By Antonio Hermosín Gandul
Tokyo, June 17 (efe-epa).- Neon lights and giant posters with suggestive photos define Tokyo’s red-light district of Kabukicho, a place as popular as it is taboo among the Japanese and which is now in the spotlight for being a new hotspot of novel coronavirus infections.
At nightfall and the end of the working day, the narrow streets of the area bustle with passersby in search of karaoke bars, izakayas (pubs) and a myriad of establishments that offer everything from a drink in company to covert prostitution.
A brief visit to the neighborhood is enough to verify that most of these “hostess bars,” “girl bars” or “kyabakura,” as they are known in Japan, are open and even try to attract customers in the middle of the street, even though they should not be operating, according to the de-escalation plan of the local authorities.
“If we don’t open, the business goes bankrupt … And we are already in a very difficult situation because far fewer people are coming than ever,” a nightclub doorman, who wished to remain anonymous, told EFE.
The establishment is offering special discounts to attract more customers and as preventive measures, visitors are asked to use hand sanitizer on entry and to wear masks inside.
Kabukicho, which already had a bad reputation due to the presence of “yakuza” (organized crime syndicate) and for businesses that move in legal grey areas, has also been spotlighted in recent weeks due to the spread of COVID-19.
After the health emergency alert was lifted across the country in late May, Tokyo has seen spikes in cases, most of them linked to Kabukicho or other nightlife neighborhoods.
Between Sunday and Monday alone, there were 95 cases reported in the capital, 52 of which were hostess bar workers in Kabukicho and similar areas.
The figure is striking as last week, around 40 to 50 cases were being reported daily across the entire country, where the epidemic has been considered controlled, although some measures to prevent a second wave of infections remain in place.
The figures reported are also due to the fact that the Tokyo government has decided to carry out regular and large-scale PCR testing among workers in nightlife areas, considering them to be high risk, something that does not apply to other areas or among other professional groups, with the exception of health personnel.
Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike on Sunday said that the PCR tests for the sector’s workers are aimed to make their businesses safer and will allow them to know if they are infected and if so, ensure they will be able to avoid transmitting the virus.
In the Kabukicho hostess bars, the company of attractive young people known as “hosts” and “hostesses” is offered in exchange for an entrance fee and the cost of shared drinks – the bills for which can add up to several thousands of dollars for a two-hour visit.
In theory, these lawful businesses do not offer sexual services as prostitution is prohibited in Japan, although allegedly there are a few places that do so clandestinely, and in some cases also exploit irregular migrant workers.
According to the Tokyo government’s roadmap on phased easing of restrictions to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, businesses such as karaoke bars, clubs, hostess bars and cabarets cannot reopen before June 19.
While other types of businesses have been able to reopen after the health emergency alert was lifted in late May, these establishments are in the category of places which are more vulnerable to spread of infection as they are small and poorly ventilated spaces where it is difficult to maintain social distancing.
The government is preparing as series of specific guidelines for hostess bars and similar establishments, which include registering customers’ personal data so that the authorities can locate them, and people who could have come into contact with them, in the event one gets infected.
Businesses will be asked to check the temperature of customers upon entry, require them to wear masks, and keep them 1-2 meters apart, and limit capacity to 50 percent, according to Japanese media.
But these measures, developed in collaboration with a business association in the sector, will not be mandatory, as with other recommendations of the Japanese authorities to contain the epidemic.
Everything will therefore depend on the good faith of the clients in providing their personal data when visiting places that are not socially well regarded, as well as on the cooperation of places that base their business on intimate contact. EFE-EPA