TThe onset of dusk is normally Tokyo’s biggest red light district signal to come to life. But in the midst of a pandemic, even neon lights couldn’t lift the coronavirus cloud hanging over Kabukicho this week.
Doormen in masks and visors waved to casual passers-by with promises of a ‘sensual massage’, and clubs tempted thirsty office workers with all-you-can-eat offers for ¥ 1,000 (£ 7).
But these are rare signs of activity in Kabukicho, an area teeming with thousands of bars, clubs, restaurants and sex establishments, which is now the target of criticism that it is fueling a second wave of the coronavirus.
Strategic tests in Tokyo’s nightlife districts have revealed an increasing number of cases, mostly in people in their 20s and 30s. Several groups have been assigned to the Kabukicho Host and Hostess Clubs, where up to 10,000 men and women are employed to serve drinks, light cigarettes and chat with customers.
Smaller clubs where physical distancing is next to impossible have closed, while others have continued in the faint hope that the capital’s nighttime economy can survive a brief surge in infections. But they include those who have not taken preventive measures.
“Some places have a good understanding of the risks posed by the virus and are doing the right thing, but others don’t,” said Koichi Teratani, an authority from Kabukicho. “The region is really in trouble.”
She said the closure of clubs and sex shops had also affected restaurants and bars in the area, with attendance falling by 90% for some. About 150,000 people once passed through Kabukicho every day, but now the number is closer to 30,000.
A return to a semblance of normality is still a long way off. Japan reported a record 750 new cases on Wednesday, weeks after the government lifted a nationwide state of emergency to encourage economic activity and, inevitably, more human contact.
Tokyo reported a record 366 new infections on Thursday, a day after the city’s governor, Yuriko Koike, urged residents to stay home for the four-day weekend. With host and hostess clubs now synonymous with the spread of the virus, industry representatives say this vital part of the capital’s entertainment scene has become a scapegoat for authorities’ inability to give clear guidance on public health measures.
“Nothing will change if you criticize us only as bad guys,” said Kaori Koga, representative director of the Nightlife Business Association (NBA), adding that the government had not recognized attempts by clubs to implement measures. preventive measures or offered sufficient financial assistance to businesses. and their employees.
The NBA drafted safety rules for its members, including disinfecting karaoke microphones, as it found government recommendations, such as wearing masks and a two-meter physical distance, were impractical .
Shinya Iwamuro, urologist and public health advocate who traveled to nightlife areas in Tokyo to educate bars and clubs on hygiene and infection control, said staff needed rules of thumb on how to interact with customers.
That means no kissing and no sharing of plates of food, he said, with right-angle conversations to avoid droplet contamination. “Whenever possible, kiss only with your partner and avoid deep kissing,” Iwamuro said, emphasizing what he described as “kiss etiquette”.
Erin, who has worked as a hostess at Kabukicho for a decade, wears a mask at work, as do her clients, who are asked to sanitize their hands and have their temperature taken before admission.
But keeping a distance becomes more difficult as the evening progresses. “We sit side by side at a distance, but some customers start to flirt and touch each other, especially the drunks,” she told The Guardian. “The early evening is dead and the overall number of customers is much lower than before. We used to have a lot of employees, but their companies told them to stay away from hostess clubs.
“Many single mothers rely on the industry as a lifeline. I’m single and have no kids, and I have some savings, but a lot of the women I know wouldn’t have anything to fall back on if they lost their jobs.
Naming and humiliating companies where there have been outbreaks won’t do much to contain the virus, according to Koga, who estimates more than a million people work in the industry.
“The workers are horrified that they could be responsible for closing their club because they were infected,” she said. “This means workers can try to hide their symptoms and avoid getting tested.
“Bringing together companies that are taking appropriate coronavirus action and those that are not is not the answer. For Japan to overcome this crisis and its nightlife to become vibrant again, we need more understanding, not criticism. “
Erin’s name has been changed at his request