Death of beloved comedian sounds coronavirus warning to Japan

Shimura Ken, the iconic comedian adored by generations of Japanese people, died on Sunday due to pneumonia caused by COVID-19. His sudden death has sent shockwaves throughout the country, sparking both outpourings of grief and calls for increased caution against the new coronavirus.

Shimura's management office says the 70-year-old was hospitalized on March 20th after complaining of fatigue. He developed severe pneumonia and tested positive for the coronavirus on March 23rd. He died just two weeks after first showing symptoms. It is not known how and where he contracted the virus.

Shimura (second from left) joined the comedy group "The Drifters" as a full member in 1974.

Shimura was born in 1950 in Tokyo. As a high school student, he joined The Drifters comedy troupe as an apprentice. In 1974, he became a full member, marking the start of a rise that would see him become one of the biggest stars in Japanese comedy.

For children growing up in 1970s and 80s Japan, The Drifters' Saturday night comedy show was appointment viewing. I remember sitting in front of the TV, barely able to contain my excitement, waiting for Shimura and his friends to appear and play a variety of strange and engaging characters. "Foolish Warlord", "Mustache Dance" and "Weird Uncle" are just some of the gags that have become synonymous with that era of Japan.

"Foolish Warlord" is one of Shimura's most popular characters.

As Shimura's popularity rose, he became known throughout Asia. On Monday, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen posted a tweet thanking him for bringing laughter to her people. His death has been reported around the world, with outlets such as Reuters and the AP noting his outsized influence on Japanese comedy.

Shimura's death has also seemed to bring about a greater sense of urgency in Japan about the coronavirus. Many people on Twitter expressed the feeling that it felt like someone close had died, as Shimura had been a constant presence in their lives. The tweets also indicated that people are taking the virus more seriously.

"Us younger people need to be determined not to spread the virus," said one tweet.

"If you're sad that Shimura Ken is dead, then don't leave your home for non-essential purposes," said another one.

"Don't just worry about catching the virus, worry about infecting others," said another.

Hikakin is a popular Japanese YouTuber.

Popular YouTuber Hikakin says he idolized Shimura since childhood and was greatly influenced by his style of comedy. He says Shimura's death has inspired him to reach out to his young fans about the seriousness of the virus.

"Young people, please understand that we are in a crisis," he says in a video. "I understand you guys want to go out and see the cherry blossoms, but don't do that."

Hikakin says Shimura's death has been difficult to process. But he hopes young people honor Shimura by exercising more caution. He says he wants them to live every day with a sense of urgency, imagining the regret they would feel if they infected a family member or friend and that person died. He says he believes that in death, Shimura Ken may end up saving many lives.

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