Japan Pro Sports Move Toward Pre-COVID Normalcy

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
Spectators root for players at a special area in a stadium during a J.League YBC Levain Cup game in June.

Japan’s pro sports world has reason to cheer. The government’s lifting Friday of the COVID-19-related spectator cap for large-scale events marks an important turning point for the nation amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.

“We’ll continue to push ‘[living] with COVID’ social activities to steadily restore normalcy at home, schools, workplaces and in local communities,” Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said at a meeting of government’s Novel Coronavirus Response Headquarters on Friday.

The cap on attendees at large-scale events was among the few remaining restrictions on social activities. The spectator limit was set based on the government’s basic response policy for when a state of emergency under the law on special measures for new types of influenza has not been declared.

The measure was imposed due to fears over COVID-19 cluster infections. However, countermeasures against infection, including ventilation, are carried out appropriately at large-event facilities such as baseball domes.

During Friday’s meeting, the government concluded that the sporting attendance cap was no longer necessary when compared to other social and economic activities.

A COVID-19 liaison council set up by the Nippon Professional Baseball Organization and the J.League has played a leading role in the Japanese sports world’s response to the pandemic. The council, which was established in March 2020, met 68 times up to November — with a team of infectious disease experts in attendance — to explore ways to organize games.

By steadily accumulating knowledge on such topics as infection analysis, the council compiled a set of guidelines on measures against infection and specific forms of support with the aim of allowing spectators to full-throatedly cheer on their respective teams. The guidelines’ anti-infection measures were used a model for the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.

Starting last season, NPB allowed full-houses for the first time in three seasons. The season finished without incident, leading the owners of the 12 teams to agree during a November meeting that vocal support, musical instruments and other items would be allowed in the 2023 season.

Following the lifting of the spectator cap, the Yomiuri Giants have started preparations to allow fans to offer vocal support while wearing masks, starting with a March 18 exhibition game against the Nippon Ham Fighters — the Giants’ first home game of the season at Tokyo Dome.

A measure to ensure ventilation runs at a level 50% higher than the pre-COVID era will be maintained.

To collect data and check operations, the J.League established special areas for spectators to offer vocal support at stadiums from June to August. The mask-wearing rate was high, and no steep hikes in carbon dioxide levels were detected. The J.League thus concluded that it was possible — to some extent — for fans to cheer their sides on without spreading infection.