National

Japan's local traditions and economies take hit as virus forces summer festival cancellations

Kyodo

The forced cancellations of major festivals and fireworks events next summer due to the coronavirus pandemic is a huge disappointment and financial blow to the host towns and cities.

The pneumonia-causing virus has forced parts of Kyoto’s famed Gion Festival to cancel for the first time in 58 years, while the Nebuta Festival in Aomori was called off for the first time in 62 years. Kochi’s Yosakoi Festival was also canceled for the first time in its 66-year history.

Ikujiro Kimura, head of the Gion Festival’s organizing committee, said Kyoto residents would like to hold the annual Yamahoko float procession, but that the ancient capital cannot afford to run the risk of becoming a coronavirus hotspot.

The procession, often described as a “moving art gallery,” is the highlight of the festival, which is said to date back to the year 869 when the ceremony was first held in an effort ward off epidemics.

“It was the most gut-wrenching decision,” Kimura said, in reference to the cancellation of the parade, which is held every July 17 and 24, and attracts tens of thousands of tourists each day from both Japan and overseas. “Now is supposed to be the time when we should put on a big festival,” he said, noting the festival’s origin in wishing for people’s good health.

Ryuho Tatsuta, an Aomori resident involved in the manufacture of gigantic lantern floats featured in the Nebuta Festival, was similarly pained when the event in his prefecture met the same fate.

“The festival is part of our lives,” Tatsuta said. “I cannot imagine our lives without those scenes because people in Aomori say we feel the coming of autumn after the festival.”

Held every year from Aug. 2 to 7, the festival draws about 2.85 million people from Japan and abroad to watch floats, some measuring up to 5 meters in height, and dancers parade through the city of Aomori.

Besides the cultural aspects of the cancellations, the postponements of the annual summer events have dealt a blow to many businesses, such as the manufacturers of fireworks.

The cancellation of fireworks for the Tenjin Festival in Osaka in July has caused a significant fall in revenue for Gunsmith of Kunitomo Co., a gunpowder manufacturer in Kyoto.

Before Osaka Tenmangu shrine announced the cancellation in mid-April, the company had already started producing firework shells for the festival, which draws around 1.3 million people every year.

“I know it cannot be helped (due to the coronavirus), but most of our annual revenue is generated in a few months during the summer,” said Masaki Ueno, a director at Gunsmith of Kunitomo.

Citing the cancellations of the fireworks shows for the Ise Jingu National Dedicatory Fireworks Festival in July in Mie Prefecture and similar summer events elsewhere, Tomohiro Yamazaki, a director at a fireworks shell manufacturer in Ibaraki Prefecture said, “Our firework revenues have fallen to nearly zero.”

Some of the firework shells will need to be disposed of because they are vulnerable to humidity and the amount of gunpowder a manufacturer can store is regulated by law, according to Yamazaki.

He said the impact of the coronavirus on its business will be greater than what the company experienced after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that devastated northeastern regions of the country and left about 16,000 people dead.

Further disappointment will be felt by residents of Tokyo and neighboring areas who normally attend the annual Sumida River Fireworks Festival in July. Canceled for 2020, the event usually draws around a million spectators to the river that runs through parts of the capital.

Referring to the cancellation of the Nebuta Festival, the Aomori Prefectural Government said it will significantly impact the prefecture’s economy, most notably in the transport and tourism sectors.

“The number of tourists traveling exclusively for the festival will be zero, and the impact will be serious,” said Kenichi Tsubo, a prefectural official for tourism affairs. He pointed to the damage that transport companies, souvenir shops, restaurants and hotel operators will sustain.

Aomori Kokusai Hotel said reservations for its 67 rooms in the festival period have all been canceled.

“It is usually the peak period for our business. It has dealt us a severe blow,” a hotel staffer said.

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