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Tokyo's nighttime businesses struggle as coronavirus turns customers away

An entertainment quarter with hardly any people on the street is seen in the Kabukicho district of Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward shortly after 12 a.m. on April 2, 2020. Normally the area is filled with people until the time of the last train of the evening. (Mainichi/Buntaro Saito)

TOKYO -- Workers at bars, restaurants and "cabaret club" adult entertainment businesses are feeling the pinch as salarymen and students disappear from the streets of Tokyo's Shinjuku district at night amid the spread of the novel coronavirus.

On the evening of April 1, neon signs lit up a street that was still wet from the rain as a large display set up in front of Shinjuku Station screened a video of Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike calling on residents to remain indoors. Major streets, normally packed with business workers, were mostly empty, with just a few people scattered about. "Let us take actions that will protect lives," Koike's voice rang out.

In the Kabukicho entertainment district of Shinjuku, shutters had been pulled down over some "free referral centers," as businesses that introduce potential customers to pubs, cabaret clubs and other such establishments are known. There also seemed to be fewer workers on the streets trying to lure customers.

"I've been standing around all day and there've been zero customers," said one 35-year-old free referral center worker with a resigned expression. "You can't work in these conditions." The worker is paid commission based on the number of customers he introduces. If there are no customers, he is basically working for free. "I want to close down," he says.

The "Golden-gai" area of Kabukicho, which is home to some 300 restaurants and bars, would normally be filled with foreign customers, but now the area is devoid of people, and a number of businesses had signs up informing customers that they were closed.

"In times like these, you feel unpatriotic for opening an establishment," murmured a 31-year-old female bar worker. "Instead of (Tokyo) just asking people to refrain from going out voluntarily, I'd prefer that they banned business from operating. But if they start saying that (businesses can't operate) then they have to compensate us. I can see how it would be hard for administrative bodies to say that," she added, casting a cold glance at the empty streets.

A 23-year-old woman working at a cabaret club said that sales began of fall when the novel coronavirus started spreading, and customers further shied away after the governor's request for people to stay at home was issued on March 25.

She said it was impossible to wear a mask at work, and if a customer arrived, she had to speak with them while sitting close enough for their skin to touch. She says she hides her worries about the virus with a smile, but there are people who start to spit while talking as they drink more. She says the most she can do about it is to casually wipe the droplets away with a handkerchief.

A practically empty street is seen in the Kabukicho district of Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward shortly after 12 a.m. on April 2, 2020. (Mainichi/Buntaro Saito)

"I'm grateful to have customers, but I find it hard to be sincerely happy," she said.

Another 29-year-old woman who works in the adult entertainment industry echoed agreement on the impact of the viral outbreak.

"Compared with before the coronavirus outbreak, I'm doing less than a third of the work I was doing before," she lamented. She says she wants some kind of compensation, but is hesitant to ask for it. "In this line of work, it's hard to puff up your chest and ask other people for help," she explains.

Lawyer Asuka Yasui, who has offered consultation through "Fu Terrace," an organization that provides legal and other consulting for women in the adult entertainment industry, says that since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, more women have been saying they are unable to return loans or are not in a position to make a living. Sometimes they are lured my men who promise to give them some extra cash and are sexually assaulted.

"To make sure that the people who find it hard to raise their voices don't fall through the gaps, on top of offering compensation for loss of work, how about a policy that gives them a basic income or something like that?" Yasui suggests.

Coronavirus infections are apparently spreading among workers in Japan's adult entertainment industry. According to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, of the people in Tokyo infected with the virus over the last two weeks of March through an unknown source, 38 people, or about 30%, were suspected to be connected to restaurants or other businesses involved in serving customers, such as cabaret clubs. Because of this, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government has asked residents of the capital to refrain from going to restaurants and bars that entertain customers from the evening through the following morning.

Shinjuku Ward, home to major entertainment districts in the capital, accordingly released a notice on its website calling for people to refrain from visiting such establishments that entertain customers. According to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, a total of 30 people infected with the novel coronavirus as of April 1 were living in Shinjuku Ward.

About one-fourth of the infected people that the Shinjuku Public Health Center was aware of as of the end of March were working in businesses with a connection to nightlife, and the center said that infections were increasing among young people. If the "scouts" that try to lure potential workers in entertainment districts are infected, then it is difficult to find that fact out from the person themselves or from their employer. This in turn makes it difficult to investigate who they were in close contact with.

The metropolitan government is requesting measures by the central government for small- and middle-sized businesses such as restaurants and bars that are suffering financially from the call for people to stop visiting them, and is also considering introducing its own support steps, but no concrete measures have emerged to date.

(Japanese original by Buntaro Saito and Asako Takeuchi, City News Department)

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