Hosts at work. Photo: Jake Adelstein

Covid-19 is giving Tokyo no rest. The city reported over 100 new cases of the novel coronavirus Thursday (July 2), the highest the capital had seen in two months. This followed a weeklong surge of infections that started when 55 cases were reported on June 24.

Who’s to blame? A scapegoating of those on the fringes of society is underway and the most vulnerable of those on the fringes are feeling the heat. Leading the scapegoating is Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike.

Listening to her, you could be forgiven for thinking that the novel coronavirus is a nocturnal creature that comes out after sunset and is primarily spread by denizens of “the night village” – a newly coined euphemism referring to Japan’s billion-dollar adult entertainment industry.

Koike has been particularly hard on the “host clubs” which are densely located in Kabukicho, the red-light district of Tokyo’s Shinjuku-ward. 

Tokyo’s red light districts are coming under fire for being Covid-19 clusters. Photo: Jake Adelstein

The “night village”

Host clubs are establishments where handsome young fellows in suits wine and dine women who pay for the pleasure of their company. They were preceded historically by hostess bars, where Japanese males shell out money to beautiful women who flirt with them, pour them drinks, and listen to their woes.  

While these businesses are legal, their staffers are generally looked down upon by mainstream Japanese society. And certainly, the intimate nature of these clubs makes them potential sources of infection. The Ministry of Health has singled them out as risky because they tick the “3Cs:” closed spaces, crowded places, and close contact.

After clusters of infections were discovered in clubs in Kabukicho in early June, Koike announced that Tokyo would ask those working there to test for Covid-19 regularly.

“We want to make sure that people do not catch or transmit the virus also in night (entertainment) districts,” Koike said. 

But why are host clubs – rather than the more numerous hostess clubs – the key target? According to one industry voice, they provide Koike with a risk-free target.

Kaori Koga, the head of the Nightlife Business Association, told Asia Times that while hostess bar customers are males  – and often well-to-do males – host bar customers are not just female, but are often sex-industry workers themselves.

Such women are treated as third-class citizens, and as a result, have no social voice.  

“Host clubs are the perfect punching dummies,” Koga said.

In Tokyo’s host bars, pretty boys are on top. Photo: Jake Adelstein

Playing the blame game

Since the pandemic first took off, Japan has focused on identifying clusters. The government singles out a location where clusters are feared; the media takes the bait and reports on it, and the businesses are bashed by society. When new clusters erupt, the blame game starts all over again. 

The order of scapegoats has roughly been: cruise ships, river cruisers, live music clubs, gyms, Pachinko parlors – and now “the night village.” And the current blame game is timely: Tokyo elections are imminent and Koike needs to show she has Covid-19 under control. 

Koichi Nakano, a professor of Japanese politics at Sophia University, points out the potential for bias inherent in Japan’s pandemic strategy.

“The approach is based on the active rejection of mass testing as unnecessary, followed by making an example of certain identified clusters,” he said. “The genius of the approach is in the fact that the clusters are only found where aggressive testing is conducted, so the government gets to choose which businesses to find clusters in, and which not to expose.”

Hence, the emphasis on host clubs.

“It’s not like the host clubs get a whole lot of sympathy from middle-class voters,” said Nakano. “They certainly don’t have the lobbying power of listed companies.”

Jeff Kingston, an author and expert on modern Japanese history, is getting a whiff of holier-than-thou attitudes. 

“The scapegoating narrative has shifted from foreign arrivals at Narita to pachinko parlors to the fleshpots of Kabukicho,” he said. “It is striking that, as Tokyo’s cases climb, the government attributes this to these dens of iniquity – as if the coronavirus is hellfire for the wicked.”

As per Nakano’s analysis, one reason many hosts are testing positive is that many host clubs are cooperating proactively with authorities.

On July 1, the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper detailed how the mayor of Shinjuku had asked for and received, the cooperation of the many host clubs in the area. Moreover, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported on June 12 that Shinjuku would be giving 100,000 yen (US$1,000) to anyone testing positive for the virus.

But the more tests that are undertaken, the more infections appear. Even Economy Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura conceded at a press conference on June 7th, “The reason the number of positive cases (in Shinjuku) keep rising, should be understood also as the flip-side of their cooperation.” 

The gaudy interior of Club AI on its last night in business. Photo: Jake Adelstein

‘Night village’ versus ‘day village’ 

The residents of “the night village” are Tokyo’s new lepers. Business has dropped off, clubs are closing, and sex-industry workers are losing their jobs.

“There did not used to be a term like ‘night village,’” complained Koga, the head of the Nightlife Business Association. “It’s a new term to sort of lump together all the cabaret girls, sex workers, hostesses and bartenders into a category of deplorabes – along with yakuza and others.”

“It’s a discriminatory phrase,” Koga fumed. “I wish Koike would just shut up sometimes!” 

Koga says that many night village businesses are taking preventive measures to stop the spread of coronavirus: taking temperatures at the door, wearing masks, and using a disinfectant. This makes some adult businesses more stringent than local pubs.

“There is no group testing of those working in ‘the day village’ such as offices, or those riding the trains,” Koga said. “So of course, with no other standard of comparison, our businesses are going to look terrible.” 

Indeed, the government has turned a blind eye to other high-risk vectors.

On March 9th, a government panel of experts warned that “the crowded commuter trains in Tokyo and other cities presented a high risk of spreading Covid-19.”  Yet, the government has done no group testing of passengers or even random samplings. 

On Friday, as Tokyo’s numbers of infected rose yet further, even Koike had to concede that the problem was not limited to “the night village.” “The spread of infections can be seen in many places, such as households, workplaces and elderly care facilities,” she told reporters. 

Meanwhile, some of Tokyo’s most iconic host bars are closing their doors.

Club AI, a once-famous host club, did its last day in business on June 30. When this writer visited, the club only had a scattering of visitors. There were more hosts than customers.

“It’s not easy to make a living these days, especially when people keep painting you as a public menace,” sighed Leon Uzumaki, 27, between pouring glasses of champagne. “But we’re doing our best.” 

One particularly buff host, Ryuji– who declined to give his full name – was a firefighter for a decade before entering the “night village.”

He was bitter about Koike’s recent blame game. “I know how to extinguish a real fire,” Ryuji said. “But when someone burns the reputation of our industry, that’s a fire one man can’t put out.”

On the last night at one of Tokyo’s most famed host bars, hosts outnumbered customers. Photo: Jake Adelstein