Annual Halloween festivities in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward are known to attract revelry and rabble rousing to a degree unseen in a typically docile city. This year — though the atmosphere was noticeably tame compared to previous years — massive crowds gathered Saturday night in the capital’s popular district despite fears that public celebrations during an ongoing pandemic could trigger a cluster of novel coronavirus infections.
In an effort to convince as many people as possible to stay home, Shibuya Ward collaborated with local artists to organize and host a number of online events, including a game in which users can create an avatar and experience a music festival in virtual Shibuya.
But the crowds in real Shibuya on Saturday were sizable. Owing to the incubation period of COVID-19 and the time it often takes for symptoms to appear — if they appear at all — it won’t be clear for at least another week or two whether Halloween celebrations helped the virus spread further.
“The last thing we want is for Shibuya to become the latest scene of a cluster infection,” said Shibuya Ward Mayor Ken Hasebe during a news conference in October. “The point isn’t to ruin the fun but to ask residents to be safe, protect each other and understand that these are uncertain times that require unique precautions.”
The scene on Saturday was characteristically lively: costumed crowds full of people dressed as clowns, police officers and characters from “Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba” — a recent smash hit at the box office — marched through the streets of Shibuya’s central shopping district until late into the night.
Local media reports showed that crowds had also gathered in Osaka, Fukuoka and other urban centers across the country.
In 2019, tens of thousands gathered in Shibuya, leading to eight arrests and several reports of theft and groping despite efforts to control crowds, including a temporary ban on public alcohol consumption.
The year before that, however, the crowds on Halloween were bigger and even more raucous. That year, a group of young men drew national attention when they overturned a small truck.
This year, while the number of deployed police and security officers was roughly the same as previous years, Shibuya Ward did not provide public bathrooms or costume changing stations as in the past and reduced the number of garbage bins in the area.
Ward officials had said they hoped entry restrictions blocking foreign travelers from entering Japan might help reduce the number of people who gathered on Saturday.
In front of Shibuya Station, a handful of drum-beating, flag-waving individuals called on passersby to take off their masks in the name of personal freedom while parroting a conspiracy that the global pandemic is a farce to incite fear and submission.
Such demonstrations in Japan are, for the time being, small and infrequent.