Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga declared states of emergency in Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto and Hyogo prefectures on Friday as the country resorts to contingency measures to contain a fourth wave of the coronavirus.
Japan has passed through two states of emergency and three waves of the pandemic with casualties that pale in comparison to many countries, but the fourth wave — fueled by deadlier, more contagious variants of the virus — could do more harm if the country’s third state of emergency doesn’t embrace lessons learned from past mistakes.
While the first state of emergency encompassed a broad swath of business closure requests, the second was executed more narrowly and took aim at where people eat and drink.
The third state of emergency attempts to strike a greater balance between virus containment and economic recovery.
Effective Sunday, department stores, shopping centers, movie theaters and other large commercial facilities will be asked to close in the four prefectures until May 11.
Dining establishments will be asked to close by 8 p.m., and those that serve alcohol or provide karaoke requested to suspend operations completely.
On Friday, Hyogo saw a record-breaking 567 new cases, while 759 were reported in Tokyo and 1,162 in Osaka.
The governors of Kanagawa, Chiba and Saitama agreed Thursday to submit a joint request to the central government for the authority to suspend the sale of alcoholic beverages in their prefectures.
Officials are concerned that, once the state of emergency takes effect in Tokyo, residents will travel from the capital to those prefectures where restrictions are looser.
Public officials are strengthening efforts to screen for variants of the coronavirus thought to be deadlier, more contagious and harder to detect.
Genomic screening or blood tests used to analyze the results of polymerase chain reaction tests show that variants account for more than 80% of screened cases in Osaka, Hyogo and Kyoto. Advisers to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government fear the original strain of COVID-19 will be overtaken completely by variants by May.
Metropolitan government officials project that, if a state of emergency isn’t declared in the capital, new cases could reach 2,000 infections a day by next month.
The Daiwa Institute of Research has projected that a monthlong state of emergency could trigger a loss in gross domestic product of up to ¥600 billion.
A rebound in new cases materialized in several major cities in March, just weeks after the central government began incrementally lifting its second state of emergency, first at the start of that month in six prefectures and three weeks later in the remaining four.
To contain the resurgence — and prevent the need for a third state of emergency — the central government imposed in a number of prefectures a set of new countermeasures made possible by a recent revision of the country’s coronavirus special measures law.
But they proved largely ineffective, as the virus has continued to spread at a quickening pace that has experts and officials afraid that the fourth wave may become the biggest one yet.
Those contingency measures were first enforced in Osaka, Miyagi and Hyogo prefectures on April 5 for a monthlong period. Tokyo joined the list a week later, followed by Kanagawa, Chiba, Saitama and Aichi prefectures, where the measures took effect earlier this week.
Not only were those new measures ineffective in containing a viral rebound, they were necessary only because the second state of emergency — which was weaker than the first — failed to stifle the third wave of the pandemic.
Nonetheless, Suga announced Friday that the same measures would take effect in the city of Matsuyama in Ehime Prefecture on Sunday until May 11. Their implementation in Miyagi and Okinawa, where they were to expire May 5, was extended to May 11.
Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura faced a backlash from experts, businesses and even his own advisers earlier this week when he suggested that theme parks and department stores would be asked to close during the emergency.
“The health care system is under incredible stress right now,” Yoshimura told reporters Tuesday. “We need stronger restrictions to suppress the movement of people.”
Critics said issuing closure requests to such places — where few cluster infections have emerged, if at all — would be symbolic and unscientific.
While the first state of emergency included business closure requests to a wider range of establishments — museums and internet cafes, among others — the second state of emergency applied a narrower scope by issuing business reduction requests mostly to restaurants, bars and other dining establishments.
During the entirety of the first state of emergency and most of the second, however, those requests were strictly voluntary. It was in February, after the country’s virus laws were revised, that it became possible for governors to impose monetary fines to businesses that failed to comply with repeated requests to reduce or suspend operations.
Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike became the first to employ these new powers after she issued business closure orders to more than two dozen noncompliant food establishments just days before the state of emergency was lifted in the capital on March 22.
But dissent from the private industry will likely grow, as local businesses throughout Japan have suffered the worst of an economic slump prolonged and exacerbated by the cyclical easing and tightening of virus countermeasures since the beginning of the pandemic.
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