Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s abrupt decision to call on schools nationwide to shut down starting Monday marked a defining moment in his response to the coronavirus outbreak.

But what prompted it? Critics say the prime minister’s aggressive move Thursday may have come in response to mounting political pressure at home and growing international censure over the government’s response.

The move that appears on its face to be aimed at containing the virus may also be about containing damage to his reputation regarding crisis management, preparation for the Tokyo Olympics and handling of the struggling economy.

“I think Japan was at a stage where the public was increasingly frustrated that their government was lagging behind other foreign countries in taking decisive action, despite an ever-increasing number of cases, deaths and the growing untraceability of infections at home,” said Kazuhisa Kawakami, a professor of political science at the International University of Health and Welfare.

Such public angst, coupled with the adverse impact the outbreak could have on the economy — already reeling from last year’s consumption tax hike — likely prompted Abe to go ahead with the school closure request, Kawakami said.

“Abe needed some kind of political ‘alibi,’ I should say, to claim that he has made a bold decision so that he can stop support rates for the Cabinet from further slipping.”

As the domestic crisis unfolded, the prime minister was chided for a too-little-too-late initial response, despite his insistence that his administration was racing to contain the pneumonia-causing virus.

Reactions to the virus around the world stood in contrast to measures taken by Japan. The United States and Australia banned the entry of foreign nationals who have been to China over the previous 14 days, while Tokyo adopted significantly less stringent measures — limiting entry from only two Chinese provinces.

Other government moves have faced scrutiny. It decided to keep passengers and crew members aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship even as the number of people testing positive soared.

A ¥15.3 billion emergency plan was passed, but the figure is far lower than packages proposed by other nations. Further, the administration formed a coronavirus task force but did not hold a meeting with infectious disease experts until the 10th session.

A desire to dispel a growing perception of weak leadership is what likely led to the pivot in Abe’s approach. With more people testing positive without obvious links to China, and experts warning that the next one to two weeks will be key in preventing the nightmare scenario of mass community spread, Abe shifted into gear.

After his initial moves failed to calm a nervous nation, Abe appears to have taken a tougher position. Earlier this week he called for all sports and cultural events that “attract large crowds” to be canceled, postponed or downsized.

And then on Thursday, he dropped the biggest bombshell, requesting that all elementary, junior high, high and special education schools close from Monday until the end of spring vacations, which typically end in early April.

Schools and education authorities nationwide scrambled to respond on Friday. Media reports say even the education ministry was caught off guard.

“(The) government realized that they no longer had control over the situation,” said Michael Cucek, assistant professor of Asian Studies at Temple University. “Dealing with increasing uncertainty, the realist answer to that is: Shut it all down, just shut everything down.”

Abe’s approval rating has faced a sharp fall in recent surveys. One poll by the conservative Sankei newspaper taken last weekend showed that Abe’s approval rating had plummeted 8.4 points to 36.2 percent, while the figure for disapproval jumped 7.8 points to 46.7 percent.

On social media, complaints by people seeking COVID-19 tests who were turned away from medical institutions fueled speculation that the government is deliberately limiting testing in a bid to play down the scale of the domestic outbreak ahead of the Tokyo Games. The government has denied the assertion, saying testing capacity is limited.

Dick Pound, a senior member of the International Olympic Committee, said in an interview with The Associated Press this week that the Olympics could be canceled if the coronavirus cannot be contained in Tokyo — suggesting that a decision could be put off until late May.

Kawakami, the political science professor, said the school closure request was likely designed to be a show of force to demonstrate Tokyo’s Olympic preparedness.

“I think that by demanding that the schools be shut down for two weeks before the annual spring vacation starts, the government was hoping to emphasize to the IOC the extent to which it is committed to hold the Olympics,” Kawakami said.

Abe said the extraordinary measure was meant to “put the health and safety of children first.”

“I passed judgment (on school closure) to be nationwide to be pre-emptive,” Abe told lawmakers Friday morning.

“I’m well aware of the importance of the accumulation of evidence from scientific and academic standpoints (on the effectiveness). But within the one- to two-week very limited time frame, I made the decision thinking politics should bear all the responsibilities in the end.”

The instruction is not legally binding. Education minister Koichi Hagiuda said the ultimate decision on whether to close falls to individual boards of education or individual schools.

“As for when and how to implement school closures, I think it’s good for local school authorities to be flexible and have various plans by taking individual areas and school situations into consideration,” Hagiuda said.

In line with the request on school closures, the education ministry is asking schools to cancel extracurricular activities. As for private cram schools, the education ministry will work with the economy ministry to consider what steps should be taken.

Health minister Katsunobu Kato said nursery schools and kindergartens will be exempt from the policy and asked after-school child care programs to extend opening hours to accommodate children from two-income households and single-parent families.

Abe said the government is considering ways to support households wherein guardians have to take days off to look after children, as many are facing the prospect of lost wages. He said he is pushing companies to ease conditions so parents can be allowed to use paid leave.

Prompted by the announcement, Hitachi, Ltd. said about 10,000 workers whose children are either elementary or middle school students will be allowed to telecommute, affecting roughly a third of the firm’s domestic workforce.

Local governments were divided on the school closure request. Some — such as Hokkaido, the city of Osaka and the city of Ichikawa in Chiba Prefecture, which either have reported a cluster of COVID-19 patients or are fearful of infection spread — had already ordered schools to be shut down before Abe’s announcement. On the other hand, Chiba Mayor Toshihito Kumagai said on Twitter that the universal school closure request “could result in a breakdown of Japanese society.”

The city of Kyoto said its schools will open on Monday as usual. Kanazawa Mayor Yukiyoshi Yamano brushed off the request and insisted that no closure is on the horizon for the city’s schools. Ehime Gov. Tokihiro Nakamura said schools in the prefecture will be closed starting Wednesday instead of Monday.

“The instruction appears to be improvisational and abrupt, further worsening apprehension,” Nakamura said. “The prefecture is working with cities and towns to come up with our own responses.”

Staff writer Tomohiro Osaki and contributing writer Enzo DeGregorio assisted with this report.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.