MOREFUNAREA REPORT8/23 - (AFTER)
All making the serious decision to come face-to-face with “Corona Fuji Rock”
Usually this closing article of the Japanese version of Fuji Rock Express would begin with a shot of the audience full of smiles in front of the festival’s largest stage, Green Stage, taken straight after the last performance. This year, we didn’t even take such a photo. Traditionally, at that time, they would be dancing wild while blasting John Lennon’s “Power To The People” from the speakers. There were no sounds nor such sight at all this year. Instead, this year they only got to hear that song title mentioned in the closing remarks by the MC, Smiley Harashima. Hesitant to break up any potential excitement drawn out by the audience at the end, the decision was made to “slowly and quietly close the curtain” on Fuji Rock Festival ‘21.
Everyone experienced a very unique and completely different festival from past years due to holding the festival under extremely special circumstances of the COVID-19 Pandemic. Those differences were seen and hidden in various aspects of the festival, even before the grounds opened to everyone. Even while on the bullet train (shinkansen) to Echigo-Yuzawa Station or while waiting for the shuttle bus to the venue, people are usually happy and chatting. But this year, everyone had few words to exchange. Everyone lined up in an orderly manner at a reasonable distance from each other, with only the goal to reach Naeba. In order to conduct this year’s Fuji Rock Festival, the infection control guidelines were communicated to all staff, related parties, and to the customers. It was clear in every single person’s actions that they were thoroughly trying to follow these guidelines.
The yagura (Japanese Bon Dance tower) that is familiar to all and that is centrally located at Oasis was nowhere to be found this year. The usual scene of people dancing in a circle around it while loudly blasting the local anthem “Naeba Ondo” didn’t exist, either, on the eve of this year’s Fuji Rock. We didn’t get to document the 10-year tradition at Red Marquee of people shouting “I’m home” in response to MC’s call of “Welcome Back!”. Thursday night, the eve of the festival, is usually the first peak of the Fujirockers excitement blasting their joy and happiness of reaching one of the most precious events of a year after the long-awaited time. Even with a two year gap since the last time being at the festival in Naeba, they kept quiet and contained their eagerness.
Photo by MASAMI YASUE
Although we were informed officially that there would be no festival eve party as usual, the one thing that filled me with joy were the fireworks, which nobody knew were happening this year. Other years, the crowds would cheer at the sign of the beginning of the festival, but there were no such auditory reactions this time. However, I heard stories of people gasping or shedding some tears when the first firework burst this year. Overall, it appears like most people were solemnly looking up at that night sky full of fireworks. There was some applause but at the quiet venue, only the sound and light of the fireworks echoed; a scene right in front of our eyes that seemed to symbolize the “Special Fuji Rock”. Perhaps everyone understood it wasn’t easy to get to this point.
Influenced by the fact that, in the early stages of COVID-19 chaos, some clusters and spread of the infection came from concert venues and clubs, those places became a target to be avoided and, along with the government campaign to the public insisting “no activities of nonessential and unnecessary”, even the mass media started taking the live concerts and entertainment as a symbol of the things to be avoided. Many venues were forced to close down, not only depriving musicians and theater people of their work, but also lighting and sound technicians losing their jobs as well. Furthermore, festivals were being postponed or canceled left and right. Of course, we have to prevent the infection with no doubt, but at the same time, it’s undeniable that music and its culture are indispensable elements to our lives. This includes festival culture as well. In particular, Fuji Rock Festival gave birth to such a culture in Japan. It massively influenced a way of life to festival goers called “Fujirockers” as well as to all other small and large-scale festivals all over Japan. Not only did the organizers, but related organizations and local people along with Fujirockers believed that festival culture must not end – it has to survive and keep on going.
That wasn’t all. When Fuji Rock Festival announced the postponement last year, we heard rumors that the host town had asked if it could still somehow be held. The reason being, the economic impact produced by Fuji Rock. Its cancelation would have an immeasurable impact on the local community. It couldn’t be denied that if it was canceled two years in a row, the economic impact could have been devastating. This was another reason why the locals and organizers started looking for ways to safely host the festival. As a result, they decided to establish thorough infection prevention measures. This presented the spectators with some inconvenient and stubborn infection prevention guidelines. In addition, the audience capacity was reduced to about 25% of the original. As a result, the maximum number of people per day was just under 14,000, which is almost the same as filling the Nippon Budokan for a sporting event.
Is this even profitable? Surprisingly, the organizer supported ticket refunds for those who were worried about participating due to infection problems or who were not in good physical condition. Furthermore they even contacted ticket buyers and shipped antigen test kits to those who wished to take a test, which resulted in the majority partaking in testing. However, this was not good enough for the organizers who were aiming for 100% certainty and safety for all. Rumors have it that organizers ran east to west to collect a large number of antigen test kits needed. In addition to the medical tent inside the venue, a large number of medical personnel and three private emergency transport vehicles staked out in the back, ready to respond to any emergency. All staff members had to undergo PCR tests to prove that they were negative or they were not allowed to enter Naeba. In addition, long-term staff at the festival site have to repeat antigen testing on a regular basis. Even if one already entered the venue, they would be quickly ousted from the venue if a close contact was reported positive back home and without proving negative with a new test, they would be able to return. It was not only the spectators but also all the staff who had to partake in the daily temperature check in order to enter the venue. Some news sources used the term “high alert” and that’s exactly how the environment was at the festival.
Photo by KentaKUMEI
We, Fujirockers, worried that in the worst case, that Fuji Rock Festival this year would turn out to be nothing like the ones in previous history. Needless to say, the charm of Fuji Rock Festival is not in the line-up of the acts but the vibes of freedom and guarantee of independence that all of the attendees could feel & share. However, there was still an aspect where our hands were tied to follow necessary rules in order to control the infection. Plus, with Japan’s borders closed to non-residents due to COVID-19, the festival couldn’t host any acts from overseas. The UK team, the main force of the field direction and decoration, could not come to Japan, either. Considering all those factors, Fuji Rock would appear more like an outdoor concert surrounded by greenery rather than a festival in its true sense. In addition, alcohol sales were banned in the venue, and smoking was prohibited except for a few tiny areas located far from the main part of the festival site. Many vendors that have been familiar faces since Fuji Rock began in 1997 canceled this year. Above all, many familiar faces who have always enjoyed our annual gathering decided not to come.
All of the people involved in the festival and its organization were forced to make heartbreaking decisions and choices. Especially when the number of people infected with the new COVID-19 strains started to increase rapidly in the major cities, there were conflicting voices bubbling up all over. Some echoed that the festival “needed to be canceled,” and others pleaded to “conduct it somehow”. Various voices were heard from the artists and performers themselves; those who planned to appear and those who painfully chose not to. Whether they ultimately participated or not, I pay tribute to their involvement and seriously taking Fuji Rock into consideration. I extend my gratitude to each and every one of you who came, and to every individual who decided not to come. A shoutout to those who voiced concern and to those who voiced support, the artists who performed and the artists who declined. No matter where everyone was mentally or physically, I believe that Fuji Rock has become a big presence in many people’s lives. For that, I know that whatever decision you made was not an easy one, so I thank you from the bottom of my heart.
At the festival grounds, we were all overwhelmed by the audience who respectfully followed the health and safety regulations put in place to prevent infection. I didn’t see anyone without a mask on, except in the smoking or food areas. What I realized when I was eating was how quiet it was as almost no conversations were heard. It seems painful to follow the cautionary note that says, “please eat quietly”. I saw friends meeting up, wanting to shake hands or hug each other but hesitantly opt for elbow and fist bumps as greetings instead. Conversations happened with masks on, but no one was talking loudly. I also witnessed people taking a look around to make sure no one was close by when simply taking a sip of water.
Normally, there is only an MC for the Green Stage, but this year, there was one at every stage as a means for ongoing communication with the audience before and after artist appearances.
“Please be sure to wear your mask that covers your nose and do not speak out loud. Check the markers on the ground to keep a safe distance. In front of the stage, please do not bring in food or drinks except water bottles for hydration.”
MCs were given manuals and obliged to make the same announcement to the audience every time. It was, after all, to prevent infection.
These were unprecedented sights at past festivals and live shows. No matter how incredible the performance was, barely any cheers were heard, only applause and clapping. Regardless, the positive energy from the crowd was felt on stage. That energy was reciprocated by the artists themselves, who shared in the same struggles as the audience to participate. Those feelings made for extra passionate and emotional connections with one another. It didn’t matter how many were in attendance, even if it was a small stage with only a handful of audience members. Many others would be able to witness the performances later on on YouTube, but to witness it in person was something else. There was an unspeakable energy that was uniquely born at this year’s festival.
Photo by MITCH IKEDA
Photo by Eriko Kondo
In a rare appearance, Chief Producer General Hidaka stood on the Green Stage twice. On the first day, he stood on stage to announce that two friends who were major supporters and comrades working together with Fuji Rock had passed away. Second time was with Denki Groove, who were the headliners on Sunday. When I spoke to him the following day, he said that what he felt on stage from the audience was so strong. It was “the enthusiasm of them trying to support Fuji Rock”. What he felt was not only the fact that everyone was respectfully following the health and safety guidance, but it was also the reproduction of the miracle that took place in Naeba back in 1999. That year was the result of the Fujirockers’ last hope of a festival location after the disasters of 1997. In 1999, there was almost no trash when the venue closed – same at the end of this year. The iPledge team, which supports the Trash Zero Navigation initiative every year, said that they barely had any trash to collect nor work to do except for managing the garbage tents around the festival.
According to an official statement released by the organizers on August 24th, after the festival ended, there were “no positive cases confirmed at the venue during the festival”. However, that’s not the end. They went on to state: “We will continue to collect information over time and report the results to everyone again, which will lead to improvements in infection control measures at future festivals”. It may be too early to reflect on everything, but everyone involved in keeping the festival safe, the locals, and everyone who ventured out from all over the country to those who chose not to — we, Fujirockers, send our deepest gratitude to say that we have been able to successfully reach this point.
Fuji Rock has faced many tests and turmoil in the past. In its first year in 1997, a major typhoon struck, leaving everyone in a dire situation. However, its first major test in survival was in 1999 when the venue was moved to Naeba. Attendees demonstrated compassion and love for one another against the prejudice that “rock festivals are dangerous,” by proving a little “miracle” to not only the venue but also to the hotels, guesthouses, and to the whole town of Naeba by not leaving a trace of trash or damage behind. This created the tradition of “cultivating festivals along with the locals”. Since then, Fuji Rock has endured and grown with many challenges such as storms or the heaviest ever rain recorded in the area. But this time, it faced an unprecedented viral and global crisis. As mentioned above, it is too early to draw a definite conclusion regarding COVID-19 at the festival. But to all those involved in Fuji Rock, with the love and effort, we made a “miracle” happen of an infection free festival even under the pandemic. There is no doubt that we had a historical Fuji Rock; nobody could and would ignore that fact.
We hear many differentiating opinions and ways of thinking within the music world that is causing some divide. But I believe that it’s natural for festival and music lovers to recognize diversity and to respect and accept each other’s actions and choices. I do hope that we can use this year’s experience as a basis for next year’s festival. At this point, no one can predict how long the effects of this virus will last, but I do hope that one day, we can get together at this same place in Naeba again without worrying about it. With that hope, I would like to close the curtain on this year’s Express.
Lastly, I would like to give my utmost appreciation to the staff who made major moves during this difficult situation. Masks and face shields given, it was not easy to report and cover the weekend while consciously keeping a safe distance. I also thank the staff members who operated the Fujirockers lounge by creating additional and well-prepared infection control measures. From the bottom of my heart, thank you.
Below are the staff who helped deliver the festival this year.
Japanese Team: http://fujirockexpress.net/21
– Photographers: Ryota Mori, Yoshitaka Kogawa, Keiko Hirakawa, Yusuke Kitamura, MITCH IKEDA, Arimoto Shinya, MASAMI YASUE, KentaKUMEI, Ayaka Shirai, HARA MASAMI, Omiso, suguta, Takanobu Shiga, Tetsuro Sato
– Writers: Ryohei Maruyama, Kohei Abe, Yuka Ishizumi, ataso, ayano kajiwara, Hitoshi Abe, Eriko Kondo, Nobuyuki Ikeda, Takafumi Miura, IZUMI AZUMA
English Team: http://fujirockexpress.net/21e/
– Writers: Laurier Tiernan, Jonathan Cooper, Nina Cataldo
Fuji Rockers Lounge: Mika Iimori, obacchi, Fujihara Yamato
Website production & update: Tomoki Hiranuma (Program Developer), Daisuke Sakaue (Design), Yuichi Hazama
Special Thanks: Tetsuya Mitsuishi, Shuhei Wakabayashi, Masaya Morita, Park Baker, all the staff who worked hard to protect the audience, and the audience who overcame the challenges and conveyed the splendour of a festival.
Producer: Koichi Hanafusa
fujirockers.org is a community site for Fujirockers, people who love Fuji Rock. It is rooted in BBS of the official site of Fuji Rock Festival, originally produced by Koichi Hanafusa. In 1997 straight after the first festival was a disaster hit by a typhoon, BBS left and became a fully independent website with support and cooperation of the organizers. We publish our own coverage not only on Fuji Rock Festival but anything related to domestic and overseas festivals and their cultures. During the annual Fuji Rock Festival, we operate Fuji Rock Express to deliver unique, exciting, breaking, and up-to-date news straight from the venue.
*Please note : As we are not a part of the organizers of Fuji Rock Festival, we are not in position to respond to any inquiries about booking, press or ticketing as such. Please visit:
*This is perhaps the first ever English translation of the closing article written by Koichi Hanafusa, the founder of fujirockers.org and the producer of Fuji Rock Express. A Japanese version is written at the end of every Fuji Rock Express. This translation was done by Nina Cataldo.
[Photo: 1 All photo]