Over the decades, gaming arcades in Japan have faced a series of challenges. Typically, they've been in the realm of technology — namely high-tech video game consoles that first promised arcade machine-level graphics and then, eventually, surpassed them. Now, Japanese arcades are facing a new menace, one that the entire world has been combating: COVID-19.

Even pre-pandemic, arcades in Japan were on a downward trend. According to a police white paper, there were only 4,022 arcades across Japan in 2019, down from 26,573 in 1986. Things have changed even since the late 2000s, when I published a book on Japanese game centers called “Arcade Mania!.” Back then there were over 9,000 arcades — significantly less than their mid-1980s peak, but double that of today.

For years, bowling alleys and the rooftops of department stores functioned as amusement spaces. Namco, for example, got its start in the amusement business in the mid-1950s, building two wooden hobby horses for the roof of a Matsuya department store in Yokohama. By the early 1970s, it expanded to electromechanical games, forerunners of the modern arcade games.