The death of comedian Ken Shimura on March 29 due to pneumonia caused by COVID-19 sent a shock wave throughout the country. A star on Japanese TV for decades, he was the first major celebrity here to pass away after contracting the virus.

To curb a spike in infections, more individuals and businesses have taken measures to limit the virus’s spread, from social distancing to temporary closures. But the TV and film industries have been slow to follow suit.

“They don’t stop filming,” actor Kanji Furutachi tweeted on April 1 to his 45,000 followers. “And since (the virus) has spread so much among entertainment and sports world celebrities, coronavirus must really be rampant…. If they keep filming this way (the virus) will definitely spread.”

An in-demand character actor who recently starred in the TV Tokyo comedy series “Kotaki Kyodai to Shikuhakku,” Furutachi is outspoken about everything from politics (he is not a fan of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe) to the entertainment industry itself.

“No one wants to work on the set in these conditions now, but they can’t do anything,” he continued. “The only ones who can halt (production) are the higher-ups not on the front line. But those higher-ups can’t halt it since they have economic responsibilities. I’d like everyone to stop and talk about where they think priorities should lie.”

Furutachi’s tweet prompted a flood of comments, as well as attracting more than 5,000 retweets and more than 16,000 likes at the time of publication.

Conditions on film and TV sets in Japan typically range from tough to brutal. For most actors and crew members, pay is low, hours are long, and benefits such as sick leave are rare. Even major films are often shot in studios where, as Twitter user @aima99hide noted on Furutachi’s thread, workers labor in three mitsu (using the kanji for dense or thick) conditions: mippei (poor ventilation), misshu (crowding) and missetsu (close contact). This reference to the government’s three C strategy to stop the spread of COVID-19 highlighted the commenter’s contention that workers are sure to be infected in the days and weeks ahead if there is no industry shutdown.

“I wonder where the entertainment world gets the strange confidence that everything is OK?” Twitter user @endlix24451 asked. “They probably can’t find filming locations now so the only thing left is to shoot on crowded sets. Everyone wants to stop, I think, but they can’t say it.”

What can be done? Several users urged TV networks to stop shooting new shows and instead air reruns of old dramas. Some have already heeded this advice. TBS has pushed back the broadcasts of three dramas — “Hanzawa Naoki,” “MIU404” and “Watashi no Kaseifu Nagisa-san” — as well as the special program “All-Star Thanksgiving Festival.” Also, on April 2, the network announced that it would halt all studio and location shooting for its drama and variety programs for two weeks starting April 4. “Preventing infection of our program staff, guests and members of the general public is our priority,” TBS said in a statement.

Meanwhile, the TV Tokyo network said that it would stop shooting all but news programs from April 2, while asking most of its staff to stay home for a week, and public broadcaster NHK has halted production of its new morning drama “Yell” and its year-long historical drama “Awaiting Kirin.” NHK says it will re-evaluate the situation by April 12.

Many broadcasters have not changed conditions for their employees, however. One reason, says television analyst Takashi Kimura in the April 3 issue of the Toyo Keizai newspaper, is that they are playing “a game of chicken” with their rivals.

“TV stations are locked in a tough battle for ratings, so they can’t be the only ones to stop shooting and see their ratings drop,” he says.

Since Shimura’s death, comedian Kazuko Kurosawa, scriptwriter and actor Kankuro Kudo, and “Mashin Sentai Kiramager” sci-fi-action series star Reo Komiya have all tested positive for coronavirus. While these are all known personalities, there has been little news on how many behind-the-scenes staff have been exposed to the virus.

“Of course, it’s still not too late,” writes Kimura. “All broadcasters are now being challenged to follow in the footsteps (of TBS and TV Tokyo) and make a similarly brave decision.”

And as for Yoji Yamada’s “God of Cinema,” the film Shimura was set to star in at the time of his diagnosis? Its shooting schedule “has been pushed back two weeks” from its original late-April start date, says Tadashi Osumi, executive managing director of the film’s producer, Shochiku.

“We strongly believe that completing the film would have made Mr. Shimura happy, so we are preparing to shoot,” he says. “We hope that the spread of infections from the novel coronavirus will end as soon as possible.”

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.