Home Entertainment Japan begins return to business-as-usual at big events — but slowly

Japan begins return to business-as-usual at big events — but slowly

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At first sight, it was almost as if pre-pandemic days had returned.

On June 12, when soccer fans flocked to Ajinomoto Stadium in Chofu, western Tokyo, they were allowed — for the first time in over two years — to cheer at the top of their lungs. Tokyo Verdy fans, though numbering just over 800, jumped to the beat of the drums, thrust their fists high in the air and chanted “Go! Go! Go!” throughout their home game. Their voices, loud enough to be heard across the stadium, added much-needed liveliness to the game, a quality lost from soccer matches when the pandemic set in.

Except that things weren’t quite the same.

The chanting fans had agreed in advance that they would adhere to a number of rules, including only cheering in a designated area. They had to keep their masks on — and not just any masks, but a disposable, nonwoven fabric type. They were told not to move from their seats, which were equally distanced from each other. They couldn’t eat, huddle or finger whistle, and they had to face the field while chanting. They were warned that if they were caught breaking the rules, they might be asked to leave.

The tight rules didn’t seem to upset fans, many of whom said they had been waiting for a chance to show their support by singing and chanting, and not just by hand clapping, which has become the pandemic norm.

“It would be great if we could let loose again like before,” said Togo Kiuchi, 35, who came with 30 supporter friends and donned a green nonwoven mask that matched Verdy’s team color. “But we follow the rules. To cheer within the rules is our mission. I think it’s uncool to flout them.”

A security guard carries a sign asking fans to wear masks and refrain from eating and drinking in the cheering section at Ajinomoto Stadium on June 12. | DAN ORLOWITZ
A security guard carries a sign asking fans to wear masks and refrain from eating and drinking in the cheering section at Ajinomoto Stadium on June 12. | DAN ORLOWITZ

The game on June 12 and another one the night before at Kashima Soccer Stadium in Ibaraki Prefecture were part of the J. League’s three-step plan to bring cheering back to soccer games across the nation by August.

As Japan ponders its “new normal,” the league’s strategy is indicative of the approach the nation is taking toward large public events in the coming months: a slow, gradual return to some features of normalcy, and with an abundance of caution.

Inching toward normality

This summer, many places across Japan are set to hold their traditional festivals for the first time in three years, with 26 of 38 major events, including the Aomori Nebuta Festival and the Gion Festival in Kyoto Prefecture, slated to resume, according to a recent NHK survey.

The organizing committee of the Aomori Nebuta Festival — which drew 2.5 million visitors every year before the pandemic began — has decided to revive the six-day event in August, but with numerous measures in place to minimize infection risks, according to an official at the Aomori Tourism and Convention Association.

Measures include setting up paid seating areas along the festival’s main thoroughfare to reduce congestion — thus leaving less space for the festival’s giant, elaborately decorated floats to maneuver — and asking haneto dancers, who jump up and down as they chant, to register in advance. Before, anyone decked out in a haneto costume was allowed to join in the festivities as an impromptu dancer.

In addition, both participants and spectators will be asked to keep their masks or face coverings on during the entire event, according to the festival policy made public by the organizers.

Participants carry a giant float during the Aomori Nebuta Festival in the city of Aomori in August 2018. | KYODO
Participants carry a giant float during the Aomori Nebuta Festival in the city of Aomori in August 2018. | KYODO

Tokyo’s Kabukiza Theater, meanwhile, announced at the end of May that it will start operating at close to capacity from August. Currently, the 1,808-seat theater sells only 68% of its seats in order to maintain distance between audience members.

But the operators will still keep seats empty in two aisles to the left and one aisle to the right of the hanamichi, a long raised platform that runs through the audience seating area. These aisle seats have long been treasured because they allow fans to see actors up close.

“Actors usually have their lines as they appear on the hanamichi, which is one of the nice features of kabuki,” a Kabukiza staffer said. “But we are refraining from making the seats available for now, considering the risk of the virus spreading through droplets.”

Basic anti-COVID measures currently in place at the theater will stay, which means no eating, no drinking and no chatting with others while seated. Also, the long-held custom of ōmukō outbursts, where seasoned fans would shout from the floor to build up tension during the show, will remain banned.

“At present, we cannot unilaterally decide to relax these rules,” the Kabukiza official continued. “I think the situation is the same for other live performance events. We act in accordance with the national and Tokyo governments’ guidelines. Only when the government eases its stance and says it’s OK for people to speak at venues will the features be back.”

Science-based approach

J. League officials say they have held numerous consultations with government agencies to draw up their guidelines on how to reintroduce cheering. They have also worked extensively with scientists from the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST).

In fact, AIST has a team of scientists who have studied how mass events can be held safely. For example, the J. League’s policy on nonwoven masks is based on a recent study by AIST and Keio University that showed those masks were far more effective at keeping virus droplets from spreading than urethane ones.

The Kabukiza theater in Tokyo in August 2020, when it resumed operations with reduced capacity after a five-month closure triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic | KYODO
The Kabukiza theater in Tokyo in August 2020, when it resumed operations with reduced capacity after a five-month closure triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic | KYODO

In the study, researchers used particle counters to visualize droplets emitted by study participants when they shouted “shoot,” “yatta” and “Nippon.” It showed that nonwoven masks reduced the droplets’ spread by 95% compared with when no mask was worn. Urethane masks cut the risk, too, but they still let over 20% of the droplets through.

On June 10, ahead of the Verdy game, AIST researchers led by Tetsuo Yasutaka announced that, based on past data and simulations, J. League teams can keep infection risks sufficiently low even if they reintroduce cheering to games.

Under the current rules, clubs can run games at 100% of venue capacity with no cheering. But if attendance is limited to 50% of capacity or less, and 95% of attendees wear masks and fans in the cheering area stick to nonwoven masks, the risk of infection would be 46% of that of a full stadium with no cheering, the researchers said.

But the question is how to enforce those masking and cheering rules on the ground. That’s why, on June 12, Yasutaka’s team set up numerous pieces of high-tech equipment throughout the stadium, including three video cameras, six microphone arrays and two laser radars to monitor crowd density. Two dozen carbon dioxide monitors were also installed under seats to check ventilation levels.

The data from the cameras was analyzed on a real-time basis to calculate how completely people were masked up and whether the distance between fans was maintained during the game, even factoring in brief moments when people removed their masks to drink water or when their masks slipped off. If the masking rate went down below 90%, the researchers would alert the organizers so an announcement could be aired asking people to keep their masks on. The microphones picked up sounds from noncheering sections to check if people were really refraining from shouting.

The data from the two games, on June 11 and June 12, showed that people did comply with the rules, with a masking rate of 99.7% to 99.8% in the cheering area, the J. League said.

Six microphone arrays were deployed around Ajinomoto Stadium on June 12 to track whether or not fans were following rules for cheering zones. | DAN ORLOWITZ
Six microphone arrays were deployed around Ajinomoto Stadium on June 12 to track whether or not fans were following rules for cheering zones. | DAN ORLOWITZ

In July, the J. League will move to Step 2, when it plans to have six more test games. The officials will use the test results to tweak the guidelines further so both cheering and infection control can be achieved, they said. For Step 3 in August, the league hopes to allow teams nationwide to choose between introducing masked chanting with attendance limited to 50% of capacity, or continuing to hold games at up to 100% capacity with no chanting.

But will this kind of measured approach continue indefinitely in Japan, even when sports events in many Western countries are back to normal with little to no restrictions?

AIST’s Yasutaka, who is himself a soccer fan, said the decision will ultimately hinge on two factors: whether risks posed by the coronavirus itself drop significantly, and whether people’s acceptance of risk grows. He cited the example of soccer’s European Championships, held between June and July last year, which reportedly resulted in over 9,000 COVID-19 infections.

“I don’t think such an outcome would be accepted in Japan. So there’s definitely a cultural difference,” he said.

A recent poll of over 19,000 soccer fans by the J. League revealed the complications of bringing back cheering. It showed 76% of the survey respondents agreed with the idea of allowing people to sing and chant again. But when asked about the chance of themselves breaking the rules, such as by not wearing a mask or huddling, 40% said their own rule-breaking behavior would increase if the change is brought in, while 72% said such behavior by others would increase.

Some fans voiced relief that the J. League and AIST were around to monitor people’s behavior during the Verdy game.

“My kids are really happy to be able to sing, but I have mixed feelings,” said Chiyomi Takayoshi, who came to the stadium with her two sons, who are in the first and fourth grade of elementary school. “At one of our son’s schools, we had cluster infections just two weeks ago.

“I didn’t know such tests were on today, but I would definitely support them, especially now, when the rules are about to be relaxed.”

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