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Restaurant chain sues Tokyo government over COVID hour curbs

In first such lawsuit in Japan, Global-Dining calls rules 'unconstitutional'

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government has asked restaurants and bars in the Japanese capital to shorten their operating hours to prevent the spread of COVID-19.   © Reuters

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- A Tokyo-based restaurant chain operator on Monday filed a damages suit against the Tokyo metropolitan government for ordering business hours be reduced as a public safety measure during the coronavirus pandemic.

Global-Dining claims the order "is illegal and unconstitutional as it infringes the right to freedom of business" in the first such lawsuit anywhere in Japan.

The company runs dozens of restaurants including the Gonpachi "izakaya" Japanese-style pubs, one of which is famous for its scene in Quentin Tarantino's film "Kill Bill."

The restaurant operator is seeking only 104 yen ($1) in damages, demonstrating it is looking to shine light on the impact of government-enforced anti-virus measures that it believes excessively hamper business operations and people's lives.

The plaintiff's lawyer Rintaro Kuramochi said imposing blanket restrictions without offering evidence that restaurants are a source of infections violates the freedom of business guaranteed under the Constitution.

After a revision to the coronavirus special measures law last month, prefectures can give an order to businesses such as restaurants to shorten business hours during a state of emergency if the businesses defy the request without a valid reason.

Under the revised law, businesses can be fined up to 300,000 yen if they do not comply.

The lawyer also argued that Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike violated a duty of care when she issued the order. Restaurants operated by the company were among 2,000 establishments that did not comply with a request to close by 8 p.m. under a COVID-19 state of emergency issued in early January in the Tokyo area and other prefectures, according to the plaintiff's side.

The order "took aim" at the company which publicly voiced its intention to disobey the request and "violated the equality under the law and freedom of expression," the plaintiff said.

Global-Dining said in a release on Jan. 7, "We cannot comply with the request to shorten business hours, given the current (insufficient) subsides and support from authorities."

Of the 2,000 establishments that were asked to comply with the request, the Tokyo metropolitan government last Thursday ordered 27, of which 26 were Global-Dining outlets, to close by 8 p.m. until the lifting of the emergency declaration at the end of Sunday. The company complied with the order.

Global-Dining president Kozo Hasegawa told a press conference Monday that his company has been taking precautionary measures at its restaurants including requiring staff to wear masks, wash hands regularly and practice social distancing.

"No clusters have been found in our restaurants," he added.

The metropolitan government declined to comment on the suit, saying it has not received the complaint.

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