As part of their response to the spread of the novel coronavirus, more and more parks across Japan are asking people to stop visiting, and limiting the playground equipment children can use.
The moves, implemented by both the national and local governments, come in response to groups going to or forming in parks despite stay-at-home advisories, including families and joggers. However, parents are also concerned about potential effects on their children's growth caused by closing the facilities and removing space for them to play outside during the extended "Golden Week" holiday period in late April and early May.
On April 29, when Tokyo recorded highs of over 20 degrees Celsius, the outdoor play set in Sumida Ward's Kinshi Park was taped off. Families that were there played on the grass and the swings.
A 38-year-old music teacher from the capital's Koto Ward took her eldest son, 2, to the park. She told the Mainichi Shimbun, "He likes the play set, but I'm also worried about infection. It was easy to convince him that he couldn't use them now, but consoling him about it on the way home will be tiring."
About 600 meters south at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government-managed Sarue-onshi Park in Koto Ward, yellow tape reading "no entry" has been set up around its play equipment and messages are being broadcast asking people not to use them. An elementary school 5th-grade boy who was playing with five others at the park said, "It's boring because we can't use the playground," and then he started climbing a tree.
Since a state of emergency was declared for Tokyo on April 7, more people have been visiting the metro government-run parks on weekends, with dense crowds forming at locations including the Komazawa Olympic Park that straddles Setagaya and Meguro wards. According to the Tokyo Metropolitan Park Association, at least 10 parks in the capital had full parking lots on the weekends, and it received dozens of complaints daily asking for them to be shut.
On April 23, the national government requested that prefectural governments ask their residents to use parks in smaller numbers, and for people to avoid crowded times. A senior Tokyo Metropolitan Government official said, "During the (Golden Week) holiday period, many people who have decided not to take vacations in distant places could try to go to parks in the capital." With these concerns in mind, Tokyo then closed all of its parks' parking lots, and any open spaces with playground equipment. They also called on residents not to use them.
Tokyo's ward governments are also urging an end to gatherings at parks, and as a result use of play equipment in Suginami and Katsushika wards is now limited. Minato Ward has gone as far as blocking off its park benches.
But these controls have not been limited to Tokyo. In the central Japan city of Gifu, signs reading "use suspended" have gone up at all of the city's 380 parks, and parking lots and large play equipment have been closed since April 10. A city government official said, "There are many parks we physically can't close because they're designated evacuation areas, but usage is falling."
In the northwestern Japan city of Mutsu, Aomori Prefecture, the local government has since April 21 been warning residents ahead of the cherry blossom-viewing season to not put out picnic blankets or consume food and drink in 13 prime sakura spots.
There are also some municipal governments which have only blocked off play sets where many people tend to gather. By April 24, the city of Sendai in northeastern Japan had closed these facilities at 220 of its parks. Because many of the spaces attract large numbers of children plus their parents, it was decided that they presented a high risk of transmission.
While people can still use single-use play equipment like slides and swings, a person in charge at the city government said, "We do really want people to come and play to relieve stress, but to prevent further infections we have no choice but to look into barring them from using the equipment."
From April 29, the city of Asaka in Saitama Prefecture, just north of Tokyo, forbade use of playground sets, but many areas with single-use equipment were left open. A city government official explained, "Parks are open areas, and there have to be places in cities that children can feel is for them, and where they can walk around. If we went as far as closing slides and other single-use play equipment, it'd be like saying they can't touch anything. It's more realistic in that case to rigorously enforce handwashing."
About every three days, a 57-year-old private elementary school teacher in Kawasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture, south of Tokyo, takes his wife to work by car, and then he and their 3-year-old daughter go to play at the Tokyo municipal Kinuta Park in Setagaya Ward. After they use her beloved jungle gym, they always spray alcohol-based sanitizer they bring on their hands and the climbing frame. But now the parking lots are closed and they can't go.
"We're playing more card games like 'karuta' at home, but not going out at all will have an effect on my daughter's development. Also, the park near to us is quite narrow and could get crowded easily, and the roads there are dangerous," the teacher said.
Some are also voicing opposition to the mounting requests for people to refrain from ordinary activities. A 35-year-old part-time worker in Tokyo's Setagaya Ward told the Mainichi Shimbun she had been looking for parks and riverside spaces without people to maintain a daily play rhythm for her children, aged 3 and 1.
She added, "I get that if the government doesn't tell people to 'refrain' then people will just show up. But if you ask people to stay home, you're leaving all the decision-making up to them. If we did get infected, we'd probably get told off by people around us saying things like, 'If only you hadn't gone outside.'"
*** A list of local authorities' policies toward park and play-area usage
Suspending usage and asking for people to stop going to parks:
Tokyo, Gifu Prefecture, Kagawa Prefecture, the city of Neyagawa in Osaka Prefecture, and others
Banned use of playground equipment (including areas where only some equipment is banned from use):
Miyagi Prefecture, Yamaguchi Prefecture, Fukuoka Prefecture, Sendai City, city of Koriyama in Fukushima Prefecture, city of Tsukuba in Ibaraki Prefecture, city of Kariya in Aichi Prefecture
Asking people to refrain from eating or drinking in parks:
City of Mutsu in Aomori Prefecture, and others
Areas where parking lots have been closed (including partial closures):
Shiga Prefecture, city of Sagamihara, city of Hamamatsu, and others
(Japanese original by Nanae Hayashida, Regional News Department, and Hiroko Michishita, Special Reports Department)