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'Self-restraint police' in Japan harassing business operating amid virus outbreak

Notes reading, "Idiot! Die! Go out of business!" and "Quit while you're at it!" are seen on a sign at an eatery in Yokohama. (Mainichi)
A note posted on the signboard of a live music bar is seen in Tokyo. It reads, "For safety, please place a voluntary ban on the venue until the end of the state of emergency declaration. If I find out (that the bar is open) the next time, I will call police. From a neighbor." (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- Residents apparently driven by an "excessive sense of justice" have been harassing businesses that have continued to operate in Japan amid the novel coronavirus outbreak with threats and demands that they close.

One expert who spoke to the Mainichi Shimbun sees these people -- known as "self-restraint police" online -- as trying to relieve their own worries and frustration by punishing others, and warns that the trend is extremely dangerous as it could lead to discrimination.

"Idiot! Die! Go out of business!" These words were scrawled on a sign posted on the door of an izakaya-style restaurant in Yokohama's Naka Ward south of Tokyo on April 29.

Since early April, when new coronavirus infections were spreading widely throughout Japan, the eatery has opted to sell dinners to go in the evening while continuing to operate for lunch. The sign was posted on the door to let customers know that the place was closed that day, which was a public holiday. Other words scribbled on the sign read, "Quit while you're at it!"

Discouraged by the demands, manager Kazuaki Tobita, 49, closed his restaurant during the long "Golden Week" holiday period for five days from May 2.

"Why would anyone do this kind of thing?" Tobita recalls thinking. "I want the corona situation to recede and things to go back to normal soon," he told the Mainichi Shimbun.

A live music bar in Tokyo's Suginami Ward was similarly harassed by an anonymous person. The establishment had been closed since April 10, but on April 26 it invited a singer who had been scheduled to perform at the bar before it closed and livestreamed the singer's performance with no audience.

During the performance, a piece of paper with a note saying, "Please voluntarily suspend operation of this the venue until the declaration of the state of emergency ends. If I find out (that the bar is open) the next time, I'll call the police." The note was from someone claiming to be "a neighbor."

The bar's manager Hiroaki Murata, 41, said, "It was an event I had planned to support the singer, but the bar wasn't open. It's not that I don't understand the sense of justice of the person who put up the note, but I don't know who did it and I can't explain myself to them. It's a cold world."

The Higashi Tsukuba Utopia animal park in eastern Japan prefecture of Ibaraki decided to resume its operations on May 7 after temporarily closing down from April 18. The decision came as the park had faced mounting costs to keep its approximately 200 animals, divided into about 20 species. At the same time, the park canceled events that would create crowded spaces, and took other preventative measures, upon its decision to reopen.

After it announced its reopening on its website and other places on May 5, the park reportedly received two phone calls around noon the following day, with a man's voice warning, "You know what will happen if you reopen," and, "I'll kill you."

The park resumed its operations on May 7 as scheduled, but worker associated with the facility appeared irritated, saying, "I understand that some people might be against us reopening, but the way they go about it (by threatening us) is wrong."

Naoya Sekiya, an associate professor of social psychology in one of the University of Tokyo's graduate schools, says policing businesses to make them close down "shouldn't be allowed, as the act could constitute a crime, such as contempt or forcible obstruction of business." His analysis is that responses taken by some administrative bodies over the operation of pachinko parlors, in which local governments disclosed the names of pachinko establishments that did not comply with business closure requests, have encouraged citizens' excessive sense of justice.

He warns, "The measure taken (in the pachinko parlor cases) is a way of forcing businesses to close through peer pressure. If local governments continue with the same tactics, it could strengthen mutual surveillance among residents."

(Japanese original by Takuya Suzuki and Nobuyuki Shimada, City News Department)

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