jishuku keisatsu 自粛警察, ‘the self-restraint police’, newly coined to denote those hypersensitive to the social-distancing transgressions of others. Ironically, these self-appointed guardians of public health often direct their complaints to the real police, who can do nothing as no actual laws are being broken.

So much for linguistic mind control. The language sickness is simultaneously all-pervasive, all-powerful – and too weak by half, as easily erased as many other viruses. No wonder many writers evince a love-hate relationship with their own material. After pages and pages spent cutting, folding and generally stressing the text, William Burroughs makes an almost nihilistic proposal: ‘Shut the whole machine off – Rub out the word’. It is this very sentiment, this awareness of the limitations of language, that is neatly encapsulated by one of language’s own written symbols, the second kanji in jishuku.

The first character ji 自 is a diagram of a nose, hence ‘the self’, but the second is more complicated both in its shape and range of meanings. Shuku 粛 expresses such ideas as ‘quiet, solemn, purge, enforce, refrain’. Structurally, it consists of two parts. The top portion derives from 聿, depicting a hand holding a brush, while the lower section is an abbreviated form of 淵, representing water eddying in an enclosed space, and so signifying a ‘deep pool’ or ‘abyss’.

A body holding itself tense on the brink of a chasm, language and action suspended; that tiny gesture, the poised brush, and then the void.

A body holding itself tense on the brink of a chasm, language and action suspended; that tiny gesture, the poised brush, and then the void. This is the human condition, the lot, indeed, of all living creatures throughout history, regardless of whatever new ways to die might emerge from time to time. Faced with this existential truth, the linguistic mind can seem utterly inadequate, a blabbering tape loop that posits everything and resolves nothing. In the midst of a swirling crisis, there is great value in being a mute body instead, in dwelling in pure physicality.

And yet, and yet. Here comes Burroughs again – ‘Yes sir, boys, its hard to stop that old writing arm – more of a habit than using’. Sooner or later ink drips from the stilled brush into the chasm. Words are born in that resonant space. Words that beget words. Seamus Heaney recognised this process of creation in his poem Personal Helicon. After describing a childhood obsession with wells, with ‘the dark drop, the trapped sky’, he ends with a declaration of intent – ‘I rhyme / To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.’ This is language as a probe, siting the self. Language as echolocation.

Back, then, to those troublesome bats. This mess we’re in. But viruses and microbes have always been an integral part of the human story, those infiltrating organisms that blur the boundaries of the body, that prevent us from being sealed creatures, mere brains in bell jars. And language is a similarly wild virus, albeit a highly beneficial one if used properly. An alternative parsing of the character 粛 re-interprets the lower segment, the water vortex, as a pair of compasses, a tool for drawing the kind of perfect circles that ripples achieve without effort. The brush-hand is attentive, precise, serious. We may only be primates with the speaking sickness, but language can construct both the Wordsworthian sublime and the Trumpian idiolect. The wise know the relative worth of each and choose their words with care.


Dark Mountain: Issue 17

The Spring 2020 issue brings together essays. stories, poetry and artwork creating a new culture of restoration.


Read more


William Burroughs from The Ticket That Exploded (Penguin Books, London, 2014)

Seamus Heaney; Death of a Naturalist  (Faber and Faber, London, 2006 edition)


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *