Tokyo Report | Economy | East Asia

Japan’s Nightlife Begins to Fizzle Amid Coronavirus Economic Fallout 

As stay-at-home advisories gain traction and customer numbers dwindle, music venues, bars, and clubs say they face bankruptcy without subsidies.

Thisanka Siripala
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Japan’s Nightlife Begins to Fizzle Amid Coronavirus Economic Fallout 
Credit: Flickr/ Marco Verch Professional Photographer and Speaker

Japan’s nightlife and entertainment industries are under increasing pressure to suspend business until further notice as government appeals to stay at home start to make an impact. But music venues, clubs, and bars say they have been left out of subsidy programs and are at risk of disappearing altogether unless they can be shielded from losses during Japan’s soft lockdown.

A group of widely respected Japanese musicians launched the #SaveOurSpace campaign last week to rally for the financial survival of cultural institutions during voluntary stay at home advice. Last week Prime Minister Shinzo Abe spoke at a press conference highlighting the importance of sports, arts, and cultural institutions. But through an internet press conference, campaign co-founder and musician Miru Shinoda criticized government requests to help curb the spread of coronavirus by cancelling events without including arts and culture in the compensation scheme. Shinoda said it would be difficult to revive the industry with just tax breaks alone. He added that if action isn’t taken, no culture institutions would be left to open their doors once life returns to normal.

With a revised supplementary budget draft just around the corner, the online petition proposes that subsidies or grants should cover the cost of maintaining facilities during stay at home requests. It highlights mounting costs such as maintaining staff salaries, event production costs, and actual losses from canceled performances. Shinoda explained that freelancers such as sound engineers, light technicians, musicians, and colleagues who help set up installations and install equipment are essential to daily operations and are currently jobless or on the brink of losing work.

An online petition representing Japan’s iconic nightlife venues launched on March 27 collected 90,00 signatures overnight and over 300,000 signatures after three days. Campaign founders say their intention was to raise their voice and steer the supplementary budget revisions to adequately address the financial needs of music and nightlife venues.

Shinoda said that while people spend more time at home, the power of culture via the internet is providing respite from the stress. After presenting the petition to parliament this week, they aim to exchange views on specific subsidies “so that businesses can close their doors with peace of mind.”

On Monday, Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike held an emergency press conference urging residents to avoid going out at night and eating at restaurants after new cases of coronavirus were traced back to restaurants and drinking spots. Northeast of Tokyo in Sendai, five new coronavirus infections were confirmed in one day after four foreign English teachers contracted the virus after drinking at a well-known Irish pub chain, Hub. Tokyo, which is currently Japan’s coronavirus epicenter, recorded 97 more coronavirus infections on Wednesday — the highest daily total to date.

Calls to stay at home were first announced in mid-February but appeals fell on deaf ears. Despite a national school lockdown coming into effect, Japan carried on business as usual. Shinoda stressed that many bars and venues are micro-businesses and have no choice but to leave doors open while enforcing strict hygiene management.

Last Thursday, Koike again called for everyone’s cooperation, singling out bars and karaoke clubs as places to avoid at night. She also warned that a state of emergency could be declared as a last resort if the infection rate continues to escalate. Shinoda stressed the culture sector edges closer toward bankruptcy each time Koike urges the public to stay away from certain businesses.

Japan’s economic activity hangs in awkward limbo. Leaving the house on nonessential outings is frowned upon but not banned. Businesses are not officially under lockdown but are urged to cancel events and singled out as risky sources of infection.

The ruling LDP’s tax council suggested that cash flow problems can be eased by music venues keeping the money from punters who don’t request refunds from cancelled concert tickets. The plan aims to make it easier for music organizations to hold on to ticket money, which would be treated as “donations” and not have income tax deducted.

However, that falls far short of what other countries are doing to help. In Germany a $54 billion relief package for freelancers was passed, providing a monthly universal income to help weather the loss of income. Meanwhile, France and England have adopted measures to subsidize 70 and 80 percent, respectively, of salaries for employees in affected industries.