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The power of words is being tested in Japan, where efforts to fight the novel coronavirus — bound by a law tailored to a different disease — remain strictly voluntary.

But that may soon change, after a nationwide surge in new infections triggered debate at all levels of government on not only how the law should be changed but when.

“Revising the law is necessary for our intended results to become reality,” Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike said during an interview with The Japan Times. “Legal authority and financial resources — the central government needs to define and clarify these things.”

Earlier this month, Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura asked Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to revise the law in a way that would give municipal leaders legal authority to order businesses to close should they disobey virus countermeasures.

In a news conference less than a week later, Yasutoshi Nishimura, the Cabinet minister in charge of the country’s response to the virus, said that discussions concerning revision of the law should take place after the virus has subsided.

“The fire is happening now — it’s pointless to take action after the situation has passed as the fire will have spread by then,” Koike said.

The nation’s response has been shaped largely by the New Influenza Special Measures Act, which relies on residents and businesses to voluntarily isolate themselves, practice social distancing and temporarily suspend operations. It’s based on the characteristics of influenza, a disease for which a vaccine is readily available and the rate of spread and death rate is considerably lower than for COVID-19.

The Abe administration already revised the law to allow a state of emergency to be declared in early April over Tokyo and six other prefectures, a move that authorized prefectural governors to issue business closure requests and ask residents to isolate themselves.

A figurine of Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike stands near a window in a meeting room at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI
A figurine of Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike stands near a window in a meeting room at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI

The state of emergency was extended to the rest of the country nine days later and then lifted completely in late May, after which the outbreak seemed to subside.

But it re-emerged in late June and new infections have since surged in urban centers. Over the past week, prefectures throughout the country have seen record-breaking figures.

Some experts say a more restrictive citywide lockdown, the likes of which were seen in northern Italy and New York City, could be a possibility in Tokyo if the law is revised.

“Words are the only countermeasures we have here,” Koike said. “The act of wearing a mask has become a political issue in other countries but in Japan people do so without penalty or fine.”

Until such a change, however, all efforts to contain the virus will rely on residents being willing and able to comply with virus countermeasures, and for that commitment to last at least until a treatment, vaccine or otherwise long-term solution is created.

On Thursday, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government reported a record-breaking 367 cases of the coronavirus, taking the total in the capital past 12,000 following a monthlong uptick in new infections.

In an interview with The Japan Times on Wednesday, Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike said that the central government needs to clarify the legal powers and financial resources that local authorities have in their fight against the coronavirus. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI
In an interview with The Japan Times on Wednesday, Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike said that the central government needs to clarify the legal powers and financial resources that local authorities have in their fight against the coronavirus. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI

On the same day, karaoke bars and food establishments that serve alcohol in the capital were asked by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government to close at 10 p.m. The request will take effect Aug. 1 and last for one month, and ¥200,000 will be distributed to each business that complies.

The ongoing outbreak has reignited debate over the nation’s reluctance to test more people or declare another state of emergency. Meanwhile, the central government is pouring ¥1.35 trillion into the Go To Travel campaign, which began last week and was intended to promote domestic tourism to help revive the travel industry.

Following heavy criticism that subsidizing domestic travel during an ongoing pandemic is dangerous, the central government elected to disqualify Tokyo from the program, leading many observers to question the purpose of a travel campaign lacking patronage from the capital’s 13.9 million residents.

Asymptomatic individuals have accounted for about 15 percent of new cases reported in Tokyo over the past two weeks.

If such people travel the country to places with abundant nature but few hospitals — which are often the best vacation destinations, Koike said — it could just help the virus spread to rural areas.

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