Photo/Illutration A soccer match is held behind closed doors as a punishment for some fans’ racist behavior in Saitama in March 2014 (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

As the number of COVID-19 cases continues climbing, the novel coronavirus is also dampening Japanese sports fans' annual rite of spring: cheering wildly for their favorite players and teams.

Organizers of the professional soccer J.League, which kicked off the new season just last week, canceled all games between Feb. 26 and March 15 to prevent the spread of the virus.

“With apologies to people who are looking forward to soccer matches, we are in an adverse situation,” J.League Chairman Mitsuru Murai said at a news conference in Tokyo on Feb. 25.

A total of 94 matches from the top-tier J1 League to the lower J3 League will be postponed. The canceled games also include the Levain Cup’s group stage matches.

It is the first time the J.League has postponed a regular season match other than during times of natural disasters.

The J.League is also the first major professional sport in Japan to decide on canceling a game due to the novel coronavirus outbreak.

Murai said the league officials have been in contact with each club since Feb. 20.

The government’s panel of experts on Feb. 24 opined that “the next one to two weeks will be critical and mark a make-or-break moment whether the virus will spread more rapidly or the epidemic will be put to rest.”

Murai said the announcement shifted the league toward temporarily halting the contests for three weeks.

Staging a game behind closed doors with no fans in attendance is not an option at the moment, Murai said.

“Operation of professional sports organizations depends on the support from fans and supporters,” Murai said. “I think we should hold games in front of fans, even if it requires rescheduling.”

Seven group stage games of the Levain Cup were scheduled on Feb. 26.

Oita Trinita, a club based in Oita Prefecture, had prepared for the team’s home season opener against Gamba Osaka that day.

Tomohiro Katanosaka, the team’s head coach, and players were notified about the cancellation after a practice session on Feb. 25.

“The team had raised its spirits for the season home opener,” a club spokesperson said. “But they accepted the (decision) because it was due to uncontrollable circumstances.”

Gamba Osaka and Cerezo Osaka, two clubs based in Osaka Prefecture, immediately canceled their scheduled road trips for away games.

Regular season games are expected to resume on March 18. Makeup dates for the canceled games will be announced at a later date.

“It is still possible that the league will extend the postponement,” Murai cautioned.


Teams and organizations in other sports have followed the J.League's lead and announced scheduling changes.

The Japan Rugby Football Union on Feb. 26 announced that 16 games scheduled for the next two weekends will be canceled and rescheduled for late March and early May.

The Yomiuri Giants, a Tokyo-based professional baseball team, announced on Feb. 25 that two spring training games against local rival Yakult Swallows scheduled this weekend at Tokyo Dome will be held behind closed doors.

The Giants are scheduled to play preseason games against the  Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters, Orix Buffaloes and Hanshin Tigers until March 8.

The team said they will ask each of the hosting teams to consider staging the games without spectators.

“Under the current circumstances, we are required to minimize the risk of infection spread,” a Giants' official explained. “That is why the team has decided playing behind closed doors would be the safest.”

The International Table Tennis Federation on Feb. 25 also announced the World Table Tennis Championships in Busan, South Korea, will be postponed due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

The championships were scheduled to start on March 22. The ITTF said the competition will be provisionally rescheduled from June 21 to June 28.

Such a rescheduling affects players expected to compete in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, which kicks off on July 24.

Tomokazu Harimoto, 16, a medal contender who will represent Japan at the Summer Games and currently is fifth in the world rankings, said about the back-to-back competitions, “I will do my best and stake everything I have done in the past year on those two months.”

The Japan Blind Judo Federation also announced the cancellation of an international tournament scheduled on March 8 in Tokyo.