Yasutoshi Nishimura, the minister in charge of economic and fiscal policy as well as Japan’s coronavirus response, apologized Tuesday for saying the government would pressure banks to rein in restaurants that are flouting guidelines over the sale of alcohol amid a COVID-19 state of emergency. He has faced growing calls for him to quit over the remark.

Nishimura first revealed the policy last Thursday, shortly after Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announced that Tokyo would be placed under a state of emergency starting Monday this week. He retracted the remark the following day amid mounting criticism that it amounted to an abuse of power.

Nonetheless, criticism continued to build — not only from the financial industry, liquor retailers and restaurants, but also from his own ruling Liberal Democratic Party, with law scholars saying Nishimura’s request was likely “illegal.” Some opposition parties such as the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan have called for his immediate resignation.

His apology comes as some LDP lawmakers have reportedly been calling for a Cabinet reshuffle to bolster the flagging approval ratings of the Suga administration.

“I deeply regret that I have caused anxiety among people in the restaurant industry,” Nishimura told reporters after a Cabinet meeting Tuesday.

But he has not retracted another request that has also invited opposition — that liquor retailers halt alcohol sales to restaurants that continue to serve alcohol against the rules.

Nishimura has said that pressure is needed to ensure cooperation in the government’s attempts to rein in the spread of the coronavirus. But some of those defying the rule on alcohol sales are being forced to do so to keep their already battered businesses from collapsing due to a delay in coronavirus-linked payouts from prefectural governments.

Nishimura said the central government would start making advance payments of ¥40,000 per day if the establishments signed a pledge to comply with the rules restricting liquor sales at a future date, in contrast with financial assistance that has been given for past compliance.

Yasutoshi Nishimura has said that pressure is needed to ensure cooperation in the government's attempts to rein in the spread of the coronavirus. | KYODO
Yasutoshi Nishimura has said that pressure is needed to ensure cooperation in the government’s attempts to rein in the spread of the coronavirus. | KYODO

Angered by the policy, All Japan Liquor Merchants Association Chairman Kiyotaka Yoshida has submitted a letter of opposition to Nishimura and other senior government officials.

“Refusing orders from customers that continue to provide alcoholic drinks could damage the relationships of trust built over many years,” he wrote, adding that many of the member retailers have voiced concerns that they would lose their businesses altogether if they comply with such requests.

Yoshida also paid a visit to Hakubun Shimomura, the LDP’s policy research council chief, on Monday to convey the industry’s strong opposition.

The wider Suga administration may also come under pressure, as Nishimura said that the Cabinet Secretariat had discussed the government’s request that financial institutions put pressure on noncompliant restaurants with the Finance Ministry, economy ministry and the Financial Services Agency (FSA), which oversee banks, before announcing the policy.

Nishimura said Tuesday that, following the criticism, the government was considering what to do about the halt on alcohol sales, although he did not elaborate on what a new plan might look like. Asked whether he should resign, he just said he would do his best to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

Constitutional law scholars such as Hiroshi Otsu, a professor of law at Meiji University, say the government requests are likely against the law, as Japan’s COVID-19 special measures law only allows prefectural governors to enforce fines or other measures.

“In the sense that this marks a virtual coercion without any basis in concrete laws, it’s clear that it’s highly likely to be illegal,” he said.

Similarly, the request to the financial industry from the Cabinet Secretariat, which coordinates policies between various ministries and agencies such as the FSA, is also likely to be illegal, he said.

“I should say that Nishimura’s actions … would shake the foundation of the rule of law,” Otsu said.

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