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How the Shinjuku gov't and Kabukicho nightlife district partnered to deal with coronavirus

TOKYO -- As Tokyo continues to record dozens of new coronavirus cases each day, the Kabukicho nightlife district in Shinjuku Ward has become a particular focus for concerns over the spread of infections.

Residents have taken an increasingly harsh view of the district's struggles, to the point that its name has even become synonymous with the coronavirus's spread. But many people in Kabukicho's adult entertainment industry do feel a sense of crisis about the situation, and while they remain exposed to criticism, involved parties have been working behind the scenes to prevent the spread from continuing.

At the end of May, Maki Tezuka, 42, manager of around 20 host clubs and other establishments, was worried. He'd just reopened his businesses after temporary closures. As much as possible he'd taken measures to prevent infections, including reducing the number of hosts and customers who can enter, and banning some activities as part of attempts to avoid the "3 Cs" of confined spaces, crowded places, and close contact.

But when staff at other businesses in the industry got infected, Kabukicho as a whole came under increased scrutiny, with many customers staying away.

Maki Tezuka, a major figure in Japan's host industry, is seen discussing his concerns about the spread of the novel coronavirus, in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo. (Mainichi/Yongho Lee)

It had been the same when Tezuka closed all his businesses in April with the state of emergency declaration. Looking across Kabukicho, he saw that there were other clubs that stayed open, with the lights never going out in the district. Reflecting on the situation, Tezuka said, "There was no point if only my businesses were taking measures. With that in mind, I thought, what could all of Kabukicho do to reduce infections?"

Tezuka has worked as a host for over 20 years. He loves Kabukicho, where anyone can go to spend their time in any manner they wish. He feels the character of the area when he sees drunk customers, businesses with shady practices, and the way it brings together a broad spectrum of people.

But he felt concerned knowing that even amid the spread of the virus, some of his contemporaries were keeping their businesses going, and a considerable number of hosts were continuing to go out for drinks with regular customers. "It's an obvious thing perhaps, but there really are more people who only think about earning money than I had expected."

It was then, when he was unsure of what to do, that his phone rang. It was Kenichi Yoshizumi, 48, the mayor of Shinjuku Ward.

With the state of emergency declaration lifted on May 25, Shinjuku Ward was left in a difficult position. At its peak, rates of infection in the capital had been exceeding 200 newly recorded cases per day. Though the number of new patients was abating, and the ward government was now able to track the routes through which people were getting infected, Kabukicho was troubling because of a sudden rise in infections among the 240 or so host clubs and other businesses there in close proximity to each other.

For Yoshizumi, the issue of greatest concern was that people working at host or cabaret clubs were not cooperating with checks by public health centers. To get an understanding of the state of infections, it's essential to know where people tested for the virus work and their recent movements. But many workers in Kabukicho won't even say what industry they're in; let alone where they're employed. To prevent infections, cooperation has to be sought from a wide range of fields.

On June 1, nighttime districts first started being labeled as places where infections spread quickly. It was then that Yoshizumi decided to call Tezuka, a major figure in the industry and someone he had met before. He was looking desperately for a solution.

Shinjuku Ward Mayor Kenichi Yoshizumi, who sought cooperation from the host industry to reduce infections, is seen in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo. (Mainichi/Yongho Lee)

After speaking on the phone, the two men decided to meet, and Tezuka made his way to the Shinjuku City Office the following day. There, Yoshizumi told him, "All I want is to stop the spread of infection, so why are people uncooperative?"

In response, Tezuka politely laid out the circumstances on the host clubs' side, saying, "A cluster infection at one of these businesses could mean the end for them; it's not the case that managers aren't afraid of the virus spreading. But a lack of trust in government is deep-rooted."

Tezuka then made reference to the attention the "yakatabune" riverboat industry received early on in the spread of the virus in Japan, after a cluster infection was confirmed to have taken place at a party on one vessel, and said, "Everyone thinks that if we reveal our identity, then all our information including our businesses' names will be put out in the public domain."

Listening to his concerns, Yoshizumi said, "It is in no way the case that we're looking for people like they're criminals." Tezuka responded, "Please tell everyone yourself, 'We will protect your privacy.' I'll bring other hosts to come meet with you starting tomorrow."

Tezuka reported feeling there was something promising about Yoshizumi's ready consent to work with his industry. He said he thought that if the ward mayor really was serious about formulating a plan against businesses suffering damage to their reputations, then perhaps managers in the host industry would change their minds, and the spread of infections in the district could be brought under control.

He used the free messaging app Line to call upon his peers to join him, and around 30 people who own clubs or work in positions of responsibility at them went to the ward office over June 3 and 4.

Upon meeting them, Yoshizumi stressed, "My interest lies solely with the health of ward residents and stopping infections." During the discussions, he also expressed an intention to set up a hotline between people involved in the host industry and public health centers. He asked them to feel free to call the number, and he communicated that public health center employees would start offering the businesses guidance on infection prevention.

Speaking about the response he received from figures in Kabukicho, Yoshizumi said, "The people who came to see us were even more willing to cooperate than we had expected." The mayor's words must have resonated with them, because the hotline began receiving multiple inquiries on an almost daily basis, and the number of people taking polymerase chain reaction tests for the virus also rose. As the existence of the service appeared to become more widely known in Kabukicho, some club managers even put in calls requesting all employees in their group get tested.

Tezuka said of Kabukicho's partnership with the Shinjuku authorities, "From the very beginning our thoughts aligned on infection prevention. I felt that if we could get rid of that sense of distrust, we could make all kinds of progress."

Following on from their initiative, Yoshizumi and Tezuka have joined with other figures to establish the Shinjuku Ward downtown novel coronavirus prevention liaison committee. By focusing not just on host clubs, but also cabaret clubs, bars and other businesses, it aims to reduce infections across all of Kabukicho.

Members of the Shinjuku Ward downtown novel coronavirus prevention liaison committee are seen in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo, on June 18, 2020. (Mainichi/Yongho Lee)

But the progress of concentrated tests of host clubs means that people who test positive are having to reveal everything about their lives. Among the overall number of infected people, a large proportion of them now are individuals connected to Kabukicho, and criticism of nightlife districts has intensified.

On June 7, Ward Mayor Yoshizumi spoke with Economic Revitalization Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura and explained that a partnership between his ward's government and businesses including host clubs was progressing. Speaking at a press conference, Nishimura then said, "The reason there has been a rise in positive cases (in Shinjuku), is due, conversely, to the cooperation those industries have shown." His comments appeared to indicate he "backs" the efforts by the Shinjuku Ward government.

But even since then, the number of people connected to host clubs who are testing positive for the novel coronavirus has continued to rise.

About the current state of infections, Tezuka said, "All we can do is seriously reflect on this fact, and as an industry share our recognition of this." He also expressed hope, saying, "There is now less distance between the government and Kabukicho, and this could become an opportunity to build a new relationship."

Infections in Kabukicho and other districts aren't slowing. But people continue to make efforts to overcome the crisis.

(Japanese original by Yongho Lee, Machida Resident Bureau)

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