National / Media | BIG IN JAPAN

Kabukicho host clubs under fire for spreading coronavirus

by Mark Schreiber

Contributing writer

Kabukicho, a 1-kilometer square commercial area on the northern side of Tokyo’s JR Shinjuku Station, is reputed to be Asia’s largest adult entertainment zone, with an estimated nighttime working population of 23,000 (based on 2014 figures).

The adventurous, bored and curious are drawn by the thousands each evening to the neighborhood’s bars, cabarets, karaoke establishments, pachinko parlors, cinemas, retail outlets, hotels and an impressive variety of Japanese and international restaurants. This exotic mix also includes some 250 host clubs, where female customers can relax in the company of young men.

Many of Kabukicho’s businesses permit or encourage closeness, or even intimacy, between customers and their employees, so perhaps, not surprisingly, the district has been identified as a hot spot for COVID-19 cluster infections.

Weekly Playboy (Aug. 10) notes that the nearby National Center for Global Health and Medicine, which conducts PCR tests for Shinjuku Ward, recorded nine positive cases in April, 37 in May and 226 in June. Then, in the first eight days of July, the figure soared to 249.

“One cause of the spread was host clubs,” an employee of Shinjuku’s Public Health Office told the magazine. “Several people tested positive, but when we conducted tests on all their colleagues, only 3.7 percent tested positive. By contrast, more than 30 percent of workers at the restaurants where the hosts and their customers go to eat tested positive.

“From July, more cases have been found among salaried workers, students and unemployed people, so infection has now spread among the general population.”

Even more than local hospitals, it’s Shinjuku’s Public Health Office that’s said to be staggering under a heavy workload.

“Every time a person tests positive, it requires a mountain of paperwork,” the public health employee said. “The work had been manageable with around 20 or 30 staff, but, from July onward, on some days we have been getting 100 positives a day. Things here are getting desperate.”

In a 16-page special section concerning the second wave of infections, Shukan Gendai (July 25) reviews the pros and cons of mounting an actual “blockade” of Kabukicho.

Maki Tezuka, a former club host and member of the Kabukicho District Promotion Association, believes that shutting down Kabukicho because the host clubs are at fault would be an injudicious move.

“The people who work in Kabukicho don’t live there and so a blockade would be meaningless, since they’ll just go and work somewhere else,” Tezuka says. “We’ve been actively cooperating in arranging tests. If people catch the virus and blame the club hosts, it will have a negative effect as the hosts will stop cooperating, making it much harder to trace the route of infections. I think that would create a serious disadvantage in controlling the spread.”

Some people might have been incensed when it was suggested that the government simply pay the hosts not to work. However, Hideo Kumano, a senior economist at the Dai-ichi Life Insurance think tank, notes that, based on average income for Tokyo or Shinjuku Ward, covering the wages for all 23,000 people in the district would come to “only” ¥220 billion.

“Considering the ¥60 trillion in assistance that the government poured into the first wave of the pandemic, shutting down Kabukicho and compensating the workers would be a far more effective approach,” Kumano says.

“Many infected people, such as young hosts and female cabaret club workers, are asymptomatic and no cases have been recorded of anyone dangerously ill or dying due to the virus,” a government official tells Asahi Geino (July 30). “Most cases don’t require hospitalization and they are not the ones likely to overburden the medical system.” The official adds that statistical analysis now suggests the COVID-19 infections “will peak in early August and then decline.”

So why demonize the host clubs?

A source in the medical field who works closely with the government tells Asahi Geino: “The government is pursuing a half-hearted policy by singling out these businesses. The intent to go after workers at host clubs and cabaret clubs reflects the view of the Finance Ministry, which sees them as problematic because it’s hard-pressed to assess the tax liabilities of people who work there. Of course, if those businesses were to be shut down, the result might be fewer coronavirus patients.”

According to Nikkan Gendai (July 23), Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga implied at a July 20 news conference that if it was determined that the clubs were a contributing factor in the spread of COVID-19, the government might go to the extreme of laying down the law, specifically the Law on Control and Improvement of Amusement Businesses.

“If the police raid their premises, as many as 70 percent might be shut down for such violations as not conforming to hours of operation regulations,” a member of the Kabukicho District Promotion Association tells Nikkan Gendai.

It was also implied that some of the businesses had links to “anti-social forces” — a euphemism for organized crime — and shutting them down would ultimately benefit social order.

That, however, does not necessarily translate into dealing with the pandemic, since, for example, there’s nothing to prevent hosts from meeting up with clients on a private basis or leaving Shinjuku to work at clubs in other parts of the city.

“By selective interpretation of the laws, it might be possible to shut the clubs down,” opines journalist Osamu Aoki, “but I doubt if that will have much of a result on curtailing the spread of infections. … It would make more sense to revert to the previous emergency measures in which all businesses would be obliged to exercise self-restraint. That way the authorities can test, trace and isolate the people who are infected; and those who test negative can quietly resume their economic activities.

“It would be foolhardy to threaten the use of police powers as long as the government isn’t able to implement a mass testing system that works.”

Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations.

Your news needs your support

Since the early stages of the COVID-19 crisis, The Japan Times has been providing free access to crucial news on the impact of the novel coronavirus as well as practical information about how to cope with the pandemic. Please consider subscribing today so we can continue offering you up-to-date, in-depth news about Japan.

Coronavirus banner