Festivals that planned to return now face tough appeals as cases rise

With the seventh wave of new coronavirus infections showing no signs of easing anytime soon, organizers of Japan’s popular summer festivals are being forced to make tough decisions on whether to cancel their events.

The Morioka Sansa Odori Festival, one of the major summer events in the Tohoku region, kicked off on the evening of August 1 in central Morioka, Iwate Prefecture. The event is taking place for the first time in three years.

Dancers dressed in “yukata” (summer kimono) chanted “Sakkora, choiwayasse”, a traditional call for happiness, to the steady beat of drums as they marched down the city’s main street.

Legend has it that the festival originated from dances performed by locals to rejoice after casting out a demon. The last event, held in 2019, attracted 1.49 million visitors.

This year’s festival began after the prefecture reported a record 1,077 daily COVID-19 cases on July 27.

The event’s organizing committee has reduced the parade area and halved the size limit for each participating group to up to 150 performers so they can practice social distancing.

The committee also widened the viewing area along the street to allow spectators to have more distance between them.

But the changes have left some uneasy.

“To be honest, I have mixed feelings,” said Akiko Oikawa, 50, one of the dancers.

Oikawa began performing at the festival over 40 years ago. Her daughter, a middle school student, plays an old Japanese flute at the event, while her son, a junior high school freshman, serves as the drummer.

Oikawa said she thinks about the history and future of the festival whenever she sees her children perform. She said she missed the event so much during the two-year hiatus that it started to feel like “summer has finally arrived” this year.

But Oikawa said she also fears the festival could be canceled again from next year if this year’s event leads to a further rise in infections.

But she said she decided to participate, so she will lead and support the young performers.

“This year, I’m playing to carry on the tradition rather than to show off,” Oikawa said. “I hope I can pass the baton to the next generation.”

Sendai Tanabata Festival, another popular summer event in the Tohoku region, will kick off in Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture on August 6 as scheduled. More than two million people visit the “star festival” every year.

The main attraction of the event, the gigantic “fukinagashi” banners fluttering in the wind, will be suspended 2 meters above the ground to prevent visitors from touching them as a precaution against the virus.

The Miyagi Prefectural Government plans to declare soon that it must take action to counter the spread of the BA.5 Omicron sub-variant.

He is likely to ask elderly residents to refrain from going out after the declaration, a new policy initiative adopted by the central government, is issued.

A member of the festival’s organizing body has asked for residents’ understanding, saying they will implement the strictest anti-virus measures possible.

The Nagaoka Fireworks Festival in Niigata Prefecture, one of Japan’s three major fireworks displays, will also be held with anti-virus measures in place.

The event organizer will offer spectator places only to those who have purchased tickets so that they can identify close contacts if visitors test positive for the virus. It will also encourage viewers to refrain from speaking loudly.

The organizer asks people without tickets to “stay away” from the room.

Tokushima’s Awa Odori, one of Japan’s most traditional summer events, will be held August 12-15. Individual dance groups, called “ren”, practiced using objects placed 2 meters apart as a guide to help them maintain social distancing during their performances.

“Dancers also need to take precautions,” said Seiya Kori, 51, leader of Yukyu-ren, a long-established ren dance group known for its high skill.

Kumamoto’s hinokuni matsuri (Land of Fire Festival) was originally scheduled to kick off on August 5 after a two-year hiatus.

However, it was canceled after the city government declared a medical emergency on July 29 following a spike in infections.

“It was an agonizing decision, but the event would have had a huge impact on the health system,” Takahisa Nakagaito, vice mayor of Kumamoto, said at a press conference he attended on behalf of the mayor, who is recovering after contracting the virus.

The Yamaage Matsuri festival in Nasu-Karasuyama, Tochigi prefecture, took place from July 22 to 24, but 141 people who attended the event had since tested positive as of July 31.

About Keith Johnson

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