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'Autonomy' and 'responsibility' needed to hold music festivals amid pandemic in Japan

This photo provided by a participant shows the entrance of the Fuji Rock Festival in Yuzawa, Niigata Prefecture, on Aug. 22, 2021. A space for visitors to take their temperature was set up in front of the entrance gate.

OSAKA -- The decision to hold or cancel outdoor music festivals amid the COVID-19 pandemic has been split in Japan. Those festivals are not only a place to showcase music, but also serve to revitalize the local economy. To keep festivals alive in the future, the "autonomy" and "responsibility" of the organizers and participants will be key.

    The annual Fuji Rock Festival, one of the largest music events in Japan with a 24-year history, was postponed last year, but was held for three days from Aug. 20 to 22 this year with thorough infection control measures in place.

    However, there was a lot of criticism against the event. As the date of the festival approached in August, a hashtag was created on Twitter asking for Fuji Rock to be cancelled, and the host prefecture of Niigata and the host town of Yuzawa were flooded with protests and inquiries.

    Many of the critics asked why it was necessary to hold such an event where many people from all over the country gather to make noise, especially considering the timing. A state of emergency had been declared mainly in major cities including the greater Tokyo area and the number of infected people continued to increase nationwide.

    Antigen test kits sent in advance to the ticket's purchasers from the Fuji Rock Festival organizers are seen on Sept. 9, 2021. (Mainichi/Naoki Irie)

    The organizers, the central government, and the local governments had discussed preparations for holding the event since around June. The concerned parties agreed that thorough measures against transmissions would be introduced, such as scaling down the size of the festival, limiting performers to domestic artists who would all take PCR tests for COVID-19, and distributing antigen test kits to visitors in advance. All people at the venue were asked to wear masks and prohibited to drink, and keep sufficient distance from others and to not shout loudly.

    According to the national government's notice, participants were required to keep a 1-meter space between them at events where they were allowed to move freely within the venue, which was followed at Fuji Rock.

    A 39-year-old company employee from the city of Fukuoka, who has participated in the festival every year, said, "The rules were generally followed. There were some people who cut in front of the stage, but the people around them tried to keep their distance."

    This Mainichi Shimbun reporter, who had gone to Fuji Rock for 12 consecutive years until it was postponed last year, didn't go this time. But as far as I could tell by watching the show's internet livestream, crowding seemed to have eased compared to previous years. Meanwhile, there were moments where the cheers got so loud that the musicians on stage had to calm the audience down.

    The music festival Supersonic held at Zozo Marine Stadium is seen in Mihama Ward, Chiba, in this photo taken from a Mainichi Shimbun helicopter on Sept. 18, 2021. (Mainichi)

    According to the organizers, a combined 35,449 people participated in the three-day event. So far, no reports of COVID-19 clusters have been received by the Niigata Prefectural Government.

    One of the reasons why Fuji Rock was able to be held this year without any major problems is probably the "autonomy of the audience" that the event has always valued.

    The rock festival started in 1997 at a ski resort in Yamanashi Prefecture located north of Mount Fuji, and moved to Naeba Ski Resort in Niigata Prefecture from the third year, attracting more than 100,000 people annually before the pandemic. The three principles of the event are "take care of yourself," "help each other, give to each other," and "respect nature," and the organizers have been asking the audience to behave accordingly.

    There are several "garbage stations" set up at the site, and the collected resources are recycled into toilet paper for use at the venue in the following years. The fact that the festival has been held at the same location for so many years is proof of the strong relationship of trust that has been built with the local community.

    On the other hand, the outdoor hip hop event Namimonogatari, which attracted about 8,000 people in Tokoname, Aichi Prefecture, on Aug. 29, received a flood of criticism after a video showing the audience failing to take anti-infection measures went viral on the internet. The event also became a cluster infection hypocenter.

    Organizers of the music festival Supersonic, which was held on Sept. 18 and 19 at Zozo Marine Stadium in the city of Chiba, decided to move ahead with the event even though local governments requested that it be postponed. The Chiba Municipal Government, which pulled its sponsorship from the event after the postponement request was denied, took the unusual step of stationing officials inside the venue. Officials also patrolled the area from the venue to the nearest train station in the city's official cars, using a loudspeaker to call on visitors to head straight to the venue and go straight home.

    The city's park management division commented that "spectators wore masks and did not shout excessively. So in general, the rules for infection control were followed." In the wake of the event in Aichi, the Chiba city government's involvement may have been unavoidable, but I believe it should have been left to the autonomy of individuals involved in the event based on mutual respect.

    To prevent the spread of infections, the Rock in Japan Festival (scheduled for Aug. 7-9, 14-15 in Ibaraki Prefecture) -- one of the largest music festivals in Japan -- was cancelled at the request of the local medical association. In addition, Inazuma Rock Fes. (Sept. 18-19 in Shiga Prefecture) and Wild Bunch Fest. (Sept. 18-20 in Yamaguchi Prefecture) were also cancelled at the request of local governments. This trend hasn't stopped after summer.

    An outdoor festival is, in the first place, a fascinating event. Multiple stages are set up in a vast open-air space, where visitors can enjoy the performances of popular artists from Japan and abroad all at once. Before the pandemic, these events were held more than 300 times a year in Japan, regardless of the season. According to a survey by the think tank Pia Research Institute, the number of festival-goers in 2019 totaled 2.95 million, and the economic scale of ticket sales alone was 33 billion yen (about $289 million), both of which have almost doubled from 10 years ago.

    For more than 10 years, this reporter has been going to outdoor music festivals in various places, loading camping and rain gear on his car. The best part of these events is the "encounters." Not only enjoying the performance of your favorite artists, but also learning about new music that you have never had the chance to listen to and making new friends with people who share similar interests. Staying in the same surroundings for a few days brings you closer to your peers, which is an experience you can't get at any other event.

    As the coronavirus pandemic continues, what can we do to get out of the confrontational structure surrounding music festivals? From the perspective of regional revitalization, the Shimane Jett Fes: Yamata no Orochi Rising held in the western Japan city of Matsue, Shimane Prefecture, every autumn since 2017 may provide a clue. The festival was founded by the rock band Guitar Wolf and is run by an executive committee of local volunteers, aiming to contribute to the local economy.

    Due to the underdeveloped public transportation in the area, it is mainly locals and enthusiastic fans who come to the event, and the organizers have long relied on crowdfunding to raise money. Financial supporters who come to see the show and those who participate from home receive benefits. For the latter, a summary video of the festival is available for viewing, and they also receive specialties such as meat and fish from the Sanin region where Shimane is located. At a time when many people are reluctant to go to festivals due to fear of infection, this is a great way to enjoy the atmosphere of the event and contribute to the local economy.

    Seiji, the vocalist and guitarist of Guitar Wolf, spent his youth in Shimane and is currently the prefecture's goodwill ambassador. He said, "I've been doing this to liven up the city, but I may be more suited to the role now by chance (because of the pandemic)."

    In 2020, the event was streamed online, and this year, it was held without an audience on Oct. 9. Seiji commented, "I can only deliver dreams. To be honest, it's hard to cover the cost without an audience, but we thought it was important to show our stance of 'delivering' even if it's over the airwaves."

    The Japanese government is not forbidding such festivals, and the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry has set up a subsidy program for activities that are experiencing difficult circumstances. The ministry's Media and Contents Industry Division said, "Our position is to support the industry to prevent it from bottoming out. Taking countermeasures against infections is of course a prerequisite."

    Recently, there have been some positive signs as the Japanese government has started a demonstration experiment to gradually ease restrictions on individual and economic activities. However, we will not be able to "do everything freely" as we did before the pandemic.

    I believe the thorough "autonomy" of the organizers is essential for a festival that attracts thousands or tens of thousands of people to take place. At the same time, the audience also has "responsibilities" to fulfill to enjoy their freedom. For the time being, there will be a lot of trial and error in creating rules to prevent infections, protect the environment, and contribute to the local community.

    If we can continue to search for a system that allows local people to feel safe and benefit from the festival, surely we can create a new outdoor festival culture.

    (Japanese original by Naoki Irie, Editorial Production Center)

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