By Julian Ryall

For Mitsue Nagasaku, her company’s “bonenkai” party is one of the highlights of the year. The evening invariably begins at an up-market restaurant in Tokyo, with the firm picking up the tab for the free-flowing food and drink for her entire department. Games are played, songs are sung and things can get a bit raucous, she admits.

Typically, the revelers will then go on to another venue, a bar, a karaoke box, or, for some of the younger employees, a nightclub. Bonenkai, which literally means “forget the year party,” is a chance for colleagues to get to know one another away from the rigid formality of the average Japanese office environment.

For companies of every size, the parties are a long-standing tradition in the run-up to the New Year holidays. But 2020 is not a normal year, Nagasaku agrees.

“For my company, the end-of-year party is a pretty major event and something that I think everyone looks forward to,” says Nagasaku, who works for a well-known Japanese electronics firm.

“It’s nice to be able to relax with people who I normally only know as colleagues and it probably helps build team spirit.”


Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images

A sign for 'Go To Travel' campaign, a Japanese government-backed travel discount program encouraging domestic travel to help boost the economy, is displayed at a souvenir shop along Nakamise Street at Asakusa district, a popular sightseeing spot, amid the Covid-19 outbreak in Tokyo, Japan October 13, 2020.

Since the coronavirus pandemic took a firm hold in March, however, Nagasaku has only been going into her office once every two weeks, with the company keen to encourage staff to avoid Tokyo’s notoriously crowded rush-hour trains and limit their exposure to other employees.

She said she expected the bonenkai to be canceled as autumn ran into winter and coronavirus cases continued to climb, but it’s still a disappointment.

“It’s sad,” she said. “I have not been able to see my work friends for a long time, I think many people are tired of working from home and having such limited interactions with other people and the bonenkai is always fun. It’s a real shame.”

That disappointment is being repeated across Japan, with nearly nine out of every 10 companies saying they will not hold end-of-year gatherings this year in an effort to limit the spread of the virus.

A study carried out by Tokyo Shoko Research indicated that 87.8% of 10,059 companies surveyed across Japan will not be celebrating this year. Similarly, traditional “shinnenkai” parties in the early part of the New Year are also being called off.

Japan’s case numbers climbing

There were 460 new coronavirus infections reported in Tokyo on Tuesday, with the total number of infections in the capital now standing at 47,990. Nationwide, there have been more than 181,000 infections to date and over 2,600 fatalities.

After a lull in case numbers during the early summer months, Japan experienced a second wave of cases in the autumn that has continued into the winter.

There is growing concern that if the caseload cannot be brought under control in the next six weeks, the nation’s hospitals could be overwhelmed.

“We thought about having a small get-together, but then decided it was just too risky,” said Masanobu Katori, the owner of a specialist company that makes sails for boats.

“Usually we have our bonenkai in the loft at our factory, and we invite maybe 30 people or so, but this year everything is different,” adding that there is no way to guarantee that people won’t catch the virus at a party.

“We decided that we won’t celebrate this year,” he said.

Some companies have issued strict orders banning year-end celebrations or gatherings of colleagues.


Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images

Pedestrians wearing protective masks make their way on a crosswalk at a nightlife district in Tokyo, Japan, November 25, 2020.

“It is always so much fun every year, so it is a real pity that we can’t do something this year,” office worker Shoko Akita told DW .

“But everyone understands and agrees that this is the best thing to do under the circumstances. I just hope that we will be able to celebrate this time next year.”

Bonenkai too dangerous

Yoko Tsukamoto, a professor of infection control at the Health Sciences University of Hokkaido, said going out to party this New Year season is “just about one of the most dangerous things you can do right now.”

“We know that the virus exists inside the oral mucus of people with the infection, so whenever someone takes off their mask to eat, to drink or to speak, then the chances of transmission are high,” she said.

“And that is made worse at a party, when there is alcohol being served and we let our guard down,” Tsukamoto added.

“It’s likely to be noisy, so we raise our voices and lean closer to people to be heard. That heightens the risk because the social distancing rules are not being followed. And the situation becomes even worse if a venue is not well ventilated.”

Tsukamoto’s department has similarly canceled its annual bonenkai party.

“No matter what precautions we take, there’s a possibility that the virus will infect someone. And we are not willing to do that. And I am happy to see that the vast majority of Japanese companies and organizations are doing the same. It’s just not worth it.”

This article was originally published on Deutsche Welle. Read the original article here.

TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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