A state of emergency is set to be called as early as Tuesday in areas of Japan most heavily hit by the spread of COVID-19. But how will life change for residents?
In practice, not as much as you might think. People will be instructed to stay at home except to carry out important tasks such as purchasing food and daily supplies, or seeking medical care. Working from home will be encouraged but not mandatory.
Essential businesses such as supermarkets, convenience stores and pharmacies will remain open, and the government has given assurances that there is no need to panic buy or hoard everyday necessities like toilet paper.
“We’re asking for the public’s cooperation in reducing person-to-person contact that could lead to transmission” of the coronavirus, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters on Monday.
Places where people gather in large numbers such as theaters, concert halls, and sports stadiums may be ordered to close and major events canceled or postponed.
Tokyo and other densely populated areas have been acting in anticipation of such measures, with many stores and restaurants shuttering on their own accord on weekends and far fewer people on the streets than usual.
Many schools have already decided not to resume classes until the Golden Week holidays end on May 6, the same day the state of emergency is expected to be lifted. Nurseries and care facilities for the elderly, which have so far remained open, may also be asked to close.
Public transportation will continue to operate, although there may be changes to schedules or reduced services depending on demand.
East Japan Railway Co. reported a 30 percent drop in passengers on Tokyo’s Yamanote Line on the weekend of March 28 to 29, when Gov. Yuriko Koike asked the capital’s 14 million residents to stay home. She made the same request for the following weekend.
Central Japan Railway Co., which runs bullet trains connecting Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka, will “ensure continued service even during an emergency,” company President Shin Kaneko promised.
Under the revised law that gives the prime minister the power to declare a state of emergency, the government can make “comprehensive arrangements” with “designated public organizations” such as railway operators, utilities and public broadcaster NHK, but it does not say that services can be stopped altogether.
“Transportation is important infrastructure that supports people’s lives and economic activities. We must maintain its function,” transport minister Kazuyoshi Akaba has said.
Meanwhile, the number of international and domestic flights in Japan has plunged as people avoid traveling for fear of COVID-19.
An airline official said regardless of whether a state of emergency is declared, decisions regarding flight schedules would continue to be driven by how much demand there is.
In the financial sector, Japan Exchange Group Inc. CEO Akira Kiyota has confirmed that in principle, trading on the Tokyo Stock Exchange will continue as usual. Banks and other financial institutions will also remain open.
A big difference between Japan and other countries battling the coronavirus is that authorities here have little legal power to enforce a strict lockdown. The revised law does not provide for any penalties for ignoring instructions to remain at home.
In the United States, many states have ordered people to remain at home unless they are carrying out essential tasks, and to stay a couple of meters from others. In New York City, breaking social distancing rules carries a fine of $250 to $500 (about ¥27,000 to ¥54,000).
France, which is among the most heavily hit countries in Europe, has been under a stringent lockdown since March 17. Armed soldiers and police officers patrol the streets and people who repeatedly venture out without a good reason can be fined up to €3,700 (about ¥435,000).
On Monday, Abe stressed that Japan will not impose a lockdown like some other countries have done.
While people will only be requested by authorities to remain at home, Tetsuro Kawamoto, a former Doshisha University law professor, said most are likely to comply.
“It may be necessary to create penalties if the coronavirus situation continues for a long time, but that would be a last resort,” Kawamoto said.
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