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COVID pandemic sparks ham radio renaissance in Japan

Musician Haruka Nakamura livestreams herself on a video-sharing website while communicating with her fans on a ham radio in Aikawa, Kanagawa Prefecture, on May 12, 2022. (Mainichi/Natsuki Nishi)

TOKYO -- More amateur ham radio operators are reaching out across the airwaves in Japan, possibly due to past enthusiasts returning to the hobby amid the coronavirus pandemic.

    While ham radios have practical uses like gathering information in times of disasters as witnessed in the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, why are they getting attention as a pastime now?

    The membership of the Japan Amateur Radio League had been falling steadily as mobile phones and the internet sapped ham radios' appeal. But at the end of fiscal 2020 it saw a year-on-year rise of 574 members for a total of 65,788, the first increase in 27 years. The membership had grown further by the end of fiscal 2021. A league representative said of the trend, "One cause may be that the generation that was familiar with ham radios in their youth have retired and gone back to them."

    Sales at Ham Shop Friends, which sells amateur radio equipment in the suburban Tokyo city of Hamura, have also grown due to apparent demand from people stuck at home during the pandemic. Manager Katsuhisa Akiyoshi, 71, said it was "because ham radio enthusiasts can be connected even when they can't go out."

    Haruka Nakamura, a guitarist covering mostly tunes by The Ventures (formed in 1958 and still active), got into amateur radio three years ago upon her fans' recommendation. The Ventures core fanbase overlaps with amateur ham radio's heyday, and about half of The Ventures Japanese fan club members are apparently ham radio lovers. Since May 2020, Nakamura has been showing her radio exchanges on a video-sharing site. While the pandemic made playing concerts impossible, the online videos were a major way to stay connected with her fans.

    "CQ, CQ, CQ, can you hear me?" Nakamura was recently seen saying over a ham radio during a livestream of her 100th video, talking with fans from a car parked at Miyagase Dam in the town of Aikawa, Kanagawa Prefecture. While taking advantage of the internet, she stuck to the radio for direct communication.

    She said of ham radios' charm, "Instead of being connected anonymously, we have our individual call signs and take responsibility for what we say. That may sound old-timey, but it's refreshing."

    (Japanese original by Natsuki Nishi, Photo Group)

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