Japan Virus Emergency Counts on Citizens to Lock Themselves Down

Isabel Reynolds

(Bloomberg) -- Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has called for a state of emergency as Covid-19 cases jump in Tokyo and worries mounted that Japan could be the next developed nation to see an explosive surge in infections. The declaration would cover seven regions including Tokyo and Osaka and last for about a month.

The measure would hand power to local governments to try to contain the virus, including by urging residents to stay at home. It would be the first such declaration under a law revised last month, but will not result in a European-style “lockdown.” Due to civil liberties enshrined in Japan’s postwar constitution, the government cannot send police to clear people off the streets, as has happened in places including France, Italy and the U.K. The country’s strongest enforcement measure could be public obedience -- and it remains to be seen whether that will be enough.

1. What would an emergency declaration mean?

The main effect will be to increase the powers of prefectural governors. The prevalence of the virus varies widely among the country’s 47 regions and prefectures, with Tokyo seeing a rapid surge and three regions yet to confirm any cases as of April 5. The seven regions Abe proposed are Tokyo and the surrounding prefectures of Kanagawa, Chiba and Saitama, as well as Osaka, Hyogo and Fukuoka. Under an emergency, a governor can urge local people to avoid unnecessary outings, but residents would have the right to ignore the request, and there are no penalties for disobedience. Police wouldn’t be involved in enforcement, according to lawyer Koju Nagai of Answer Law Office in Kobe.

“I want to make clear once again that, even if an emergency is declared, we will not impose a lockdown as has been done overseas,” Abe said Monday. “It is the opinion of our experts that that isn’t necessary.”

2. What about businesses?

Businesses could be asked to shut down, and ordered to do so if they don’t comply with the request, but again there are no penalties for non-compliance. Punishments are, however, specified for a small number of offenses, including hiding supplies that have been requisitioned by local authorities. Tokyo has already been urging people to work from home as far as possible -- something that’s caused consternation among many small businesses not set up for remote work. The emergency declaration also allows local authorities to control prices of daily essentials, provide loans through government-related financial institutions and make compulsory purchases of food and medicines.

3. Will people obey the requests?

Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike has begun a PR campaign to get residents to stay home and many of the capital’s central shopping areas were nearly deserted at the weekend. Several large retail and amusement businesses have opted to close outlets voluntarily and the city’s main parks were closed. Some suburban shopping areas, however, were bustling and pachinko parlors continued to operate, indicating that people may be continuing their usual routines closer to home. Even as infection numbers have ticked up in big cities, trains were still packed with commuters heading to offices. Japan has had the fewest confirmed infection numbers of any Group of Seven countries at about 3,700 as of Monday.

4. What could be the economic hit?

Companies including Starbucks Corp., retailing giant Aeon Co. and movie theater operator Toho Co. temporarily shut some outlets over the weekend. More businesses would likely follow suit if the request were made with the legal backing of an emergency declaration. But Economy Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura has warned that something like a lockdown of Tokyo or Osaka could deal a blow to the economy. The Tokyo metropolitan area alone accounts for about one-third of the country’s gross domestic product, which would make it the world’s 11th largest economy. Banks are expected to remain open under any emergency declaration, and the Tokyo Stock Exchange said it will continue to operate.

4. Could Japan eventually take a harder line?

While the U.K. has introduced a fine of about $75 for individuals breaching lockdown rules and Hong Kong warned residents of prosecution for violating quarantine measures, any attempt to add teeth to the Japanese law would raise hackles in the country, where painful memories of early 20th century authoritarianism linger. The Japan Federation of Bar Associations opposed the legislation under which an emergency can be declared, even though most of its stipulations cannot be enforced. “Emergency situations were misused a great deal in Japan before the war,” said lawyer Nagai. “Japan was hurt by that in the past. Freedoms were limited, and once those freedoms are limited, it’s hard to restore them.”

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