• Kyodo, Bloomberg, Staff Report


Tokyo and surrounding areas were unusually quiet Saturday after the metropolitan government called on residents to stay home in a bid to fight a recent surge in coronavirus infections in the capital.

Over 60 new patients were reported the same day, setting a new one-day record for the capital, NHK and other media outlets reported, quoting sources.

Tokyo had logged over 40 new infections per day over the past three days. Saturday’s surge took its total beyond 350 — the highest among the 47 prefectures.

Many department stores, movie theaters and amusement parks have been closed throughout the area, with access to popular cherry blossom spots restricted.

Warning that Tokyo is on the brink of an explosion in virus infections, Gov. Yuriko Koike requested Wednesday that the city’s nearly 14 million residents stay home this weekend and work at home as much as possible on weekdays.

Requests to stay home or refrain from travel to Tokyo also have been issued in nearby Kanagawa, Saitama, and Chiba prefectures, as well as other parts of Japan.

“This weekend is a crucial test,” said Kenneth McElwain, a professor at the University of Tokyo’s Institute of Social Science who specializes in public opinion. “If the number of reported cases in Tokyo continues to go up, then we may see greater demand for the national government to step in.”

Japan has been relatively unscathed by the pandemic, with around 1,300 confirmed cases in a country of more than 120 million.

Japan reported more than 100 new cases on Friday, the largest one-day increase since January, according to the health ministry. The Defense Ministry sent troops to help with quarantine efforts at Narita Airport on Saturday, and to transport people entering the country to shelters where they can be tested for the virus.

“I’d like to ask residents to refrain from being in enclosed spaces, crowded places or in close contact with each other until April 12,” Koike said at a news conference Friday. “I want the people of Tokyo to keep calm and buy only what they need, and to understand that we’re taking these necessary measures to protect their lives, and the lives of their loved ones.”

The rising numbers and Koike’s exhortation appear to have changed the mood, even fueling panic-buying in supermarkets across the capital. Even so, it’s difficult to gauge how effective the move will be, given that she lacks the legal authority available to leaders in other nations to force businesses to close or keep people at home.

At stake is whether Tokyo’s citizens heed the warning — and whether the city might end up like New York, another major international metro area that’s been broadsided by the outbreak. One concern is younger Japanese — the most likely group to be asymptomatic spreaders of COVID-19 — ignoring Koike’s call.

“Even though the governor made this request, people are going out at night,” Hideo Yamada, a lawyer, said on a Fuji Television broadcast. “The problem will be how much of that happens this weekend.”

Hiroshi Yasuda, a shopper in the Sugamo district, said the call from Koike was too weak. “People aren’t going to take it seriously,” he said, adding that he’s been avoiding trains and drinking out less. “They’re stricter in the West. They need to close the busy districts in Ueno, Shibuya and Shinjuku!”

Spring weekends are usually marked by eating and drinking festivities related to hanami (cherry blossom viewing). Many have speculated that the hanami crowds last week may have led to the recent jump in infections. As a result, perhaps, Koike blocked off access to some of the capital’s most famed cherry blossom spots this weekend, including Ueno and Yoyogi parks, where drunken revelers congregate for hanami parties.

The banks of the cherry tree-lined Meguro River, another popular hanami spot, were less crowded than usual Thursday evening. Illuminations have been canceled, and areas where people normally sit and drink were cordoned off with rope. Instead of beer, many were conspicuously carrying packs of toilet paper, which had been restocked at the nearby Don Quijote store.

In Kansai, Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura on Friday asked residents to avoid going outside unnecessarily over the weekend.

The request came after 20 cases of novel coronavirus were confirmed in the prefecture Friday, Osaka’s highest single-day total.

“Urban cases of infection are gradually spreading,” Yoshimura told reporters, calling on residents to help prevent the expansion by staying home, if possible, this weekend.

Abe reiterated Friday that Japan does not yet need to declare a state of emergency, which would give regional authorities greater power to close businesses and issue shelter-in-place directives. Even so, that might not be enough, according to Yamada. “Under Japanese law, even if an emergency is declared, you can ask people to refrain from doing things, but there is no power to punish them,” he said.

That would include citizens like Emi Satake, a company worker, who said she was moving house on Sunday and had no intention of altering her plans. “I’m not changing it,” she said. “That’s the only day I can do it so it can’t be helped.”

Some businesses are responding to the call. Starbucks Corp. closed hundreds of stores in greater Tokyo for the weekend. Toho Co. shuttered its cinemas and retailing giant Aeon Co. closed its malls. Even the iconic teen fashion mecca Shibuya 109 store stayed closed. The voluntary steps are reminiscent of those taken in the aftermath of the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis, when companies and households responded to calls to conserve power.

To a certain extent, Koike and Abe, for now, are relying on the Japanese public’s propensity to follow orders, according to McElwain.

“If Gov. Koike’s request to avoid unnecessary mingling actually alters people’s behavior, then it may well be the case that social pressures are quite strong here, even without legal penalties,” he said. “That many department stores, movie theaters, and the like, are shutting down or reducing hours suggests that ‘shaming’ is a powerful deterrent.”

Panic-buying after Koike’s speech on Wednesday also jolted many out of their complacency, with shoppers seeking not just toilet paper and masks, but instant noodles and canned foods. In a widely shared tweet, the National Supermarket Association of Japan criticized media coverage of the stockpiling, saying the industry’s logistics had not been impacted, stores would remain open and shelves would soon be replenished.

Nature may even lend a helping hand. The Meteorological Agency is predicting a turn in the weather, with recent high temperatures set to halve by Sunday. Even better, late-season snowfall is forecast for the metropolitan area.

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