On a recent Friday night in the Kabukicho red-light district of Tokyo, blaring music and flashing disco lights signaled opening time for Cruise, one of a slew of host clubs that dot the vicinity.
No sooner had a customer arrived than she had her temperature taken and found herself escorted straight to the bathroom — where she was told to wash her hands and gargle — before being allowed to enjoy the company of her favorite host.
But then vigilance against the novel coronavirus fell away, the two beginning to snuggle on a leather sofa in apparent disregard for social distancing and prompting a gentle reminder from one of the managers supervising the floor that they needed to sit further apart.
“Alcohol sometimes leads to moments of intimacy, resulting in hosts and customers getting closer to each other or forgetting to put their masks back on,” said the head of Cruise who goes by the stage name of Ibuki. “It’s at moments like these that we, the managers, step in and make sure they remain seated and maintain a safe distance between them.”
The scene at Cruise offered a glimpse into a new normal that nightclubs across Japan are trying to come to terms with in the age of COVID-19, as they roll out a raft of anti-infection measures to shed their newfound notoriety as hotbeds for virus clusters.
The industry is now gearing up for the full lifting on Friday of Tokyo’s business closure requests, which would pave the way for host clubs and hostess bars in the capital to officially reopen for the first time in months.
In reality, a number of nightclubs had already resumed business to protect the livelihoods of employees. But the official reopening on Friday is expected to breathe new life back into the sector, with many parlors taking a stab at the new safety guidelines issued by the government on how to coexist with the pandemic.
Even as the official easing of restriction approaches, the industry faces an intensifying public backlash after reports emerged that a recent spike in Tokyo’s cases stemmed largely from what is broadly termed the yoru no machi (nighttime entertainment districts) in the capital’s Shinjuku Ward.
The surge is primarily the result of mass testing conducted by officials that zeroed in on a Shinjuku host club where an employee was found to be infected.
To curb the spread of COVID-19 in the industry, the government issued nonbinding guidelines over the weekend.
The recommendations include both patrons and workers in the parlors maintaining an interpersonal distance of up to 2 meters — or “at least 1 meter” — and keeping the contact information of customers so that they can be tracked down in case clusters are detected at a later date.
The guidelines also stipulate that staff and customers wear masks and refrain from singing karaoke and dancing together.
Most of the recommended guidelines had already been implemented by Cruise as of last Friday night, when staff were seen vigorously disinfecting tables and walls hours before customers started showing up.
Reservations are now prioritized to cap the number of guests allowed inside, background music is kept at lower levels than before to discourage loud conversations and cocktail stirring sticks have been eliminated to prevent them from being shared between hosts and customers, Ibuki said.
“I’m not that worried about getting infected here — I find hygiene measures taken by this club pretty adequate,” said one of the customers, who asked to remain anonymous for privacy concerns, describing herself as a 19-year-old sex worker.
She said she had “no qualms whatsoever” about frequenting the district despite how it has been labelled in relation to COVID-19.
“I was all cooped up during the stay-at-home period, which was quite depressing,” she said. “Coming here and being able to meet my favorite host is a great stress reliever.”
Although many host clubs, leery of a backlash, tend to be secretive about the fact they have reopened prematurely, Cruise has been anything but, actively touting details of its ventilation and hygiene precautions in hopes of attracting customers.
“Prejudice against the nightlife industry has always been strong, so if you reopen and act sneaky about it, that’s exactly the kind of behavior that would justify a negative image about us,” Ibuki said.
Despite Ibuki’s assurances about the club’s stringent anti-infection measures, however, a host could sometimes be seen lowering his mask to smoke while conversing with his customer.
There is also one thing about the government guidelines Ibuki says he cannot accept. Among a list of “dont’s” enumerated by the guidelines is the tradition called a “champagne call,” which involves hosts loudly chanting and singing to encourage customers to chug bottles of liquor.
“A champagne call is the single biggest appeal of a host club experience. That’s what many customers visit and pay us for,” Ibuki said. “That’s something I cannot compromise over.”
Kabukicho is not the only nighttime entertainment district coping with the new normal. A legion of hostess bars in the upscale Ginza district are now readying for the full-scale resumption of business on Friday.
Among such establishments is Le-Jardin, which, like many of its rivals in the area, reopened earlier this month accepting only reservations. Revenues had plunged and government subsidies were nowhere near enough to offset the venue’s losses, said veteran hostess Akemi Mochizuki, head of the bar.
In the lead-up to Friday, Le-Jardin has uploaded on its website videos explaining to patrons the new protocols that will be in place, including disinfecting guests’ hands and shoes upon arrival, taking their temperature and keeping every other seat empty.
Mochizuki said she found the government guidelines mostly reasonable — except the request that a distance of 2 meters be maintained with customers.
“Our place is where customers come to enjoy conversation with girls, but there is no way they can carry on a decent conversation if they are 2 meters apart,” she said. “It’s just not feasible.”
With many customers unwilling to be associated with what is often seen as a taboo industry rife with illicit trysts, a desire for anonymity is often cited as a key factor hindering cluster-tracing efforts in such districts. Mochizuki, however, said such secrecy will hardly be an issue at her establishment, going so far as to say that keeping records of patrons’ contact details, as is requested by the guidelines, is its forte.
Girls who work at her establishment, Mochizuki said, often cultivate intimate relationships with their patrons — many of whom are executives of prominent firms — that go far beyond the hours spent at the parlor, extending to trips to nearby sushi bars together, enjoying drives and even playing golf over weekends.
“I can’t let my girls hang out with customers unless I know precisely who they are,” Mochizuki said. Her club, therefore, has always conducted a thorough background check of patrons and systematically organizes their information in a database, she said.
“They say nightclubs are full of anonymous customers and that clusters will be difficult to track down if detected at such places, but clubs in Ginza place a big emphasis on knowing who these men are,” she said.
“No izakaya bar, restaurant, movie theater or museum can match up to us when it comes to knowing about patrons.”
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