Home to a legion of host clubs and hostess bars, Kabukicho — a red-light district in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo — has now become emblematic of Japan’s nightlife sector that authorities brand as a hotbed of new coronavirus infections.
Since lifting the state of emergency on May 25, Tokyo has seen a litany of new COVID-19 cases traced back to what is broadly termed the yoru no machi (nighttime entertainment district).
Of the 147 cases reported since June 1 through Sunday in the capital, 59 — about 40 percent — have been linked to such downtown districts, according to a Tokyo Metropolitan Government (TMG) official. On Saturday, 12 host club employees in a Shinjuku neighborhood were confirmed to be infected.
Although the TMG hasn’t denounced Kabukicho by name, a phalanx of officials were deployed to “patrol” the area Friday evening, marching down the street with loudspeakers as they called for social distancing.
Heated media coverage has also zeroed in on Kabukicho, catapulting the area — already frowned upon by many for being synonymous with yakuza and seamy sex businesses — to a new level of notoriety.
With the reputation of their neighborhood going from bad to worse, many clubs and restaurants in the area now worry that they are all being lumped together and demonized as spreaders of COVID-19, despite having implemented stringent anti-infection measures.
“I know host club workers are often seen as irresponsible and frivolous, but some stores, like ours, are taking really painstaking precautions” against the virus, said a 24-year-old host club employee in the district, who declined to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
In his store not only has the interior been thoroughly disinfected, but hosts are obliged to wear face masks and keep a distance of at least one meter as they entertain customers, he said. They have also been forbidden from engaging in a practice dubbed afutā (“after”), involving one-on-one dates with customers outside of business hours, to minimize the risk of infections, he said.
Naoki Matsuda, a 25-year-old host club employee who works for another parlor in Kabukicho, echoed that sentiment, stressing that his employer is also taking the pandemic seriously.
Although Matsuda’s job as a host often involves carousing with customers, unsanitary customs such as drinking directly from the same bottle of champagne, for example, are no longer in place. The popular tradition of a “champagne call,” where hosts chant, sing or otherwise do some kind of loud microphone performance to encourage customers to chug a bottle of champagne, has also been abolished lest droplets fly all over, Matsuda said.
Business hours have been shortened, masks declared mandatory, and all drinks now consumed via straws, he added.
“The difficult part is, though, we can’t really turn down girls even if it looks like they might have a fever — they’re our customers, after all,” he said. In these cases, he and his colleagues go to great lengths to make sure these customers practice thorough hygiene precautions.
“We actually follow them whenever they leave for the bathroom, and stand just outside so we can watch them as they wash their hands and gargle,” he said.
While it is true some host clubs have set forth rigid safety protocols, that is not to say their handling of the situation has been flawless.
Under Tokyo’s “road map” guideline spelling out incremental steps toward recovery, host clubs and other businesses prone to close contact with customers, such as hostess bars, are categorized as facilities for which closure requests have not yet been eased.
Even so, many host clubs in Kabukicho moved toward reopening this month to protect the livelihoods of employees.
Contrary to the glitz and glamour often associated with the industry, “It is not uncommon that hosts earn less than, say, convenience store employees,” said Kaori Koga, head of Nihon Mizushobai Kyokai, a group aiming to empower nighttime entertainment businesses. “Many are barely scraping by and surviving each day by eating just one meal a day.”
“For these guys, whose monthly salary can be somewhere around ¥100,000, their current situation is almost a matter of life or death. Many parlors have to reopen to keep them from starving,” she said.
Hosts on the street echoed that view. With newcomers to the industry who moved recently to Tokyo having yet to change their registered address, some are unable to apply for the ¥100,000 cash handout doled out by the government, one said.
Matsuda, for one, said lower-ranking staff in his parlor are relying solely on the meager pay they get for a day’s work to make ends meet, even as the store itself grapples with the debilitating blow dealt by the pandemic — which caused monthly revenues to plummet below ¥10 million from previous levels around ¥30 to ¥40 million.
But even as they seek to justify moves to reopen, the sense that they are technically flouting Tokyo’s guideline, however, has made many host clubs balk at openly advertising the fact they are now back in business. One Kabukicho host club, for instance, declined to be interviewed for this article because it was “afraid of a backlash” it might get for reopening despite being asked not to do so.
So persists the air of taboo in Kabukicho.
A 28-year-old employee of an Italian restaurant in the area said his store reopened last Friday after being closed for about two months. Per the guideline provided by the capital, it has implemented ample social distancing and hygiene measures, but last Friday saw the eatery remain pretty much desolate until it closed at 10 p.m., he said.
“I think people are now simply scared of Kabukicho,” he said, asking not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
“To be honest, I don’t really want to come here myself. If I were in the shoes of a customer, I don’t think I would choose to dine at a Kabukicho restaurant.”