Lines outside Tokyo’s pachinko parlors show the limits of Japan’s ability to enforce social distancing, just as the country heads into a series of holidays that could be key to its attempts to control the spread of the coronavirus.
Pachinko, a ¥20.7 trillion industry, has come under scrutiny since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared a state of emergency in Tokyo and six other prefectures on April 7. As virus cases continued to climb in the country, topping 12,000, the emergency was extended nationwide.
While many nonessential businesses have voluntarily closed or cut hours in accordance with government requests, there are no penalties for failure to comply and some pachinko parlors have remained open. Concerns have grown as gamblers risk spreading the virus by traveling in search of places to play.
“When they are open in one area, I’ve heard that people travel from other prefectures to gather there,” economic revitalization minister Yasutoshi Nishimura, who heads the government’s response to the pandemic, said Tuesday. The government is considering the next step of having local authorities publish the names of the businesses that have ignored requests to close, he said.
Pachinko parlors already operate in a legal gray area, skirting anti-gambling laws by giving winners prizes that they can exchange for cash off the premises.
The issue is coming to a head as the nation braces for Golden Week, which will run from late April to early May and is one of the most popular times to travel. The state of emergency is currently set to end May 6, though an extension is possible. Unlike countries, including the U.K. and France, Japan hasn’t introduced fines for leaving home unnecessarily.
Japan has thus far avoided the explosive surge in cases seen in other parts of the world, but the number has been steadily increasing, and a wave of tourists from urban areas could rapidly worsen the situation in the rural regions, where the population tends to be elderly. Tourist hot spots have taken the unusual step of urging people not to visit, after a seaside resort saw traffic jams in sunny weather last Sunday.
In his emergency address on April 7, Abe urged citizens to cut contact with others by at least 70 or 80 percent, warning infections in Tokyo could surge to 80,000 in a month if the current rate holds.
The Osaka Prefectural Government has received hundreds of complaints about businesses that have failed to close, with pachinko parlors being the most numerous, Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura said on Twitter on Tuesday. He plans to have officials contact each business individually, and will publish the names of those that continue to refuse to close, he said.
Large pachinko operators may be better positioned to close than smaller companies. Maruhan Corp., which operates 318 parlors, has gradually closed more than 200 of them, according to its website. Yunika Corp., which has continued to operate at least one of its handful of outlets in the Tokyo region, didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Total sales for the industry amounted to about ¥20.7 trillion in 2018, according to a website operated by Daikoku Denko Co. using data from the Japan Productivity Center.
Akiko Oishi, a former Osaka bureaucrat who is preparing to run in the next general election from the small opposition group Reiwa Shinsengumi, said her conversations with business owners refusing to close show they were mostly doing so to avoid having to fold completely.
“The only way to ensure they close without putting them out of business is for the government to provide a lot of money,” she said in an email.
“There’s no other way out.”
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.
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.