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Politics

Tokyo unveils toothless coronavirus rules as cases hit record high

Restaurants and bars stay open until 8 p.m.

Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike launched a stepped-up campaign against the coronavirus on Friday. (Photo by Arisa Moriyama)

TOKYO -- The Tokyo municipal government launched a stepped-up campaign against the coronavirus on Friday, requesting a full or partial shutdown of businesses in the region.

But the measures still fall short of the draconian restrictions introduced in other virus-hit countries such as Italy, Spain or the US, underlining the challenges Japan faces in dealing with the unprecedented crisis.

The requests were made three days after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Tuesday declared a national state of emergency, giving prefectural governors the power to ask for a local shutdown. But it has created friction between the Abe administration and the Tokyo municipal government over the extent that businesses should be closed in the capital.

Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike said in a news conference on Friday that the national government wanted to maintain the status quo, and would watch the impact of the request to the public to voluntary refrain from going out. There were also splits in opinion over which facilities to include, and how to interpret the law.

The end result is a vague and loose list of directives, even as new infections in the capital hit a new daily high of 189 on Friday.

The Tokyo government has requested a partial or complete shutdown of many business establishments, including nightclubs, theaters and other entertainment facilities. But restaurants and pubs are allowed to stay open until 8 p.m. in the evening, with alcohol served until 7 p.m. Convenience stores and supermarkets, deemed as essential businesses, are exempted, as are department stores, which the municipal government initially intended to close.

The nation's economy was a major consideration for the Abe government when it decided not to take more dramatic steps such as the closure of all nonessential businesses. Such measures are hard to take without being accompanied by financial assistance. Experts say that once the government steps in to help a certain industry, it would be difficult not to assist others.

While official directives to limit operations were given only to a few facilities, many companies made voluntary decisions.

Coffee chain Starbucks decided to close its 850 stores from Thursday. While there was no request to do so, a spokesperson said "it is important to cooperate in preventing the spread of the virus.

Uniqlo, a clothing chain, also began closing some of its stores on Wednesday. As of Friday morning, 198 stores are closed as of Friday morning, and 208 others have shortened business hours.

Japan's leading department store operators on Wednesday closed stores in the seven prefectures where the state of emergency applies. Daimaru owner J. Front Retailing closed its nine stores, except for food retail spaces in two of them. Takashimaya shut all its 13 stores in the seven regions, but a spokesperson said it kept its food vending floors open following a request from the economy ministry.

Isetan Mitsukoshi Holdings said in a statement that it will keep all its Tokyo stores closed "to prevent infection and protect the security and health of customers, staff, and partners."

"I originally thought the authority [given to the municipal governors] was like that of a company president, but I started hearing many voices from above," Koike said on Friday. "It turned out being more like a midlevel manager."

The tug-of-war between the Abe government and Koike over the extent of a shutdown has exposed how unprepared the nation had been for an emergency situation that requires a broad consensus on how much power the government should have. Such discussion has largely been stymied in Japan as the public is wary of giving too much authority to the central government because of fears it would again go down the path of a wartime totalitarian state.

Restaurants and pubs are allowed to stay open until 8 p.m. in the evening, with alcohol served until 7 p.m. (Photo by Karina Nooka)

Japan's haphazard response is "a reflection of a lack of preparedness for a national emergency situation," said Noboru Matsuzawa, an analyst at NLI Research Institute and a legal expert. "The Abe government clearly believes that drastic measures are politically difficult."

The Tokyo government will offer financial assistance of 500,000 yen for each small proprietor that agrees to cooperate with a shutdown.

Overall, the measures cover much broader sectors than the Abe government originally had in mind, and are expected at least help reduce nighttime wining and dining -- widely viewed as the main culprit for the recent rise in case in Tokyo.

Under the emergency law, the central and municipal governments cannot issue orders or punish offenders. That means much depends on the extent that citizens and businesses change their behavior on a voluntary basis.

The number of infections in Japan is on an upward trajectory. The number exceeded 500 over the past two days, bringing the total over 5,500. Although the number is much smaller than in many other countries, experts are warning it will not take long for Japan to reach such a level.

A panel of government-appointed experts has called for reducing personal contact by 80% in the hope that the upward curve can be quickly flattened.

Some experts are not convinced that the new measures will be enough to turn the tide. Many believe that Japan should have adopted lockdowns similar to those overseas, but Abe stresses that such an extreme step is unfeasible, and unnecessary for Japan.

"The measures could prove insufficient," said Ko Ichihashi, professor at Jichi Medical University's Saitama Medical Center.

"Virus prevention can be undermined by a small number of people who do not follow preventive measures," Ichihashi told Nikkei. "Containment is more effective and ends more quickly if it is done thoroughly. Gradually tightening the control would lead to a prolonged shutdown and cause more harm to business."

According to a Google survey, passenger traffic at rail stations in Paris was down 87% on March 29 following the introduction of a legally enforceable lockdown on March 17. The figure was down 79% in New York that day, but only 59% in Tokyo.

According to a Nikkei survey of 70 major restaurant chains in Japan, 7,000 locations were closed, accounting for some 20% of the 39,000 sites.

To contain the spread of the virus, Ichihashi said "it would be more effective if the government orders, rather than makes a request for restaurants to be shut down."

There is no mechanism to enforce Tokyo's request for people to stay at home. Koike has suggested using police to spread the message. But under the Constitution, which was drafted by the U.S. occupation authorities after World War II, freedom of movement is guaranteed.

Takashi Kihara, professor of public policy at Dokkyo University and a former Ministry of Finance official, said it is possible the Abe government will further tighten controls and could justify such a move by citing the need to promote public welfare.

Kihara said more drastic measures will become necessary to turn the tide. But for now, he pins his hopes on the Japanese people's capacity for empathy, saying, "Japanese people will act responsibly, thinking about other people."

"If the current emergency measures result in a small but sustained reduction in the number of new infections, that should be considered as a big success."

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