A political cacophony persists as leaders clash over who has the final say in peeling back countermeasures meant to blunt the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

By leaning on prefectural governors to determine whether travel and dining subsidies should be suspended in their area, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is delegating responsibility — or accountability — to local leaders, many of whom are calling on the central government to take charge of national programs.

On the other hand, Suga’s shift in policy amounts to an implicit acknowledgement on the government’s part that the pandemic is, in many ways, a regional issue best dealt with by regional leaders.

The tension has produced a state of uncertainty in affected industries, for which local businesses are paying the price.

“Hotels, travel agencies and other local businesses hoping to get a boost from these programs will bear the brunt of the cost,” said Yasushi Aoyama, a professor of political science at the Meiji University Graduate School of Governance who served as Tokyo’s vice governor from 1999 to 2003.

“The confusion among politicians is making the future even more unpredictable,” he said. “Meanwhile, business owners are left in limbo.”

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga speaks to the media after meeting with Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike on Tuesday. | KYODO
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga speaks to the media after meeting with Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike on Tuesday. | KYODO

In November, Suga abruptly announced that areas experiencing the worst of the nationwide surge in coronavirus infections would be removed from the Go To Travel campaign — a government program meant to resuscitate the tourism industry by subsidizing domestic travel — and that the decision to do so, if and when it’s made, would be done in close cooperation with prefectural governors.

Just days later, at the urging of both local governors, Suga announced that Sapporo and Osaka were to be removed as eligible destinations from the travel campaign for a period of three weeks, adding later that week that subsidized outbound travel from both cities would also be suspended.

Meanwhile, the campaign continues in Tokyo, where the outbreak remains the country’s most severe by total cases.

The capital was initially excluded from the campaign when it started in late July but joined it in October after the virus appeared to subside.

In November, Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike suspended a local travel campaign and requested that certain food establishments close early until mid-December. However, the capital remains a major destination and departure point for the central government’s travel campaign, despite an abrupt announcement Tuesday evening by Koike, who said that older people and those with pre-existing conditions should avoid travel.

Asked last month whether Tokyo should be removed from Go To Travel, Koike dodged the issue but pointed out that it’s a national program administered and funded by the central government.

“Koike is right in saying the travel campaign is a national program that falls under the purview of the central government,” Aoyama said. “The decision to exclude Tokyo when the campaign started was made by the government, and so should any decision to exclude parts of the country moving forward.”

And yet, the capital’s governor had announced just moments beforehand the temporary suspension of the Go To Eat campaign, a parallel program meant to subsidize public dining that was also introduced and funded by the central government.

While the responsibility to put forward and maintain virus countermeasures should fall on the central government, Koike was wrong in deflecting the decision, said Nobuo Sasaki, professor emeritus of the Chuo University’s Faculty of Economics, adding that the governor most likely did so as a publicity stunt or as retribution for the government’s decision to initially exclude the capital when the campaign began.

“Koike should forget past political grievances and show leadership lest the virus spreads from Tokyo to the rest of the country,” Sasaki said. “The situation is made confusing by the stipulation that decisions must be made in consultation with prefectural governors.”

Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike enters the Prime Minister's Office to meet with Yoshihide Suga on Tuesday. | KYODO
Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike enters the Prime Minister’s Office to meet with Yoshihide Suga on Tuesday. | KYODO

Friction between regional and national leaders emerged during the first wave of COVID-19 in Japan — which health ministry officials say peaked in April — when Koike and Yasutoshi Nishimura, the Cabinet member leading the country’s coronavirus response, were at odds over the breadth and scope with which to issue voluntary business closure requests.

As public officials are forced to repeal or suspend virus and economic measures as new infections continue to grow, the line of jurisdiction between regional and national politics is becoming increasingly faint.

“The (Go To Travel campaign) is a national program funded and operated by the central government — that has not changed,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato told reporters Wednesday. “As such, any final decision will be made by the central government but will be made in close cooperation with the respective municipal governor, for they have a better understanding of the situation on the ground.”

Meanwhile, an increasing number of frustrated governors have demanded that Suga take the reins on programs initiated by the central government.

“The central government should make it clear to municipal governors what should be done about travel across prefectural borders,” said Nagano Gov. Shuichi Abe during a news conference last week.

Various food establishments have been asked to close early until mid-December in parts of Tokyo, Osaka, Hokkaido, Aichi, Chiba and Saitama prefectures.

The Chiba Prefectural Government has asked eateries in areas bordering Tokyo not to serve alcohol after 10 p.m., and called on residents to refrain from visiting Osaka, Sapporo, Tokyo and Aichi prefectures.

The Hyogo Prefectural Government has urged residents to avoid nonessential trips to Tokyo and Osaka, while officials in Ibaraki Prefecture asked local residents to avoid prefectures reporting a high number of new infections.

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