By Ju-min Park and Naomi Tajitsu
TOKYO (Reuters) – Tokyo’s governor on Monday called on residents to avoid outings in the evenings and at weekends as the coronavirus crisis deepened, but said it was up to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to declare a state of emergency to tackle it.
As much of the rest of the world has gone into strict lockdowns to fight the coronavirus, Japan has so far managed to avoid the kind of outbreaks that have ravaged parts of Europe and the United States and restrictions are only requests.
However, a spike in cases in Tokyo, along with the death of a beloved comedian on Monday, appeared to be driving home the potential risk. A top doctor called on Abe to act now.
“If we wait until an explosive increase in infections before declaring an emergency, it will be too late,” Satoshi Kamayachi, an executive board member of the Japan Medical Association, told a news conference, in comments carried by broadcaster Nippon Television.
Throughout the development of the outbreak, Abe’s government has appeared resistant to declaring a state of emergency, with the government’s top spokesman on Monday squashing speculation it would take such a move on April 1.
Only last Tuesday, the Japanese government and International Olympic Committee succumbed to intense pressure from athletes and sporting bodies around the world to delay Tokyo 2020 for a year because of the outbreak.
“The number of infections continues to increase from last week and we are at a crucial moment which will determine whether we can minimize the number of further infections,” Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike told a news conference.
“Through April 12, we are asking that residents refrain from going out in the evenings, and to refrain from all unnecessary outings at the weekend.”
Koike last week appealed to Tokyo residents to avoid all but necessary outings over the weekend.
But any lockdown in Japan would look different from mandatory measures in some parts of Europe and the United States. By law, local authorities are only permitted to issue requests for people to stay at home, which are not binding.
Therefore, even if Abe were to declare an emergency, any lockdown would rely more on moral suasion and peer pressure than formal penalties.
“CHANGE THEIR ATTITUDE”
The Asahi newspaper reported on Monday Japan had raised its defenses against imported cases by banning the entry of foreigners traveling from the United States, China, South Korea and most of Europe,
However, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said the government had not made any decision on bans.
Some 1,944 people have been infected and at least 56 have died, according to public broadcaster NHK. Those numbers exclude 712 cases and 10 deaths from a cruise ship that was moored near Tokyo last month, it said.
Tokyo, the capital which has become the epicenter of the outbreak in Japan, reported 13 new cases for a total of 443 infections so far.
Yoshihide Suga, the government’s top spokesman, told a news conference earlier: “It’s not true that the government is planning on declaring a state of emergency from April 1.”
Suga also said an expected telephone call between Abe and Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the head of the World Health Organization, later on Monday had nothing to do with any decision on whether to call a state of emergency.
Fans lamented the death of comedian Ken Shimura from the virus, with many saying on social media it should serve to highlight what a major threat it actually is.
“It’s probably bad to say this, but I hope his death helps Japanese, who still don’t seem to be taking this virus seriously, start to change their attitude,” one tweeted.
Abe has already pledged to deploy a huge stimulus package, bigger than one compiled during the global financial crisis, to combat the outbreak.
The ruling Liberal Democratic Party called for a package worth 60 trillion yen ($556 billion) that includes direct government spending of about 20 trillion yen.
The government plans to issue more debt to fund the massive stimulus package, sources told Reuters.
Separately, sources also told Reuters that Japan is conducting a survey on how prepared financial institutions are in case the government declares a state of emergency.
(Reporting by Ju-min Park and Naomi Tajitsu, additional reporting by Leika Kihara, Takaya Yamaguchi, Izumi Nakagawa, Chang-Ran Kim, Linda Sieg, Elaine Lies, Tetsushi Kajimoto and Daniel Leussink; Writing by David Dolan; Editing by Chang-Ran Kim, Kenneth Maxwell and Alison Williams)