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Japan's tourism, restaurant sectors hopeful but concerned over lifting of virus emergency

A Jidaiya rickshaw puller disinfects a rickshaw in Tokyo's Taito Ward, on Sept. 28, 2021. (Mainichi/Masahiro Ogawa)

Japan's tourism and restaurant businesses are hoping customers will return when the COVID-19 state of emergency issued in 19 prefectures across Japan is lifted at the end of the month, but those in the medical field are concerned that infections will surge once more as people rush to get out and about.

    "I have nothing to say other than it's finally over," said Hidenori Fujiwara, the 65-year-old head of Jidaiya, which operates a rickshaw service in Tokyo's Asakusa district, on the end to the state of emergency. "We have waited and endured for a really long time."

    There have only been 28 days this entire year when Tokyo was not under a coronavirus quasi- or full state of emergency. The government called on people to avoid crossing prefectural borders, and the number of tourists visiting Asakusa dropped.

    Jidaiya typically deploys at least 20 rickshaws daily during the busy season, but as of late it's been operating about five. Sales have consistently been down 90% from 2019, before the coronavirus outbreak. The rickshaw operator began giving discounts to customers who presented vaccination certificates when boarding rickshaws after making a reservation. But tourists have kept away from the area amid the prolonged states of emergency, and sales have not recovered as anticipated. The lifting of the state of emergency measures is great news.

    However, Fujiwara also has concerns. Following the launch of the Japanese government's "Go To Travel" domestic tourism promotion campaign last year, customers began to trickle back. But the campaign was halted due to a resurgence in infections, and the business struggled. Fujiwara said, "I'm worried that last year's problems will happen again. I'll keep taking the same infection prevention measures."

    A state of emergency also covered Japan's southernmost prefecture of Okinawa for over four months. Infections spread during the summer vacation season, and the number of tourists in July and August stalled at a bit below 30% of 2019 levels. The occupancy rate at Hotel Palm Royal Naha Kokusai Street in the prefectural capital Naha has also hovered around the high 20% range from July through September. General Manager Naohisa Takakura revealed that the hotel had barely made any money during peak tourism season, and that it struggled quite a lot as the state of emergency was extended for another month. Touching on the approaching end of the state of emergency, he said, "I'm hopeful that tourism will gradually get back on track."

    Restaurants also struggled to stay afloat. Tokuharu Hirayama, 49, manager of Nemuro Shokudo, an izakaya pub in Tokyo's Shimbashi area, expressed hope that customers will return after the state of emergency is lifted. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government is set to permit eateries to serve alcohol, limiting eligibility to those that are certified by the city as taking thorough anti-infection measures. Hirayama's izakaya has received that coveted certification.

    "Though it may be small, I was able to see a ray of hope," he said. At the same time, though, he said, "Even if customers return after the state of emergency, I wonder if we'll stay out of it."

    A restaurant offering Western-style cuisine in Osaka's Kita Ward also obtained Osaka prefectural "gold sticker" third-party certification in early September for taking thorough anti-infection measures. Although Osaka Prefecture also plans to permit certified establishments to serve alcohol after the state of emergency is lifted, manager Akira Deguchi, 33, felt conflicted.

    "I'm worried that infections will increase again as the state of emergency is lifted, and that this will affect the busy season during the winter. I'd like the central government to launch a campaign to dispel the negative image surrounding the restaurant industry."

    (Japanese original by Shotaro Kinoshita, Tokyo City News Department; Nozomu Takeuchi, Naha Bureau; and Yukina Furukawa, Osaka City News Department)

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