Japan’s strict border controls hit Fuji Rock fest artist bookings, guest numbers

Tomoaki Ishitobi, director of Smash Corp., reflects on holding the Fuji Rock Festival during the coronavirus pandemic, at the venue for the Asagiri Jam 2022 festival in Fujinomiya, Shizuoka Prefecture, on Oct. 8, 2022. Mount Fuji is seen in the background amid the clouds. (Mainichi/Naoki Irie)

FUJINOMIYA, Shizuoka — Japan’s world-famous Fuji Rock Festival welcomed back foreign artists for the first time in three years this summer, after the August 2020 event was effectively canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic and the August 2021 version restricted acts to domestic performers.

But while organizer Smash Corp. sought to bring the artist lineup for the July 2022 festival as close to the pre-pandemic levels as possible, the Japanese government’s “closed-door policy caused repercussions in many ways,” said Smash Corp. Director Tomoaki Ishitobi. While the event did implement anti-COVID-19 measures, “the battle was not just against the coronavirus,” he complained, as he revealed some behind-the-scenes episodes during an interview with the Mainichi Shimbun.

Preparations for this summer’s Fuji Rock fest hit snags from the start. Normally, bookings for overseas artists for the following year’s event go into full swing right after the festival ends. And when the negotiations for the 2022 event culminated in late November last year, the government in principle banned new foreign arrivals in response to surging infections with the coronavirus’s omicron variant. While Japan had repeatedly beefed up and relaxed its border control measures since the coronavirus hit the country, it was right after the 10-day isolation period for business arrivals was shortened to three days in early November.

Ishitobi and his colleagues nevertheless continued to negotiate with foreign artists. When the staff explained that audiences in Japan were wearing masks, however, one performer declined to come, saying they could not sing in front of masked people. “There was this conflict with the artists’ requests to perform normally, looking at the faces in the crowd,” Ishitobi recalled.

— Unable to announce cast for 2022 festival

Outside Japan, moves to ease COVID-19 countermeasures were picking up pace in 2021, especially in the United States and European countries. When the world-renowned Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival was revived in California for the first time in three years in April 2022, visitors were not asked to wear masks, nor were they required to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test result.

As Japanese people have long tended to don masks during the hay fever and influenza seasons, a simple comparison with overseas practices was impossible. But as time passed, Ishitobi began to feel that the gap between Japan and abroad was only widening.

Visitors go through the entrance gate to the Fuji Rock Festival 2022 venue while staff urge them to get their temperatures checked and hands disinfected, in Yuzawa, Niigata Prefecture, on July 30, 2022. (Mainichi/Naoki Irie)

Japan’s isolationist coronavirus policy also affected the number of festivalgoers at home. When tickets for the July 2022 Fuji Rock fest went on sale in March this year, Smash was still unable to release the artist lineup. While organizers managed to hold the event in July, Ishitobi surmises that “people didn’t get motivated enough to want to stay overnight to go to the festival.” As the seventh wave of infections swept across the country, many people also decided not to go at the last minute.

The absence of inbound tourists, who account for around 10% of total festival turnout in normal years, was also a major blow. Total attendance for Fuji Rock 2022 stood at 69,000 in total, nearly doubling the previous year’s 35,000 but far below the pre-pandemic levels of more than 100,000 per year.

Fuji Rock was not the only major open-air music festival that was left at the mercy of the pandemic. After the news broke in September that an entry ban on individual tourists was set to be lifted, the organizing committee for the Asagiri Jam 2022 festival in Fujinomiya, Shizuoka Prefecture, began to sell tickets for overseas fans. However, the ban was actually lifted two days after the two-day event ended on Oct. 9. Smash was on the organizing committee.

“For us, whether to invest in an event is like capital investment by a company, and it entails big decisions. And yet, the government has continued with wishy-washy measures. Its responses lagged, and there were absolutely no policy measures or guidelines accounting for the future,” Ishitobi said.

Japan’s infection control measures since 2020 were also a story of trial and error.

In 2020, Ishitobi decided to postpone that summer’s Fuji Rock as he had no idea what to do, but the following year found him thinking he could somehow pull it off in 2021 by tapping his wisdom and ingenuity.

Organizers repeatedly held prior consultations with the national government and local bodies concerned, and managed to hold Fuji Rock in August 2021. They took thorough anti-infection measures in compliance with government notices, such as scaling back on the event and limiting the acts to only Japan-based artists; distributing antigen test kits to visitors; asking visitors to wear masks and banning drinking at the venues; ensuring social distancing and keeping crowds from cheering loudly.

— Music lifts people up

That summer, however, public opinion was hard on the government for going ahead with the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games, albeit without spectators, amid the pandemic. Worries that another infection surge could collapse the health care system spurred floods of social media comments urging cancellations of large events. Looking back, Ishitobi confided he “still cannot come up with answers” as to what measures could have worked.

Against all odds and risks, why are organizers so eager to hold open-air festivals?

While the entertainment industry came under fire for being “nonurgent and unnecessary” at the height of the pandemic, Ishitobi emphasized that, “Even through their earphones, people could find solace in music, or laughed at silly acts on TV variety shows. Entertainment lifts the spirits of people driven to the edge.”

So what shape should future music festivals take in this “living with the coronavirus” age?

Fuji Rock has kept rules for attendees to the minimum, and the only principles spelled out are “Do it yourself,” “Help each other” and “Respect nature.” Yet under the pandemic, organizers had to overrule their own misgivings and add new rules: wearing masks and refraining from talking in a loud voice.

As organizers moved ahead with COVID-19 measures, the issue of smoking at the festival venue came into focus. As it’s been more than 20 years since Fuji Rock debuted at the very foot of Mount Fuji, there are more families taking part in the event, raising the risks of children being exposed to smokers. While organizers used to leave it to the discretion of guests, they have set up smoking areas since 2021, calling on visitors via the official website to refrain from smoking except in those areas.

“It’s the way of the times. Wearing masks and not smoking should be manners, rather than rules. By taking these steps, we hope to provide the best place to be for everyone,” Ishitobi said.

(Japanese original by Naoki Irie, Osaka Editorial Production Center)

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