Fans return to watch live sports in Japan

NIIGATA, JAPAN - OCTOBER 01: Yuki Koike (2nd L) competes in the Men's 100m heat on day one of the 104th JAAF Athletics Championships at Denka Big Swan in Niigata, Japan. (Photo by Kiyoshi Ota/Getty Images)
NIIGATA, JAPAN - OCTOBER 01: Yuki Koike (2nd L) competes in the Men's 100m heat on day one of the 104th JAAF Athletics Championships at Denka Big Swan in Niigata, Japan. (Photo by Kiyoshi Ota/Getty Images)

Thousands of sporting events around the world are currently being played without spectators in front of empty stadiums - but in Japan, a sense of normalcy is slowly returning to the country.

Thousands of fans have returned to sporting venues across Japan as the country adopts new measures that allow spectators to attend live events.

The J1 League football and NPB (Nippon Professional Baseball) - two of the most popular sports in the country – continue to draw large crowds since the government lifted the cap on major sporting events last month, from having 5,000 spectators in attendance to allowing venues to be at 50 percent capacity.

NPB teams like the Yokohama Baystars have already lifted their cap to allow 16,000 spectators at the Yokohama Stadium, while the Giants have eased restrictions to allow up to 19,000 fans attend games at the Tokyo Dome. Some 14,500 fans are allowed to watch the Yakult Swallows play ball at the Jingu Stadium in Tokyo.

NPB teams are playing 120 games instead of the normal 143 which is set to finish in the first week of November.

Japan’s B.League also opened its the 2020-21 season last Friday (2 October) with fan attendance capped to half the stadium capacity with the rest of the fans tuning online.

As one of the season's opener, two-time B.League champions Alvark Tokyo battled it out against Kawasaki Brave Thunders, and won 85-79 in front of reduced home crowd.

Missing from Alvark's line up were two of their foreign players, Kevin Jones and newcomer Deshaun Thomas.

“Since we’ve practiced without some of our players, our fans probably anticipated this would be a tough game for us,” ANDO Seiya told Japan Times. “But we’ve practised with the guys we have and wanted to win the season opener. So it feels great to do that. I think we played to the best we can now.”

With newly signed foreign athletes still unable to enter the country, the Japanese Professional Basketball Association have made a provision to allow squads to sign athletes who are already in Japan.

The 104th Japan Athletics National Athletics Championships ended last Saturday 3 October after three days of competition with more than 700 athletes taking part.

The meet included sprints, middle distance, hurdles, jumps and javelin events.

At the women's javelin event, SATO Yuka won her first national title against defending champion KITAGUCHI Haruka, who still holds the national record of 66m. Meanwhile, ARAI Ryohei dominated each round and cleared 81.57m in the final attempt to knock DEAN Genki to second place.

For the women's 1500m, TANAKA Nozomi claimed her first national crown after clocking in at 4 minutes 10.21 seconds.

Tanaka Nozomi Tanaka (R) leads the pack as she competes in the Women's 1500m heat on day one of the 104th JAAF Athletics Championships at Denka Big Swan. (Photo by Kiyoshi Ota/Getty Images)
Tanaka Nozomi Tanaka (R) leads the pack as she competes in the Women's 1500m heat on day one of the 104th JAAF Athletics Championships at Denka Big Swan. (Photo by Kiyoshi Ota/Getty Images)
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KIRYU Yoshihide won his second 100m national title beating CAMBRIDGE Aska and KOIKE Yuki.

"First of all, I'm glad I won for the first time in six years", the 24-year-old Kiryu said. "I'll have good memories of Niigata now."

Whilst the Rio 2016 silver medallist is happy that sports have returned to Japan after months of being on hold, Kiryu is hoping to perform in front of a packed stadium in the future.

"No matter how many people are watching on TV, the atmosphere is totally different when you have fans. Hopefully the day will come soon when I can run in front of a full house."

To ensure the health and safety of athletes and the spectators, a maximum of 2,000 residents from the Niigata Prefecture were allowed to watch the meet in the 42,000 capacity stadium.

A total of 5,218 spectators living in Niigata attended over the three days.

It is in stark contrast to a few months before when baseball and football resumed in the country behind closed doors - a sign of the growing optimism that life is returning to some form of normalcy after COVID-19 restrictions have been eased around the country.

Both NPB and J1 League have also reaffirmed their commitment to maintain safety precautions whilst allowing more fans to enjoy the matches. J1 League has also started offering live broadcasts on their YouTube channel in selected countries, as part of their strategy to build their audience outside Japan.