Japan's professional baseball league will start its coronavirus-delayed season on June 19, but without spectators, the sport’s governing body said on Monday, as a nationwide state of emergency was lifted.
Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) said it hoped the games, which will start three months later than scheduled, will boost public morale and also provide guidelines for the resumption of other sports.
“We are happy to announce our decision to open the season,” said commissioner Atsushi Saito in a statement, “but we are also aware that it is most important for us to operate carefully so that we protect the health of players, staff and their families with thorough and careful preparation”.
Baseball is the first major professional sport in Japan to announce a return to action since the pandemic began its sweep around the world.
The virus has killed hundreds of thousands, infected millions and decimated the annual sporting calendar internationally.
It forced a one-year delay of the summer Tokyo Olympics, and suspended everything from Japan’s professional football league and sumo to the summer high-school baseball tournament – an enormously popular event that annually receives wall-to-wall live television coverage.
Before the shortened 120-game season starts, the leagues will hold “practice games” from June 2 through 14, said the NPB.
The announcement came as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced his decision to lift the state of emergency for the greater Tokyo and hard-hit northern Hokkaido region, although the government still asked the public to observe good hygiene practices and social distancing steps.
Japan has started to see the number of new coronavirus infections fall in recent weeks, with the capital Tokyo only reporting a handful of new cases in recent days.
Saito previously said baseball officials were monitoring the experience of Taiwan and South Korea, where professional teams have already resumed playing behind closed doors.
Japan has seen a smaller outbreak than in comparable countries, with 16,581 infections and 830 deaths, shows a tally kept by Johns Hopkins University based in the US state of Maryland.