The central government’s declaration of a state of emergency over the growing spread of COVID-19 comes after weeks of intense pressure on the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe by many local leaders. But while some things will change with the declaration, others will remain essentially the same.

Under a declaration of emergency, who can do what?

Japan’s governors, especially those of the seven regions that are the target of the declaration (Tokyo, Chiba, Saitama, Kanagawa, Osaka, Hyogo and Fukuoka) now have more legal authority to take what measures they deem necessary to prevent more widespread infection.

For example, in order to secure adequate supplies of medicine and other necessary goods, governors can fine uncooperative businesses involved in their distribution. Prefectures can also appropriate land and buildings for use as temporary medical facilities without the agreement of the owners, if necessary.

Mayors as well as town and village heads have less autonomy, but can make requests to the prefectural governor who can then decide.

Other measures can be taken by the prefectural governors as well. But these are more along the lines of strong requests, and violators won’t be fined or arrested. They include strongly urging people to avoid unnecessary travel, as well as crowded spaces like bars, nightclubs, restaurants and karaoke boxes, pressing for sports and cultural events not be held, and asking people to refrain from using school facilities.

So the governors can keep public schools closed?

In normal times, they cannot. Only the prefectural and municipal boards of education, which are technically independent from elected governors and mayors, have that authority. But under a state of emergency, governors can strongly request that schools shut down.

In practice, the intense political and social pressure following a request would mean the schools would close, regardless of the legal technicalities. Private schools can shut their doors without the need for a board of education order in normal times. Under a state of emergency, governors can issue a request for them to close.

What about transportation systems?

Central and local government assurances have been given that transportation systems would not be shut following an emergency declaration. Railway operators and other companies will consult with the central and prefectural governments on how to keep running, as they are designated critical facilities.

Concerns about possible COVID-19 infections can be partially dealt with under a separate Infectious Diseases Control Law, which allows for the shutdown of transportation systems for up to 72 hours for disinfection, as ordered by the prefectural governors. This can be done without the need for a state of emergency.

While transportation systems will not be closed, it is unclear if some rail and road transport firms may eventually adjust their timetables and delivery schedules by cutting services slightly, in order to reflect the fact that there will be fewer passengers. As of Wednesday, most rail lines in the Tokyo and Osaka areas said they would operate as normal.

What can’t a state of emergency declaration do?

The term “lockdown” has been used by many politicians and media in Japan. This has created misunderstanding because the English-language equivalent implies the kind of lockdown under a national state of emergency that has been put in place in other parts of the world, especially in the United States, Italy, Spain and China.

But Japan’s state of emergency declaration does not, for example, empower prefecture police to legally enforce the closure of public and private facilities or set up roadblocks to inspect vehicles going in and out of the prefectures affected by Tuesday’s declaration. Nor can the governors legally proclaim curfews. There’s a chance people loitering in public places could find themselves stopped by police and asked what they are doing. But they won’t receive fines for not staying indoors.

So what’s difference does a state of emergency make?

A nationally declared state of emergency is both a bureaucratic and political tool. Logistically, it helps to more quickly utilize local responses. It focuses local administrative efforts and financial resources in a way that, in theory, allows for the affected areas to respond with medical aid and assistance more easily.

It also provides local government authorities with national political cover for the decisions they make. It allows them to undertake actions that, if done without a declaration, could lead to legal problems in the form of civil lawsuits against the governors — by businesses angry at local government interference with their business operations, for example.

It also avoids the potential political problem of angry constituents or ruling parties in the Diet who don’t like decisions made without a declaration.

Finally, it’s a hedge against investigations of potential abuses of power by elected officials and bureaucrats that might otherwise take place in the absence of such a declaration.

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.