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Japan debates state of emergency while Tokyo cries for action

Suga's government prefers legal revisions to punish noncompliant businesses

Having seen a rapid increase in coronavirus infections, Tokyo has called on the government to declare a state of emergency.   © Kyodo

TOKYO -- Japanese leaders on Sunday debated declaring a state of emergency while also exploring less drastic options such as punishing noncompliant businesses, frustrating a capital city seeking swift, blanket action as coronavirus cases rise.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga met with Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato, Health Minister Norihisa Tamura and Land Minister Kazuyoshi Akaba to discuss a request from Tokyo and surrounding prefectures to issue a state of emergency.

That move would have a far-reaching economic impact, but some question its effectiveness in controlling the pandemic given the lack of penalties. The central government instead has pushed for legal revisions to impose penalties on eateries that ignore the requests to close earlier in the evening.

Suga intends to explain Japan's policy at a news conference Monday, with plans to hear from experts on rising infections as soon as this week.

Tokyo wants the country to move quickly as it faces surging infections while Japan's government has been focused on giving teeth to the special coronavirus response law enacted in March last year.

Yasutoshi Nishimura, Japan's point man for the coronavirus response, and Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike were unable to bridge their differences after more than three hours of discussion on Saturday.

In the meeting, also attended by the governors of Kanagawa, Chiba and Saitama, Nishimura specifically asked for stronger measures to curtail business hours. But Koike demurred, saying "it depends of how cooperative stores will be."

"This discussion is fruitless and going nowhere," said one of the participants, finally prompting both sides to give up for the day. After the meeting, Nishimura said only that "we are facing a tough situation that could merit declaring a state of emergency."

Tokyo and three surrounding prefectures plan to ask restaurants and bars to close at 8 p.m. and stop serving alcohol at 7 p.m. as coronavirus infections continue to rise. 

Legal revisions would let the government punish businesses that refuse to cut hours or close, without declaring a state of emergency. The legislation to be debated along with the third supplementary spending package for the current fiscal year would also give assistance to businesses that cooperate. But this will take time, with passage in parliament seen at the end of January. Infections could become uncontrollable by then if the new, more infectious variant of the virus spreads in the country.

Under the current law, governors' powers in controlling the pandemic are limited even if a state of emergency is declared. They can only release the names of noncompliant businesses. Last spring, some businesses continued to operate even after their names were publicized. This has made the government reluctant to call a state of emergency that is certain to exact a huge toll on the broad economy.

The government, for its part, has been frustrated with Tokyo for its unwillingness to call for shorter business hours. The capital and its three surrounding prefectures are considering asking all restaurants to close at 8 p.m. only after coming under heavy pressure from the central government. The measures, expected to take effect from Thursday or Friday, will last three to four weeks.

The current request asks businesses serving alcohol to close at 10 p.m.

"The majority of untraceable infections, which account for 60% of cases in Tokyo, are said to occur at restaurants and bars," Suga said at a press conference on Dec. 25, taking a swipe at Tokyo's slow response. "The most effective measure is to cut the hours of restaurants and bars."

Tokyo on Sunday reported 816 new coronavirus cases, pushing the total to 62,590. Those in serious condition reached 101, up seven from the previous day.

Tokyo and the three prefectures hope their preemptive step will add pressure on the central government to take decisive action.

Infections are raising throughout the greater Tokyo area, with cases reaching 588 in Kanagawa on Thursday, 330 in Saitama and 252 in Chiba prefecture, all record highs.  

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