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Japan to declare month-long COVID emergency as soon as Thursday

Move will cover Tokyo and surrounding areas where infections are surging

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga speaks during a press conference on Jan. 4. (Photo by Uichiro Kasai)

Latest developments:

  • Japan's government will issue new emergency declaration as early as Thursday
  • Tokyo and surrounding areas call on residents to stay indoors after 8 p.m.
  • Bars and restaurants to close early, but schools will remain open

TOKYO -- Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga's government is poised to declare a state of emergency for the second time in the COVID-19 pandemic, acting as soon as Thursday to combat surging cases in the Tokyo area, Nikkei has learned.

The emergency would cover the capital as well as the neighboring prefectures of Kanagawa, Saitama and Chiba and is expected to last roughly a month. Japan's first state of emergency was declared on April 7 last year and lasted into late May.

Suga told a New Year's press conference Monday his government was considering a new declaration after a weekend plea by the governors of Tokyo and surrounding areas.

Separately, the four governors agreed on Monday to call on residents to avoid unnecessary outings after 8 p.m.

Bars and restaurants will be requested to close by that time, starting this Friday. Schools will remain open. The request for shorter business hours will remain in effect until Jan. 31.

The government's coronavirus advisory council will convene soon to discuss plans for new emergency declaration as well as conditions for its eventual lifting. Japan reported 3,302 new COVID-19 cases as of 8 p.m. Monday, more than one-third of which were in Tokyo and the surrounding three prefectures.

The prime minister said parliament, which convenes this month, will discuss virus management under the revised law on infectious diseases "in order to take more effective measures by combining incentives and fines."

The national government does not plan to close schools at this time, but is expected to cancel activities with higher infection risks like practices for sports. The national university entrance exam, to begin on Jan. 16, is also expected to be held as scheduled, according to multiple government sources.

People crowd the streets in Tokyo's Harajuku area on Jan. 3. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

Many local authorities shut down schools during last spring's emergency. But government officials are wary of a repeat, as a new semester begins soon and entrance exam season will run through March.

Businesses in big cities appear to taking their own initiatives to reducing crowding. There were about half as many people around 8 a.m. Monday in parts of Tokyo normally packed with commuters, compared with the first business day of 2020, data from Docomo Insight Marketing shows. The number of people was also 51.3% lower around Nagoya Station and 33.3% lower around Osaka Station.

Many companies have encouraged longer New Year's vacations than usual, with Tokyo Electric Power Co. Holdings and Toshiba urging employees to take time off through Friday. Uniqlo operator Fast Retailing will consider cutting the share of employees working in the office, from about 50% currently, based on the details of the emergency declaration.

Meanwhile, smaller companies say they are hard-pressed to take social-distancing measures. A manager at a Tokyo parts manufacturer said it may ask its roughly 20-person workforce to come in on alternating shifts to avoid crowding, but may be unable to keep this up given the amount of orders from automakers and medical equipment makers.

Japan's benchmark Nikkei Stock Average tumbled as much as 1.5% morning trading on Monday as concerns over the country's rising infections and the prospect of an emergency pulled the index off highs not seen in 30 years. The index closed down 0.7%, at 27,258, with some investors buying the dip on hopes of additional monetary easing and fiscal stimulus.

At his news conference, Suga reiterated that his government aims to start COVID-19 vaccinations as early as the end of February. Health care professionals, seniors and staff members at nursing homes will receive the first shots. U.S. pharmaceutical companies are expected to finish preparing clinical trial data in Japan this month, ahead of the initially scheduled February, "as a result of a strong request from the Japanese government," he said.

As for the fate of the government's Go To Travel campaign to support the battered tourism industry, Suga conceded that "it will be difficult to resume the program in case of a state of emergency." The incentives for domestic travel are currently suspended nationwide until Jan. 11.

Suga's briefing came after the governors of Tokyo and the three neighboring prefectures on Saturday held talks with Yasutoshi Nishimura, the government's coronavirus point man, and called for an emergency declaration.

Tokyo alone reported a record 1,337 daily cases last Thursday; on Sunday, patients with severe symptoms in the capital surpassed 100. Kanagawa, Saitama and Chiba have all been setting records, too.

Suga, who took office in September, has aimed to balance the economy and public health but is under pressure from climbing numbers of hospital patients in serious condition. In a Nikkei poll in December, 48% responded that a new emergency declaration should be made promptly.

A COVID-19 variant first identified in the U.K. and circulating in other countries has raised alarm as well.

The variant has been found to be up to 70% more transmittable than previous strains. The Japanese government on Dec. 28 halted new foreign arrivals.

It is up to the prime minister to declare a state of emergency, based on two main factors: concern about the lives and health of the people, and fears that rapid infections would undermine the economy.

Emergency requests for business closures or shorter hours would not be legally binding. Still, the governors would be able to issue instructions and publicize the names of businesses that ignore the guidelines without justification.

Governors would also have more leeway to encroach on individual rights. Land or buildings, for example, could be commandeered to set up a temporary medical facility, even without the owner's agreement. Governors would also have the power to arrange sales of essentials, such as medical supplies and food.

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