TOKYO -- Cases of lying about coronavirus infections are becoming more common in Japan, even as businesses and railways take strict measures to try and contain the spread of the virus. Thoughtless, and sometimes malicious, statements and social media postings are leading to interruptions in train service and canceled events.
"We will not permit the kind of actions that encourage disorder," a senior police official said, and there is a clear pickup in arrests on charges of obstruction of business.
"I have corona. I'll infect you!" said a drunken man on the JR Ryomo train line as he harassed a woman in the same train car. The incident on Monday threw the car into chaos, and the train halted service at Kiryu station for about one hour. The man, who later described himself as a 54-year-old construction worker, was arrested on the spot on suspicion of fraudulent obstruction of business for interfering with JR East's operations.
JR East did not allow any customers to board the car and resumed operations after about one hour. The delay affected three outbound trains, which carried a total of about 1,230 people. Passengers in the same train car as the man took to Twitter to express their concern, "If he really did have the virus, it's terrible."
The police said they had not confirmed whether the man was infected, but he told them he was "lying and joking around."
All of the JR companies are taking measures like sterilizing the interiors of cars when it becomes clear someone with the virus has ridden a train.
In another incident, on March 13 at Kisuki station in the city of Unnan, Shimane Prefecture, a 44-year-old unemployed man was arrested after lying and saying he had the virus. Five station employees disinfected the benches and ticket machines.
"We won't know immediately whether or not he was infected," said a representative of JR West. "Thinking about the safety of our passengers, disinfection is necessary."
Social media is playing a role as well, enabling fake claims of infection to reach a wide audience. On March 15, a 30-year-old private sector employee in Tokyo tweeted, "I've recovered from corona. I'm going!" before heading to a live music venue. When event organizers found out about his tweet and attendance, the idol event was temporarily shut down to ventilate the area, and merchandise sales were suspended.
The man, who was also arrested on suspicion of fraudulent obstruction of business, admitted to the responding police officers that he "did not go to the hospital" and that he had lied in his social media post.
Japanese law forbids the obstruction of other people's business operations through things like false statements and postings. Punitive measures vary but could be up to three years' time in prison or fines of up to 500,000 yen ($4,664).
"All of society is on alert over the new coronavirus, so false information could end up causing a panic," said the senior police official.
Behavior that disrupts events or delay trains could also create civil liabilities for perpetrators.
In addition to false statements that risk creating a panic, there appears to be at least one case of someone spreading the coronavirus deliberately. In the city of Gamagori, Aichi Prefecture, where the presence of the coronavirus has been confirmed, a man in his 50s who had been asked to self-quarantine at home went to two restaurants in the city. The man said he would "spread the virus around" the area.
A female employee at one of the restaurants has since tested positive for the virus, and the man died on Wednesday. Police have received a criminal complaint from the restaurant and are proceeding with an investigation.