The Japanese government lifted its states of emergency in May, allowing pro sports to resume, and on June 19, Nippon Professsional Baseball began its delayed 2020 season. Since July 10, events have been allowed to admit crowds of up to 5,000.
But in the meantime, the number of coronavirus infections across Japan has steadily increased, and this past week, both NPB and pro soccer’s J-League abandoned their plans to increase attendance limits from Aug. 1 to roughly half the capacity of their venues.
Compared to the numbers coming out of the United States, where pro baseball resumed on Thursday, and where numerous players and staff have tested positive for COVID-19, Japan’s infection rates are miniscule and NPB has so far announced just 5 infections since March.
Unlike in the United States, Japan’s government has since Day 1, presented the coronavirus outbreak as a serious health threat–even while downplaying its potential to disrupt the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
On Saturday, two stories broke, one from the J-League and one from the world of sumo, which had cancelled its May grand tournament and moved its July tourney to Tokyo to reduce travel.
A wrestler in the elite makuuchi division broke with Japan Sumo Association guidelines by going out eating and drinking with backers and others. He was promptly yanked from the current grand tournament and has been tested for COVID-19.
In the J-League, a player from first-division side Nagoya Grampus tested positive on Saturday, and three others with the club, which had two infections prior to the season’s restart, tested positive. Since the league’s guidelines require testing of those in close contact with those testing positive, the team could not register enough players to hold its scheduled match on Sunday.
Since early this year, NPB and the J-League have held joint “liaison” meetings with public health experts and have studied the guidelines enforced by other sports leagues in order to reopen safely. But after Monday’s 12th meeting, NPB commissioner Atsushi Saito expressed grave concern about being able to find a clear path forward.
“The world and Japan are worried about how to balance the coronavirus pathogen, economic activity, and business activity,” he told an online press conference following the meeting, according to Nikkan Sports.
“Our human society is useless if, in the current situation, we lean too far in one direction or the other. Who manages this balance? Is it the government? Can we institute controls? I think we need to find ways while listening to the opinions of specialists.”
Dr. Mitsuo Kaku, a professor of Tohoku University, said it was important to remember that special care is needed because roughly 80 percent of the cases have very mild symptoms.
“We know that our policy “of wearing masks, social distancing and staying home” is effective in preventing clusters,” he said. “But going forward we need to remember that many pro baseball and soccer players are young, and so I would like to see extra vigilance taken.”
Dr. Hiroshige Mikamo of Aichi Medical University, who was involved in the decisions related to the Grampus infections, said, “The infection is putting pressure on the economy. I understand we are entering the second phase of danger.”
“I said at the meeting I would like athletes and staff to refrain as much as possible from eating and drinking while traveling. This is critical for them to protect their team and their league.”
Dr. Mikamo added that the reason the Grampus match against Hiroshima Sanfrecce was canceled was red tape involved in getting trace information from public health offices.
Dr. Kazuhiro Tateda of Toho University said, “In general, people are at the same risk as players and team staff.”
“Infection spreads from eating and drinking parties. Athletes and team staff are under tight restrictions, and yet even among them, infections are occurring. So it would be no surprise if we start seeing infections among spectators.”
“We need to be prepared for those cases that will occur next. I have found that the public health authorities’ ability to obtain contact lists and indeed the cooperation with the government has been haphazard. We need to improve communication with the government.”