Beppu, Oita Pref. – When the state of emergency was extended at the beginning of May, a panel of experts advising the government called on the need for people to switch to “new lifestyles” to adapt to the extended fight against COVID-19, so that gradual resumption of economic activities in areas with fewer new infections would not result in another surge of cases.
I don’t intend to go into the details of what the experts spelled out, but I imagine that few people believe all aspects of civic life will return to the way they were in the post-coronavirus world and its “new normal.” Whether people like it or not, new lifestyles will no doubt emerge. What kind of a world will it be? Here are some broad views of the relevant issues.
Along with the transport and tourism sectors, which are premised on the movement of people, what has sustained the biggest commercial damage from the pandemic is Japan’s nighttime entertainment industry. By their very nature, these three sectors embody the types of “close contact” that should be averted in combating the coronavirus. Nighttime dining and drinking establishments are the stages for both entertaining business guests as well as communicating with business colleagues over drinks. In fact, many infection clusters are reported to have emerged in such “night districts.”
Indeed, Japan is a country where night districts of “snack bars,” cabarets, ryotei luxury dining establishments and more folksy small restaurants — in which guests are mainly entertained by women — are highly developed. Why? The question is closely related to the peculiar ways that Japanese corporate employees go about their work.
The gender-based division of labor in which men are supposed to head off to work while women keep the house has endured throughout the postwar period. As a result, women’s social position in Japan is 121st among the 153 countries in the World Economic Forum’s gender gap index. Today, Japan is considered to have the worst gender inequality among all developed economies.
In addition, the typically long hours that workers spend on the job has long been deemed something of a virtue — as symbolized by such terms as tsukiai zangyō, referring to people putting in overtime because their colleagues are doing it. Over the past three decades, full-time corporate employees have worked an average of more than 2,000 hours a year, a rate that has not declined at all.
The nighttime entertainment business districts in this country developed as a support for this macho, male-dominated society in which men, fatigued after long hours of work, relax by being entertained mainly by young women. Also, men working late into the evening are generally not going to eat dinner with their family, so ryotei and small restaurants cater to the entertainment needs of these men.
Thus was established this unique social tolerance toward drunken men. And this very picture of men being entertained by women reinforced the pre-existing social perception that men go to work and women keep the house — and contributed to breeding unconscious biases such as the gender-based division of roles and other forms of discrimination.
Now the COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically changed the situation. Company employees across the country across the country are suddenly being urged to work from home, using online conferences and other digital tools. The government set a target of reducing by 70 percent the number of people commuting to offices in prefectures where extra caution was required in combating the virus.
Even as it lifted the state of emergency this week in 39 prefectures where infections have been falling, the government continues to call on people to refrain from traveling across prefectural borders and visiting the night entertainment districts that are prone to generate clusters of infections.
The media have been warning against an increase in domestic violence and child abuse as more people stay home all day. Of course such risks do exist. But a large number of people must have come to realize the importance of family as they spend more time with their spouses and children. It must have dawned on them that, instead of reluctantly listening to the repeated preaching by their bosses while serving them sake, or going along with the talk of their business guests as they wine and dine, it is much more important in life to help their kids with homework, spend enough time with the family over dinner, or just take a walk in the neighborhood.
People living alone must have been reminded of the importance of friends and relatives as they communicated with each other over video chat or social media when they could not meet face to face due to the stay-home requests. And that must have given them enough time to think over how they have lived their life so far and how they would like to go about life and work in the future.
Once the pandemic is over, the nighttime districts will temporarily regain their luster — and maybe even see a surge in business. Many people I know are saying they can’t wait to return to the karaoke bars. However, it is hard to believe that people who have come to understand the importance of friends and family would so easily go back to the male-centered social life. Over the medium to longer term, I suspect that Japan’s nighttime entertainment business, premised on the male-dominated society and where men are mainly entertained by women, will gradually diminish.
Then what will the “new” night districts be like? We can get a rough idea by looking at such neighborhoods in other parts of the world. In London, where I spent three years, night districts were prospering. But their atmosphere was different from the stir and bustle of their counterparts in Tokyo or Osaka. It was so healthy — restaurants where you can spend time with family and friends, or theatrical performances and concerts, as represented by musicals, were thriving.
It is often said that music and theater aren’t popular in Japan because men don’t have enough time away from work to enjoy them. Work-style reform can help promote cultural and artistic activities. Needless to say, I found no establishments anywhere in London where women entertained men. In the “new normal” Japan, a new lifestyle will likely lead to the emergence of new types of night districts where families, friends and couples can have an enjoyable time. And this will pave the way to eliminating such old, deep-rooted evils as the gender-based division of labor and sexual discrimination.
Haruaki Deguchi is the president of Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Beppu, Oita Prefecture. A popular lecturer and author of more than 40 books, he founded Lifenet Insurance in 2008 after a career spanning nearly 35 years at Nippon Life Insurance Co.
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