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Park facilities under patchwork closures as Japan gov't avoids issuing exercise guidance

A sign informing residents that various facilities are unavailable for use at the Kashiwanoha park in Kashiwa, Chiba Prefecture, is seen put up in front of its closed-off playground equipment, on April 11, 2020. (Mainichi/Shuji Ozaki)
Kashiwanoha park in Kashiwa, Chiba Prefecture, is seen bustling with children when its playground equipment was still open, on March 21, 2020. (Mainichi/Shuji Ozaki)

TOKYO -- Parks across Japan are increasingly putting in place their own measures to ban the use of playground equipment such as slides as part of efforts to avoid children from gathering during the spread of the novel coronavirus.

But taking appropriate levels of exercise to maintain health remains essential, so many parks aren't going as far as banning people from entering them or their sports grounds, but some small parks in cities have decided to close parts off.

In the background to all of this is that although the government is encouraging people to go out jogging and for walks, no specific guidelines on exercise and how to use parks have been issued, and it appears that it is just up to each local government to improvise their decisions on the matter.

Many gyms and other indoor facilities have been closed since the middle of March, but since the national government issued its state of emergency declaration, many outdoor spaces used by groups for sports including soccer, baseball and ground golf have been made unavailable for use.

Furthermore, jungle gyms, slides and other playground equipment installed in parks are also being closed off in some places. Some other local governments are instead pursuing policies of calling for people to wash their hands thoroughly after using playground equipment, among other measures.

In the city of Kashiwa in Chiba Prefecture, a commuter town located east of Tokyo, the gym, soccer field, baseball ground, rest area and other facilities at the prefecture-run Kashiwanoha park have been closed since April 4. It has also banned the use of its outdoor playground equipment, and closing time at its parking lot has been brought forward each day to 5 p.m.

A 43-year-old man who came to the park with his son, a second grader at elementary school, said, "I thought we would come here and play on the big slide they have, so it's a shame, but there's nothing we can do." Conversely, a 57-year-old woman who came to jog at the park that evening said, "The car parks are closed so the number of people has really fallen. I can do my exercise from the evening while feeling secure."

On the banning of playground equipment use, the Chiba Prefectural Government's Parks and Greenery Division said, "If they can use the equipment, then children will gather, and it'll turn into a situation where they're speaking loudly to each other in close proximity." They reported receiving comments both for and against the measures, but went ahead with the same procedures across the parks it owns.

Elsewhere south of Tokyo, the Odawara Suwanohara Park based in the city of Odawara and managed by the Kanagawa Prefectural Government has also made its playground equipment unavailable for use from April 9 until the end of August. Additionally, it has stopped its services lending out balls, toy hoops and other items. Equipment at the children's playground is now also unusable at the Hamanako Garden Park in the city of Hamamatsu in neighboring Shizuoka Prefecture.

Many of the numerous small parks found in city centers are also being closed. Some children's parks and other open areas that can easily foster situations in which people are close together in Tokyo's Arakawa and Sumida wards, among others, have been closing since the start of April.

While responses have varied across Japan, some of the states and countries in North America and Europe, where controls on going outside are stricter, have mandated how much time people can be outside for exercising, and what distance they should keep from each other. But at the time of writing the Japan Sports Agency reportedly has no plans to introduce guidelines on what exactly is a safe exercise environment.

Daichi Suzuki, the agency's commissioner, said at an April 8 press conference, "There's no issue with engaging in activities like walking, jogging or exercising in an environment free from infection risks." The agency's Sports for Health Division has said that when individuals are exercising outdoors, their attention should be focused on "as much as possible avoiding the three Cs of confined spaces, crowded places and close contact with people as described by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare."

The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism's infection prevention policy for parks in cities is to "leave the decision-making up to local authorities who manage them," according to its Parks, Green Spaces and Landscape Division. The guidance and response to the novel coronavirus is therefore being left entirely up to prefectural governments and municipal authorities.

On Twitter, many users are putting up posts expressing their concerns over the risks of infection at crowded parks, but others have also written about being verbally abused even after going into parks with their children where no one is around. There is also a notable volume of messages asking the national government to put out guidelines as soon as possible.

(Japanese original by Shuji Ozaki, Regional News Department)

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