Clad in a dark suit, a gray-haired man in his 60s watches passersby from a corner in Nakasu, a bustling nightlife district in Fukuoka.
He is no stranger to this intersection on Nakasu’s main street. Having started as a bouncer in his early 30s, he now works for an exclusive club in the district. Whenever he spots a businessman who has visited the club in the past, he bows deeply in their direction in the same suave fashion he has employed for more than 20 years.
But the novel coronavirus has drastically changed the landscape.
Pedestrian traffic on the busy street soon vanished after the government declared its state of emergency in early April. Many restaurants and dining businesses resumed operations in June, and since then there have been sporadic cases of COVID-19 infections in Nakasu.
The district now looks to have put the worst of the crisis behind it, thanks in part to the government’s Go To Travel campaign that has boosted domestic tourism. But still the man thinks foot traffic on the street is below half of levels seen before the pandemic.
In contrast to younger generations who stand out in the street, there are very few suit-clad expense account spenders who visit the area for adult entertainment or social gatherings and the likes of his club.
“Before the coronavirus, I used to greet more than 20 people (a day), but now I greet around one person at the most,” he said.
The man, who has cultivated strong relationships with leaders of the local business community and has a thorough knowledge of the hospitality business, sees a crisis lurking in the present situation in Nakasu.
“If the current state continues, the watering hole culture may die out,” he said.
He had been working at a bar, nearly 30 years ago, when an acquaintance at a large firm told him about a good opportunity at the exclusive club.
The club has long served as a space where executives from various firms can gather, with women serving as a social lubricant, and where a strong network of contacts cultivated through wining and dining led to new business opportunities.
“It is the companies and our venue that have helped build the culture of a social gathering space,” he said.
Now businessmen at the club are few and far between.
A total of eight clusters of COVID-19 infections were reported in Nakasu within a month of the first, which broke out at a hostess bar in mid-July. Since September, Nakasu-related cases have occurred in twos and threes, with no reported clusters, while the city of Fukuoka as a whole had logged 330 cases as of Oct. 15.
“This is the fruit of efforts made by the restaurants and dining establishments,” said an official involved with the city hall’s infection control measures.
Even so, many businessmen have been staying away from the club, its image perhaps tarnished by its association with what is described as the yoru no machi, which directly translates as night town but refers to nightlife entertainment businesses typically targeted at an adult audience.
As the pandemic spread across the country, the phrase was used frequently by central and local governments to refer to host and hostess bars. Though circumstances of infections and anti-prevention measures have differed from shop to shop, all were categorized as yoru no machi and treated as if they presented the worst of COVID-19 risks in microcosm.
A man in his 30s who works for an advertising agency and used to frequent the club before the virus said his employer “has told us to refrain from meetings, which bans the use of entertainment expenses.”
An executive in his 60s at a local construction firm said that in discussion with his business partners it is often said that now is a time to stay away from the nightlife district.
There are rays of hope. A major local firm has recently lifted a company-wide order to refrain from visiting hostess bars on condition that sufficient anti-infection measures are taken. But a male executive at the firm said that having told his subordinates to only visit hostess bars with anti-infection measures, it would be hard for him to visit a bar given how it would be seen if he became infected.
Club Matsumoto, frequented by many in the business world, is facing a big loss of visitors. On some days only a few groups of customers visit. Store owner Yasuko Matsumoto, 81, says she receives calls from regular customers who are business executives apologizing that they cannot visit the club.
“It is those words that warm my heart. I know the positions they are in now, so I feel happy just to hear that they miss the place,” she said.
Matsumoto keeps the business open to maintain the livelihoods of her staff, and can often be seen standing tall at the store.
“I have to keep the store open if there’s even one customer,” she said.
Reduced to ruins by air raids during World War II, Nakasu became home to a slew of drinking establishments after the conflict. Their number has now grown to more than 2,300.
There have been rumors that hundreds of them went out of business recently, but a local real estate firm says the area has long been known for its high turnover of businesses and that any decline is limited to only several dozen.
That said, people seem to be shaken by the recent closure of a few highly reputed and long-established exclusive clubs.
Despite the bleak outlook, some are not giving up on Nakasu. Minami Akizuki, 27, who worked for eight years at a club that shuttered its business, opened a new snack bar called South on Oct. 15. She met with strong opposition from people around her who said it was a reckless move in the middle of the pandemic, but she wasn’t swayed one inch. “Isn’t it better to have someone around you who’s so energetic?” Akizuki said.
She had misgivings on opening day, but a throng of customers visited the store, which was decorated with beautiful phalaenopsis orchids. Its existence is just the latest effort to create a new social meeting place in the district.
“This town has taught me how to deal with customers and the importance of courtesy,” Akizuki said. “I think this is where I belong.”
This section features topics and issues from the Kyushu region covered by the Nishinippon Shimbun, the largest daily newspaper in Kyushu. The original article was published Oct. 17.
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